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  • Red Myth, Black Hero: Frederick Douglass, the Communist Party, and the Aesthetics of History, 1935–1945
  • Luke Sayers (bio)

In Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), the narrator joins a group called the Brotherhood, commonly thought to represent the Communist Party in America. In one scene, as the narrator begins working enthusiastically at his Brotherhood office, Brother Tarp, an older, more experienced black member of the Brotherhood, enters the Invisible Man’s office to hang a portrait of Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) on the wall. “He was a great man,” Brother Tarp says, “You just take a look at him once in a while.” Brother Tarp refuses to accept the Invisible Man’s gratitude for the portrait, telling him that Douglass “belongs to all of us.”1 But Brother Tarp’s “us” is ambiguous. He could be referring to the entire working class, to all the members of the Brotherhood, or simply to the black Brothers who see in Douglass a model for their own role in the Brotherhood. Readers of Invisible Man know that Brother Tarp eventually leaves the Brotherhood, taking his portrait of Frederick Douglass with him, and his removal of the Douglass portrait invites the question once more: to whom does Douglass belong, and how is his image, both literally in the portrait and figuratively as a hero, being used?

Initially, the Invisible Man sits “facing the portrait of Frederick Douglass, feeling a sudden piety” that motivates him to continue his work with a renewed sense of purpose, but the Invisible Man eventually leaves the Brotherhood as well, and his discussion with Brother Tarp about Douglass plays a part in his departure.2 Although direct connections between the Invisible Man’s experience and Ellison’s own are often tenuous, sometimes there are remarkable similarities between them, and if the tension between the Invisible Man’s identification with Douglass and his identity as a Brother had anything to do with his leaving the Brotherhood, [End Page 59] then it is worth investigating if Ellison too, as well as other black Communists during the 30s and 40s, might have left the Communist Party for reasons related to the Communist appropriation of black symbols and stories, particularly that of Frederick Douglass.

An examination of Communist sources from the Popular Front to the Second World War suggests that the Communist retelling of the story of Douglass influenced many black Communists in their decision to leave the Communist Party. For the purposes of this essay, I will look at three authors in particular: Claude McKay, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison. Two things, however, need to be clarified before examining the Douglass narrative in Communist discourse. First, although the Communist Party’s appropriation of black history negatively affected some its members, I do not mean to suggest that McKay, Wright, and Ellison somehow represent a mass exodus from the Communist Left. As William Maxwell rightly observes, “African-American literary communists…exited the Old Left much as they entered it, for compound reasons and at numerous moments but with a common obligation to the promise of interracial struggle and disclosure and their own and their racial community’s self-direction.”3 Maxwell’s statement is a helpful reminder of the great diversity within black Communist experience during the Popular Front and the Second World War. My purpose, therefore, is not to make generalizations about black Communists but rather to call attention to a frequently overlooked element of Communist discourse. Whereas scholarship has often focused on Communist politics or activism, I want to draw attention to Communist storytelling. Second, by focusing on Communist narratives—their aesthetic representations of abolitionist history in particular—I do not mean to imply that the Douglass narrative was the sole cause of these writers’ departure from the Party. It was simply one cause among many, but it was a significant enough cause to appear in their aesthetic representations of the Party, such as in Invisible Man.

In other words, this examination of Communist depictions of Douglass sheds light on the ways Communist Popular Front narratives affected the Party’s black membership. Representations of Douglass were a part of what Michael Denning calls an “extraordinary flowering of the historical imagination” during...


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pp. 59-80
Launched on MUSE
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