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CLA JOURNAL 143 142 CLA JOURNAL Book Reviews Mary Helen Washington. The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014. 347 pp. ISBN: 978-0231152716. Paperback $26.00. The Other Blacklist reads like a riveting thriller even for scholars who have conducted research on mid-twentieth-century African American literature and culture. Mary Helen Washington’s study recuperates neglected 1950s black writers and artists estranged from their political associations due to abiding Cold War anxieties about communism’s influence on U.S. arts and letters. Her subjects are the “ambivalent communists, reluctant radicals, wary fellow travelers, and/ or committed leftists,” who utilized conspicuous channels as well as lesser-known auxiliary Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) affiliates to facilitate their cultural, social, and political work (273). Specifically, The Other Blacklist highlights the communist affinities manifest in the connections Lloyd L. Brown, Charles White, Alice Childress, Gwendolyn Brooks, Frank London Brown, and Julian Mayfield formed with institutions such as the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA), the Marxist journal Masses & Mainstream, Paul Robeson’s left-wing newspaper Freedom, Chicago’s South Side Community Art Center, Harlem’s American Negro Theatre, and various labor organizations and unions. In the contemporary national imaginary, there were no black communists or sympathizing affiliates. Whether this fallacy is the result of black cultural workers’ self-conscious efforts to distance themselves from the CPUSA, their self-censure, their aesthetic crises, or literary history’s calculated erasure of them, Washington follows the clues and exposes the facts: African American writers and artists were communists, too. In The Other Blacklist, Washington confronts the selective amnesia portraying mid-twentieth-century black cultural production as aesthetics without politics. This silencing, she contends, registers in New Critical methodologies as well as in Norton Anthology of African American Literature terminology, which pit the protest fiction of former Communist Party member Richard Wright against the high modernism of Ralph Ellison while erasing the latter’s Marxist preoccupations. “Rather than reduce the literature of the 1950s to aesthetics,”Washington clarifies, “I read the 1950s as a dynamic, exciting period of debate” (13). She rewrites the period’s literary history by centering its African American social history, which includes the repression of W.E.B. DuBois and Langston Hughes, the conspiracies of the House Un-American Activities Committee and the FBI, and the defamation of civil rights organizations such as the NAACP. By reuniting black aesthetics and black politics, Washington acknowledges the importance of the Party for African American literary and artistic production. Moreover, she extends the era of the Black Popular Front to the 1950s and recognizes the decade as bridging the radical Book Reviews traditions of the 1930s and 1940s and those of the 1960s and 1970s. The Other Blacklist is not only a recovery project that brings into focus Black-Left history, but it is also a model for how contemporary scholars might re-read and re-assemble literary history. Washington mines biographies, examines conference proceedings, conducts interviews, gleans FBI documentation, and analyzes texts in order to align midtwentieth -century figures with their politics and, in turn, decode how their politics shape their formal aesthetics. This twofold interpretive strategy is significant given that African American literary critics are focused often on recovering the first, the rarest, or the lost instead of reconsidering that which is pervasive and hidden in plain sight. Washington points out the need to recover a more recent history, one whose effects reverberated in the past several years with accusations of President Obama’s supposed communist proclivities. While Russia’s protracted threat has reemerged in ongoing questions about the country’s sway in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, The Other Blacklist, like any great mystery, both reveals and deliberates about the depths of various writers’ and artists’ political ties. These variables are rooted in the secrecy that continues to shroud communism and, subsequently, African American literary history. Washington concedes that definitively resolving such scholarly enigmas is a difficult task when the term “progressive” might be synonymous with “the Left,” and the label “political radical” might refer to an individual involved in the Civil Rights Movement or the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2766-0265
Print ISSN
0007-8549
Pages
pp. 142-145
Launched on MUSE
2021-01-01
Open Access
No
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