There is no better time to read Mary Helen Washington’s The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s. As the United States decides if it will formally authorize Cold War II or if our current battle with Vladimir Putin is a mere extension of the first Cold War, and as our own domestic protest against racial violence intensifies, The Other Blacklist draws our collective attention to the twin conflicts at play on the domestic and global scene.
Superbly woven together, Washington’s groundbreaking book uncovers how black writers affiliated with or sometimes loosely connected to the Communist Party (CP) were able to write about race in their work, when other writers such as Langston Hughes and Alain Locke felt pressured by McCarthyism to eschew race and emphasize more “universal” themes (39). In the introduction, Washington unravels the anti-Communist propaganda of her Catholic school education during the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, when teachers and Catholic leaders disparaged Communist politics and “hasty” black civil rights activism. Washington, professor of English at the University of Maryland, College Park, brings a wide range of CP-affiliated artists and writers to bear on her Catholic school teachers who fomented the “threat” of Communism and radical black civil rights activism ex cathedra. By staging the dissonance between her tutelage and her research, Washington unsettles an all-too-familiar story of a whitewashed Communist Party and McCarthyism.
Though Washington calls her research a series of “portraits,” it also materializes as bricolage; with six chapters, an introduction, and epilogue, The Other Blacklist skillfully exhumes and analyzes the historical archive of five [End Page 72] writers and visual artists, including Lloyd L. Brown, Charles White, Alice Childress, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Frank London Brown. Readers conversant with Washington’s research know that some of these writers and artists are new terrain, while others such as Gwendolyn Brooks and Frank London Brown are more familiar fixtures in her scholarship. Nonetheless, The Other Blacklist sets out to do something different at the crossroads of history, literature, and culture. In the first chapter, “Lloyd L. Brown: Black Fire in the Cold War,” Washington puts Brown’s Iron City (1951) in conversation with Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), challenging Native Son as a representative black proletarian novel. Visual artist Charles White is the subject of chapter 2, where Washington explains how his artistry benefited from black cultural, modernist, and realist aesthetics. Primarily known for her novel A Hero Ain’t Nothing but a Sandwich (1973) and brilliant book of short stories Like One of the Family: Conversations from a Domestic’s Life (1953), Alice Childress is the hallmark of chapter 3, where Washington examines Childress’s FBI file along with her prodigious writing. With analytical panache, The Other Blacklist insists that past emphasis on Childress’s radical politics has eclipsed her modernist experimentation, relegating her work to the annals of “social protest” and forfeiting her place within the canon.
Careful not to pin Gwendolyn Brooks down as a Communist, The Other Blacklist reexamines Brooks’s work in chapter 4 with a consideration of her ties to left-wing organizations and artists. Unlike Childress’s overemphasized activism, critics attenuate intersectionality in Brooks’s work, thereby granting her a place within the canon as a consummate modernist. For those of us who teach the canon, Washington’s meditation on Brooks’s work in this chapter is indispensable. Concluding her portraiture in chapter 5, Washington paints Frank London Brown as a study in improvisation: a writer who tried to meld an assortment of political strategies together, but whose syncretic impulse also marked the end of the Black Popular Front and helped usher in black civil rights activism. Washington’s final chapter settles on the American Society of African Culture (AMSAC) conference. Financed by the CIA, the AMSAC conference generated numerous FBI files on...