Wright is an American Negro whose schooling
carried him through the grammar grade and who has been
educating himself ever since.
His novel, Native
Son, which was widely discussed in the year of its
publication (1940), and his forthcoming autobiography,
which appear later this year, proclaim him as one of the
most forthright and eloquent authors of his race.
This is the first of two installments.
Thursday night I received an invitation from a group of white
boys I had known when I was working in the post office to meet
in one of Chicago’s South Side hotels and argue the state of
the world. About
ten of us gathered, and ate salami sandwiches, drank beer, and
talked. I was
amazed to discover that many of them had joined the Communist
Party. I challenged
them by reciting the antics of the Negro Communists I had seen
in the parks, and I was told that those antics were all right.
I was dubious.
Then one Thursday night Sol, a Jewish chap,
startled us by announcing that he had had a short story accepted
by a little magazine called the Anvil, edited by Jack Conroy, and that he had joined a revolutionary
artist organization, the John Reed Club.
Sol repeatedly begged me to attend the meeting of the
“You’d like them,” Sol said.
“I don’t want to be organized,” I said.
“They can help you to write,” he said.
“Nobody can tell me how or what to
write,” I said.
“Come and see,” he urged.
“What have you to lose?”
I felt that Communists could not possibly
have a sincere interest in Negroes.
I was cynical and I would rather have heard a white man
say that he hated Negroes, which I could have readily believed,
that to have heard him say that he respected Negroes, which
would have made me doubt him.
One Saturday night, bored with reading, I
decided to appear at the John Reed Club in the capacity of an
amused spectator. I
rode to the Loop and found the number. A dark stairway led upwards; it did not look welcoming.
What on earth of importance could happen in so dingy a
place? Through the
windows above me I saw vague murals along the walls.
I mounted the stairs to a door that was lettered: The
Chicago John Reed Club.
I opened it and stepped into the strangest
room I had ever seen. Paper
and cigarette butts lay on the floor.
A few benches ran along the walls, above which were vivid
colors depicting colossal figures of workers carrying streaming
banners. The mouths
of the workers gaped in wild cries; their legs were sprawled
I turned and saw a white man smiling at me.
"A friend of mine, who’s a member of
this club, asked me to visit here.
His name is Sol ———,” I told him.
“You’re welcome here,” the white man
not having an affair tonight.
We’re holding an editorial meeting.
Do you paint?” He
was slightly gray and he had a mustache.
“No,” I said.
“I try to write.”
“Then sit on the editorial meeting of our
magazine, Left Front,” he suggested.
“I know nothing of editing,” I said.
“You can learn,” he said.
I stared at him, doubting.
“I don’t want to be in the way here,” I
“My name’s Grimm,” he said.
I told him my name and we shook hands.
He went to a closet and returned with an armful of
“Here are some back issues of the Masses,”
he said. “Have
you ever read it?”
“No,” I said.
.”Some of the best writers in America
publish in it,” he explained.
He also gave me copies of a magazine called International
stuff here from Gide, Gorky —“
I assured him that I would read them.
He took me to an office and introduced me to a Jewish boy
who was to become one of the nation’s leading painters, to a
chap who was to become one of the eminent composers of his day,
to a writer who was to create some of the best novels of his
generation, to a young Jewish boy who was destined to film the
Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia.
I was meeting men and women whom I should know for
decades to come, who were to form the first sustained
relationships in my life.
I sat in a corner and listened while they
discussed their magazine, Left
Front. Were they treating me courteously because I was a Negro?
I must let cold reason guide me with these people, I told
myself. I was asked
to contribute something to the magazine, and I said vaguely that
I would consider it. After
the meeting I met an Irish girl who worked for an adverting
agency, a girl who did social work, a schoolteacher, and the
wife of a prominent university professor.
I had once worked as a servant for people like these and
I was skeptical. I
tried to fathom their motives, but I could detect no
condescension in them.
went home full of reflection, probing the sincerity of the
strange white people, I had met, wondering how they really
regarded Negroes. I
lay on my bed and read the magazines and was amazed to find that
there did exist in this world an organized search for the truth
of the lives of the oppressed and the isolated.
When I had begged bread from the officials, I had
wondered dimly if the outcasts could become united in action,
thought, and feeling. Now
I knew. It was
being done in one sixth of the earth already.
The revolutionary words leaped from the printed page and
struck me with tremendous force.
was not the economics of Communism, nor the great power of trade
unions, nor the excitement of underground politics that claimed
me; my attention was caught by the similarity of the experiences
of workers in other lands, by the possibility of uniting
scattered but kindred peoples into a whole.
It seemed to me that here at last, in the realm of
revolutionary expression, Negro experience could find a home, a
functioning value and role.
Out of the magazines I read came a passionate call for
the experiences of the disinherited, and there were none of the
lame lispings of the missionary in it.
It did not say: “Be like us and we like you, maybe.”
It said: “If you possess enough courage to speak out
what you are, you will find that you are not alone.”
It urged life to believe in life.
read into the night; then, toward dawn, I swung from bed and
inserted paper into the typewriter.
Feeling for the first time that I could speak to
listening ears, I wrote a wild, crude poem in free verse,
coining images of black hands playing, working, holding
bayonets, stiffening finally in death.
I felt that in a clumsy way it linked white life with
black, merged two streams of common experience.
heard someone poking about the kitchen.
are you ill?” my mother called.
mother opened the door and stared curiously at the pile of
magazines that lay upon my pillow.
not throwing away money buying those magazines, are you?” she
They were given to me.”
hobbled to the bed on her crippled legs and picked up a copy of
the Masses that
carried a lurid May Day cartoon.
She adjusted her glasses and peered at it for a long
God in heaven,” she breathed in horror.
the matter, Mama?”
is this?” she asked, extending the magazine to me, pointing to
the cover. “What’s
wrong with that man?”
my mother standing at my side, lending me her eyes, I stared at
a cartoon drawn by a Communist artist; it was the figure of a
worker clad in ragged overalls and holding aloft a red banner.
The man’s eyes bulged; his mouth gaped as wide as his
face; his teeth showed; the muscles of his neck were like ropes.
Following the man was a horde of nondescript men, women,
and children, waving clubs, stones, and pitchforks.
are those people going to do?” my mother asked.
don’t know,” I hedged.
these Communist magazines?”
do they want people to act like this?”
—“ I hesitated.
mother’s face showed disgust and moral loathing. She was a gentle woman.
Her ideal was Christ upon the cross.
How could I tell her that the Communist Party wanted her
to march in the streets, chanting, singing?
do Communists think people are?” she asked.
don’t quite mean what you see there,” I said, fumbling with
what do they mean?”
is symbolic,” I said.
why don’t they speak out what they mean?”
they don’t know how.”
why do they print this stuff?”
don’t quite know how to appeal to people yet,” I admitted,
wondering whom I could convince of this if I could not convince
picture’s enough to drive a body crazy,” she said, dropping
the magazine, turning to leave, then pausing at the door.
“You’re not getting mixed up with those people?”
just reading, Mama,” I dodged.
mother left and I brooded upon the fact that I had not been able
to meet her simple challenge.
I looked again at the cover of the Masses
and I knew that the wild cartoon did not reflect the passions of
the common people. I
reread the magazine and was convinced that much of the
expression embodied what the artists
thought would appeal to others, what they thought would gain
recruits. They had
a program, an ideal, but they had not yet found a language.
then, was something that I could do, reveal, say. The Communists, I felt, had oversimplified the experience of
those whom they sought to lead.
In their efforts to recruit masses, they had missed the
meaning of the lives of the masses, had conceived of people in
too abstract a manner. I
would try to put some of that meaning back.
I would tell Communists how common people felt, and I
would tell common people of the self-sacrifice of Communists who
strove for unity among them.
editor of Left Front
accepted two of my crude poems for publication, sent two of them
to Jack Conroy’s Anvil,
and sent another to the New
Masses, the successor of the Masses.
Doubts still lingered in my mind.
send them if you think they aren’t good enough,” I said to
good enough,” he said.
you doing this to get me to join up?” I asked.
he said. “Your
poems are crude, but good for us.
You see, we’re all new in this.
We write articles about Negroes, but we never see any
Negroes. We need
sat through several meetings of the club and was impressed by
the scope and seriousness of its activities.
The club was demanding that the government create jobs
for unemployed artists; it planned and organized art exhibits;
it raised funds for the publication of Left
Front; and it sent scores of speakers to trade-union
members were fervent, democratic, restless, eager,
was convinced, and my response was to set myself the task of
making Negroes know what Communists were.
I got the notion of writing a series of biographical
sketches of Negro Communists.
I told no one of my intentions, and I did not know how
fantastically naïve my ambition was.
had attended but a few meetings before I realized that a bitter
factional fight was in progress between two groups of members of
the club. Sharp
arguments rose at every meeting.
I noticed that a small group of painters actually led the
club and dominated its policies. The group of writers that centered in Left Front resented the leadership of the painters.
Being primarily interested in Left
Front, I sided in simple loyalty with the writers.
came a strange development.
The Left Front
group declared that the incumbent leadership did not reflect the
wishes of the club. A
special meeting was called and a motion was made to reelect an
executive secretary. When
nominations were made for the office, my name was included.
I declined the nomination, telling the members that I was
too ignorant of their aims to be seriously considered.
The debate lasted all night.
A vote was taken in the early hours of morning by a show
of hands, and I was elected.
I learned what had happened: the writers of the club had decided
to use me to oust the painters, who were party members, from the
leadership of the club. Without
my knowledge and consent, they confronted the members of the
party with a Negro, knowing that it would be difficult for
Communists to refuse to vote for a man representing the largest
single racial minority in the nation, inasmuch as Negro equality
was one of the main tenets of Communism.
the club’s leader, I soon learned the nature of the fight.
The Communists had secretly organized a “fraction” in
the club; that is, a small portion of the club’s members were
secret members of the Communist Party.
They would meet outside of the club meetings the sheer
strength of their arguments usually persuaded non-party members
to vote with them. The
crux of the fight was the nonparty members resented the
excessive demands made upon the club by the local party
authorities through the fraction.
demands of the local party authorities for money, speakers, and
poster painters were so great that the publication of Left
Front was in danger. Many
young writers had joined the club because of their hope of
publishing in Left Front,
and when the Communist Party sent word through the fraction that
the magazine should be dissolved, the writers rejected the
decision, an act which was interpreted as hostility toward party
pleaded with the party members for a more liberal program for
the club. Feelings
waxed violent and bitter. Then
the showdown came. I
was informed that if I wanted to continue as secretary of the
club I should have to join the Communist Party.
I stated that I favored a policy that allowed for the
development of writers and artists. My policy was accepted.
I signed the membership card.
night a Jewish chap appeared at one of our meetings and
introduced himself as Comrade Young of Detroit.
He told us that he was a member of the Communist Party, a
member of the Detroit John Reed Club, that he planned to make
his home in Chicago. He was a short, friendly, black-haired, well-read fellow with
hanging lips and bulging eyes.
Shy of forces to execute the demands of the Communist
Party, we welcomed him. But
I could not make out Young’s personality; whenever I asked him
a simple question, he looked off and stammered a confused
answer. I decided
to send his references to the Communist Party for checking and
forthwith named him for membership in the club.
He’s O.K., I thought.
Just a queer artist.
the meeting Comrade Young confronted me with a problem.
He had no money, he said, and asked if he could sleep
temporarily on the club’s premises. Believing him loyal, I gave him permission.
Straightway Young became one of the most ardent members
of the organization, admired by all. His paintings — which I did not understand —impressed our
best artists. No
report about Young had come from the Communist Party, but since
Young seemed a conscientious worker, I did not think the
omission serious in any case.
a meeting one night Young asked that his name be placed upon the
agenda; when his time came to speak, he rose and launched into
one of the most violent and bitter political attacks in the
club’s history upon Swann, one of the best young artists.
We were aghast. Young
accused Swann of being a traitor to the worker, an opportunist,
a collaborator with the police, and an adherent of Trotsky.
Naturally most of the club’s members assumed that
Young, a member of the party, was voicing the ideas of the
and baffled, I moved that Young’s statement be referred to the
executive committee for decision.
Swann rightfully protested; he declared that he had been
attacked in public and would answer in public.
was voted that Swann should have the floor.
He refuted Young’s wild charges, but the majority of
the club’s members were bewildered, did not know whether to
believe him or not. We
all liked Swann, did not believe him guilty of any misconduct;
but we did not want to offend the party.
A verbal battle ensued.
Finally the members who had been silent in deference to
the party rose and demanded of me that the foolish charges
against Swann be withdrawn.
Again I moved that the matter be referred to the
executive committee, and again my proposal was voted down.
The membership had now begun to distrust the party’s
motives. They were
afraid to let an executive committee, the majority of whom were
party members, pass upon the charges made by party member Young.
delegation of members asked me later if I had anything to do
with Young’s charges. I
was so hurt and humiliated that I disavowed all relations with
to end the farce, I cornered Young and demanded to know who had
given him authority to castigate Swann.
been asked to rid the club of traitors.”
Swann isn’t a traitor,” I said.
must have a purge,” he said, his eyes bulging, his face
quivering with passion.
admitted his great revolutionary fervor, but I felt that his
zeal was a trifle excessive.
The situation became worse.
A delegation of members informed me that if the charges
against Swann were not withdrawn, they would resign in a body.
I was frantic. I
wrote to the Communist Party to ask why orders had been issued
to punish Swann, and a reply came back that no such orders had
been issued. Then
what was Young up to? Who
was prompting him? I
finally begged the club to let me place the matter before the
leaders of the Communist Party.
After a violent debate, my proposal was accepted.
night ten of us met in an office of a leader of the party to
hear Young restate his charges against Swann.
The party leader, aloof and amused, gave Young the signal
to begin. Young
unrolled a sheaf of papers and declaimed a list of political
charges that excelled in viciousness his previous charges.
I starred at Young, feeling that he was making a dreadful
mistake, but fearing him because he had, by his own account, the
sanction of high political authority.
Young finished, the party leader asked, “Will you allow me to
read these charges?”
course,” said Young, surrendering a copy of his indictment.
“You may keep that copy.
I have ten carbons.”
did you make so many carbons?” the leader asked.
didn’t want anyone to steal them,” Young said.
this man’s charges against me are taken seriously,” Swann
said, “I’ll resign an publicly denounce the club.”
see!” Young yelled. “He’s
with the police!”
was sick. The
meeting ended with a promise from the party leader to read the
charges carefully and render a verdict as to whether Swann
should be placed on trial or not.
I was convinced that something was wrong, but I could not
figure it out. One
afternoon I went to the club to have a long talk with Young; but
when I arrived, he was not there.
Nor was he there the next day.
For a week I sought Young in vain.
Meanwhile the club’s members asked his whereabouts and
they would not believe me when I told them I did not know.
Was he ill? Had
he been picked up by the police?
afternoon Comrade Grimm and I sneaked into the club’s
headquarters and opened Young’s luggage.
What we saw amazed and puzzled us.
First of all, there was a scroll of paper twenty yards
long — one page pasted to another — which had drawings
depicting the history of the human race from a Marxist point of
view. The first
page read: A Pictorial
Record of Man’s Economic Progress.
is terribly ambitious,” I said.
very studious,” Grimm said.
There were long dissertations written in longhand: some were
political and others dealt with the history of art.
Finally we found a letter with a Detroit return address
and I promptly wrote asking news of our esteemed member.
A few days later a letter came which said in part: —
reply to your letter, we beg to inform you that Mr. Young, who
was a patient in our institution and who escaped from our
custody a few months ago, had been apprehended and returned to
this institution for mental treatment.
was thunderstruck. Was
this true? Undoubtedly
it was. Then what
kind of club did we run that a lunatic could step into it and
help run it? Were
we all so mad that we could not detect a madman when we saw one?
made a motion that all charges against Swann be dropped, which
was done. I offered
Swann an apology, but as the leader of the Chicago John Reed
Club I was a sobered and chastened Communist.
Communist Party fraction in the John Reed Club instructed me to
ask my party cell — or “unit,” as it was called — to
assign me to fully duty in the work of the club.
I was instructed to give my unit a report of my
activities, writing, organizing, speaking.
I agreed and wrote the report.
unit, membership in which is obligatory for all Communists, is
the party’s basic form of organization.
Unit meetings are held on certain nights which are kept
secret for fear of police raids.
Nothing treasonable occurs at these meetings; but once
one is a Communist, one does not have to be guilty of wrongdoing
to attract the attention of the police.
went to my first unit meeting — which was held in the Black
Belt of the South Side —and introduced myself to the Negro
comrade,” he said, grinning.
“We’re glad to have a writer with us.”
not much of a writer,” I said.
meeting started. About
twenty Negroes were gathered.
The time came for me to make my report and I took out my
notes and told them how I had come to join the party, what few
stray items I had published, what my duties were in the John
Reed Club. I
finished and waited for comment.
There were silence.
I looked about. Most of the comrades sat with bowed heads.
Then I was surprised to catch a twitching smile on the
lips of a Negro woman. Minutes
passed. The Negro
woman lifted her head and looked at the organizer.
The organizer smothered a smile.
Then the woman broke into unrestrained laughter, bending
forward and burying her face in her hands.
I stared. Had
I said something funny?
the matter?” I
giggling became general. The
unit organizer, who had been dallying with his pencil, looked
all right, comrade,” he said.
“We’re glad to have a writer in the party.”
was more smothered laughter.
What kind of people were these?
I had made a serious report and now I heard giggles.
did the best I could,” I said uneasily.
“I realize that writing is not basic or important.
But, give time, I think I can make a contribution.”
know you can, comrade,” the black organizer said.
tone was more patronizing than that of a Southern white man.
I grew angry. I thought I knew these people, but evidently I did not.
I wanted to take issue with their attitude, but caution
urged me to talk it over with others first.
the following days I learned through discreet questioning that I
had seemed a fantastic element to the black Communists.
I was shocked to hear that I, who had been only to
grammar school, had been classified as an intellectual.
What was an intellectual?
I had never heard the word used in the sense in which it
was applied to me. I
had thought that they might refuse me on the ground that I was
not politically advanced; I had thought they might say I would
have to be investigated. But
they had simply laughed.
learned, to my dismay, that the black Communists in my unit had
commented upon my shined shoes, my clean shirt, and the tie I
had worn. Above
all, my manner of speech had seemed an alien thing to them.
talks like a book,” one of the Negro comrades had said.
And that was enough to condemn me forever as bourgeois.
my party work I met a Negro Communist, Ross, who was
under indictment for “inciting to riot.”
Ross typified the effective street agitator.
Southern-born, he had migrated north and his life
reflected the crude hopes and frustrations of the peasant in the
but aggressive, he was a bundle of the weaknesses and virtues of
a man struggling blindly between two societies, of a man living
on the margin of a culture.
I felt that if I could get his story I could make known
some of the difficulties inherent in the adjustment of a folk
people to an urban environment; I should make his life more
intelligible to others than it was to himself.
approached Ross and explained my plan.
He was agreeable. He
invited me to his home, introduced me to his Jewish wife, his
young son, his friends. I
talked to Ross for hours, explaining what I was about,
cautioning him not to relate anything that he did not want to
after the things that made you a Communist. I said.
Word spread in the Communist Party that I was taking
notes on the life of Ross, and strange things began to happen.
A quiet black Communist came to my home one night and
called me out to the street to speak to me in private.
He made a prediction about my future that frightened me.
“Intellectuals don’t fit well into the
party, Wright,” he said solemnly.
“But I’m not an intellectual,” I
sweep the streets for a living.”
I had just been assigned by the relief system to sweep
the streets for thirteen dollars a week.
make any difference,” he said.
“We’ve kept records of the trouble we’ve had with
intellectuals in the past. It’s estimated that only 13 per cent of them remain in the
“Why do they leave,
since you insist upon calling me an intellectual?”
“Most of them drop
out of their own accord.”
“Well, I’m not
dropping out,” I said.
expelled,” he hinted gravely.
to the party’s policies,” he said.
“But I’m not
opposing anything in the party.”
“You’ll have to
prove your revolutionary loyalty.”
“The party has a
way of testing people.”
What is this?”
“How do you react
“I don’t react to
them,” I said. “I’ve
never been bothered by them.”
“Do you know
Evans?” he asked, referring to a local militant, Negro
“Yes. I’ve seen him; I’ve met him.”
“Did you notice
that he was injured?”
“Yes. His head was bandaged.”
“He got that wound
from the police in a demonstration,” he explained.
“That’s proof of revolutionary loyalty.”
“Do you mean that I
must get whacked over the head by cops to prove that I’m
sincere?” I asked.
suggesting anything,” he said.
Suppose a cop whacks me over the head and I suffer a
brain concussion. Suppose
I’m nuts after that. Can
I write then? What
shall I have proved?”
He shook his
head. “The Soviet
Union has had to shoot a lot of intellectuals,” he said.
exclaimed. “Do you know what you’re saying?
You’re not in Russia.
You’re standing on a sidewalk in Chicago.
You talk like a man lost in a fantasy.”
heard of Trotsky, haven’t you?” he asked.
you know what happened to him?”
was banished from the Soviet Union,” I said.
you know why?”
I stammered, trying not to reveal my ignorance of politics, for
I had not followed the details of Trotsky’s fight against the
Communist Party of the Soviet Union, “it seems that after a
decision had been made, he broke that decision by organizing
against the party.”
was for counter-revolutionary activity,” he snapped
impatiently; I learned afterwards that my answer had not been
satisfactory, had not been couched in the acceptable phrases of
bitter, anti-Trotsky denunciation.
understand,” I said. “But
I’ve never read Trotsky.
What his stand on minorities?”
ask me?” he asked. “I
don’t read Trotsky.”
I said. “If you
found me reading Trotsky, what would that mean to you?”
you don’t understand,” he said in an annoyed tone.
ended the conversation. But
that was not the last was not the last time I was to hear the
phrase: “Comrade, you don’t understand.”
I had not been aware of holding wrong ideas.
I had not read any of Trotsky’s works; indeed, the very
opposite had been true. It
had been Stalin’s National and Colonial Question that had captured my interest.
all the developments in the Soviet Union, the way scores of
backward peoples had been led to unity on a national scale was
what had enthralled me. I
had read with awe how the Communists had sent phonetic experts
into the vast regions of Russia to listen to the stammering
dialects of people oppressed for centuries by the tsars.
I had made the first total emotional commitment of my
life when I read how the phonetic experts had given these
tongueless people a language, newspapers, institutions.
I had read how these forgotten folk had been encouraged
to keep their old cultures, to see in their ancient customs
meaning and satisfactions as deep as those contained in
supposedly superior ways of living.
And I had exclaimed to myself how different this was from
the way in which Negroes were sneered at in America.
what was the meaning of the warning I had received from the
black Communist? Why
was I a suspected man because I wanted to reveal the vast
physical and spiritual ravages of Negro life, the profundity
latent in these rejected people, the dramas as old as man and
the sun and the mountains and the seas that were taking place in
the poverty of black America?
What was the danger in showing the kinship between the
sufferings of the Negro and the sufferings of other people?
sat one morning in Ross’s home with his wife and child.
I was scribbling furiously upon my yellow sheets of
paper. The doorbell
rang and Ross’s wife admitted a black Communist, one Ed Green.
He was tall, taciturn, soldierly, square-shouldered.
I was introduced to him and he nodded stiffly.
happening here?” he asked stiffly.
explained my project to him, and as Ross talked I could see Ed
Green’s face darken. He
had not sat down and when Ross’s wife offered him a chair he
did not hear her.
you going to do with these notes?” he asked me.
hope to weave them into stories,” I said.
you asking the party members?”
their lives in general.”
suggested this to you?” he asked.
I thought of it myself.”
you ever a member of any other political group?”
worked with the Republicans once,” I said.
mean, revolutionary organizations?” he asked.
Why do you ask?”
kind of work do you do?”
sweep the streets for a living.”
far did you go in school?”
the grammar grades.”
talk like a man who went further than that,” he said.
read books. I
don’t know,” he said, looking off.
do you mean?” I asked. “What’s
whom have you shown this material?”
shown it to no one yet.”
was the meaning of his questions? Naively I thought that he
himself would make a good model for a biographical sketch.
like to interview you next,” I said.
not interested,” he snapped.
manner was so rough that I did not urge him.
He called Ross into a rear room.
I sat feeling that I was guilty of something. In a few minutes Ed Green returned, stared at me wordlessly,
then marched out.
does he think he is?” I asked Ross.
a member of the Central Committee,” Ross said.
why does he act like that?”
he always like that,” Ross said uneasily.
was a long silence.
wondering what you’re doing with this material,” Ross said
looked at him. He,
too, had been captured by suspicion.
He was trying to hide the fear in his face.
don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to,” I said.
seemed to soothe him for a moment.
But the seed of doubt had already been planted.
I felt dizzy. Was
I mad? Or were
these people mad?
see, Dick,” Ross’s wife said, “Ross is under an
Green is the representative of the International Labor Defense
for the South Side. It’s his duty to keep track of the people he’s trying to
defend. He wanted
to know if Ross has given you anything that could be used
against him in court.”
does he think I am?” I
was no answer.
lost people!” I
cried, and banged my fist on the table.
was shaken and ashamed. “Aw,
Ed Green’s just supercautious,” he mumbled.
I asked, “do you trust me?”
yes,” he said uneasily.
two black men sat in the same room looking at each other in
fear. Both of us
were hungry. Both
of us depended upon public charity to eat and for a place to
sleep. Yet we had
more doubt in our hearts of each other than of the men who had
cast the mold of our lives.
continued to take notes on Ross’s life, but each successive
morning found him more reticent.
I pitied him and did not argue with him, for I knew that
persuasion would not nullify his fears.
Instead I sat and listened to him and his friends tell
tales of Southern Negro experience, noting them down in my mind,
not daring to ask questions for fear they would become alarmed.
spite of their fears, I became drenched in the details of their
lives. I gave up
the idea of the biographical sketches and settled finally upon
writing a series of short stories, using the material I had got
from Ross and his friends, building upon it, inventing.
I wove a tale of a group of black boys trespassing upon
the property of a white man and the lynching that followed.
The story was published in an anthology under the title
of “Big Boy Leaves Home,” but its appearance came too late
to influence the Communists who were questioning the use to
which I was putting their lives.
fitful work assignments from the relief officials ceased and I
looked for work that did not exist.
I borrowed money to ride to and fro on the club’s
business. I found a
cramped attic for my mother and aunt and brother behind some
railroad tracks. At
last the relief authorities placed me in the South Side Boys’
Club and my wages were just enough to provide a bare living for
political problems rose to plague me.
Ross, whose life I had tried to write, was charged by the
Communist Party with “anti-leadership tendencies,” “class
collaborationist attitudes,” and “ideological
factionalism” — phrases so fanciful that I gaped when I
heard them. And it
was rumored that I, too, would face similar charges.
It was believed that I had been politically influenced by
night a group of black comrades came to my house and ordered me
to stay away from Ross.
why?” I demanded.
an unhealthy element,” they said.
“Can’t you accept a decision?”
this a decision of the Communist Party?”
I were guilty of something, I’d feel bound to keep your
decision,” I said. “But
I’ve done nothing.”
you don’t understand,” they said.
“Members of the party do not violate the party’s
your decision does not apply to me,” I said.
“I’ve be damned if I’ll act as if it does.”
attitude does not merit our trust,” they said.
I exploded, rising and sweeping my arms at the bleak attic in
which I lived. “What
is it here that frightens you?
You know where I work.
You know what I earn.
You know my friends.
Now, what in God’s name is wrong?”
left with mirthless smiles which implied that I would soon know
what was wrong.
there was relief from these shadowy political bouts. I found my work in the South Side Boys’ Club deeply
day black boys between the ages of eight and twenty-five came to
swim, draw, and read. They
were a wild and homeless lot, culturally lost, spiritually
disinherited, candidates for the clinics, morgues, prisons,
reformatories, and the electric chair of the state’s death
house. For hours I
listened to their talk of planes, women, guns, politics, and
figures of speech were as forceful and colorful as any ever use
by English-speaking people.
I kept pencil and paper in my pocket to jot down their
word-rhythms and reactions.
These boys did not fear people to the extent that every
man looked like a spy. The
Communists who doubted my motives did not know these boys, their
twisted dreams, their all to clear destines; and I doubted if I
should ever be able to convey to them the tragedy I saw here.
duties broke into my efforts at expression.
The club decided upon a conference of all the left-wing
writers in the Middle West.
I supported the idea and argued that the conference
should deal with craft problems.
My arguments were rejected.
The conference, the club decided, would deal with
political questions. I
asked for a definition of what expected from the writers —
books or political activity. Both, was the answer. Write
a few hours a day and march on the picket line the other hours.
conference convened with a leading Communist attending as
question debated was: What does the Communist Party expect from
the club? The
answer of the Communist leader ran from organizing to writing
novels. I argued
that either a man organized or he wrote novels.
The party leader said that both must be done.
The attitude of the party leader prevailed and Left
Front, for which I had worked so long, was voted out of
knew now that the club was nearing its end, and I rose and
stated my gloomy conclusions, recommending that the club
dissolve. My “defeatism” as it was called brought upon my head the
sharpest disapproval of the party leader.
The conference ended with the passing of a multitude of
resolutions dealing with China, India, Germany, Japan, and
conditions afflicting various parts of the earth.
But not one idea regarding writing had emerged.
ideas I had expounded at the conference were linked with the
suspicions I had roused among the Negro Communists on the South
Side, and the Communist Party was now certain that it had a
dangerous enemy in its midst.
It was whispered that I was trying to lead a secret group
in opposition to the party.
I had learned that denial of accusations was useless.
It was painful to meet a Communist, for I did not know
what his attitude would be.
the conference, a national John Reed Club congress was called.
It convened in the summer of 1934 with left-wing writers
attending from all states.
But as the sessions got under way there was a sense of
looseness, bewilderment, and dissatisfaction among the writers,
most of whom were young, eager, and on the verge of doing their
best work. No one
knew what was expected of him, and out of the congress came no
the congress drew to a close, I attended a caucus to plan the
future of the clubs. Ten
of us met in a Loop hotel room, and to my amazement the leaders
of the clubs’ national board confirmed my criticisms of the
manner in which the clubs had been conducted.
I was excited. Now, I thought, the clubs will be given a new lease on life.
I was stunned when I heard a nationally known Communist announce
a decision to dissolve the clubs.
asked. Because the
clubs do not serve the new People’s Front policy, I was told.
That can be remedied; the clubs can be made healthy and
broad, I said. No;
a bigger and better organization must be launched, one in which
the leading writers of the nation could be included, they said.
I was informed that the People’s Front policy was now
the correct vision of life and that the clubs could no longer
exist. I asked what
was to become of the young writers whom the Communist Party had
implored to join the clubs and who were ineligible for the new
group, and there was no answer.
“This thing is cold!”
I exclaimed to myself.
To effect a swift change in policy, the Communist Party
was dumping one organization, then organizing a new scheme with
entirely new people!
found myself arguing alone against the majority opinion and then
I made still another amazing discovery.
I saw that even those who agreed with me would not
support me. At the meeting I learned that when a man was informed of the
wish of the party he submitted, even though he knew with all the
strength of his brain that the wish was not a wise one, was one
that would ultimately harm the party’s interests.
was not courage that made me oppose the party.
I simply did not know any better.
It was inconceivable to me, though bred in the lap of
Southern hate, that a man could not have his say.
I had spent a third of my life traveling from the place
of my birth to the North just to talk freely, to escape the
pressure of fear. And now I was facing fear again.
the congress adjourned, it was decided that another congress of
American writers would be called in New York the following
summer, 1935. I was
lukewarm to the proposal and tried to make up my mind to stand
alone, write alone. I
was already afraid that the stories I had written would not fit
into the new, official mood.
Must I discard my plot-ideas and seek new ones?
No. I could
not. My writing was
my way of seeing, my way of living, my way of feeling; and who
could change his sight, his sense of direction, his senses?
spring of 1935 came and the plans for the writers’ congress
went on apace. For
some obscure reason — it might have been to “save” me —
I was urged by the local Communists to attend and I was named as
a delegate. I got
time off from my job at the South Side Boys’ Club and, along
with several other delegates, hitchhiked to New York.
arrived in the early evening and registered for the congress
opening mass meeting was being held at Carnegie Hall.
I asked about housing accommodations, and the New York
John Reed Club members, all white members of the Communist
Party, looked embarrassed.
I waited while one white Communist called another white
Communist to one side and discussed what could be done to get
me, a black Chicago Communist, housed.
During the trip I had not thought of myself as a Negro; I
had been mulling over the problems of the young left-wing
writers I knew. Now,
as I stood watching one white comrade talk frantically to
another about the color of my skin, I felt disgusted.
The white comrade returned.
a moment, comrade,” he said to me.
“I’ll get a place for you.”
haven’t you places already?” I asked.
“Matters of this sort are ironed out in advance.”
He admitted in an intimate tone.
“We have some addresses here, but we don’t know the
I understand,” I said, gritting my teeth.
just wait a second,” he said, touching my arm to reassure me.
“I find something.”
don’t bother,” I said, trying to keep anger out of my voice.
no,” he said, shaking his head determinedly.
“This is a problem and I’ll solve it.”
oughtn’t to be a problem,” I could not help saying.
I didn’t mean that,” he caught himself.
cursed under my breath. Several
people standing near-by observed the white Communist trying to
find a black Communist a place to sleep.
I burned with shame.
A few minutes later the white Communist returned,
you find anything?” I asked.
not yet,” he said, panting.
“Just a moment. I’m
going to call somebody I know.
Say, give me a nickel for the phone.”
it,” I said. My
legs felt like water. “I’ll
find a place. But
I’d like to put my suitcase somewhere until after the meeting
you really think you can find a place?” he asked, trying to
keep a note of desperate hope out of his voice.
course I can,” I said.
was still uncertain. He
wanted to help me, but he did not know how.
He locked my bag in a closet and I stepped to the
sidewalk wondering where I could sleep that night.
I stood on the sidewalks of New York with a black skin
and practically no money, absorbed, not with the burning
questions of the left-wing literary movement in the United
States, but with the problem of how to get a bath.
I presented my credentials at Carnegie Hall. The building was jammed with people. As I listened to the militant speeches, I found myself
wondering why in hell I had come.
went to the sidewalk and stood studying the faces of the people.
I met a Chicago club member.
you find a place yet?” he asked.
I said. “I’d
like to try one of the hotels, but, God, I’m in no mood to
argue with a hotel clerk about my color.”
hell, wait a minute,” he said.
scooted off. He
returned in a few moments with a big, heavy white woman.
He introduced us.
can sleep in my place tonight,” she said.
walked with her to her apartment and she introduced me to her
husband. I thanked
them for their hospitality and went to sleep on a cot in the
kitchen. I got up
at six, dressed, tapped on their door, and bade them good-bye.
I went to the sidewalk, sat on a bench, took out pencil
and paper, and tried to jot down notes for the argument I wanted
to make in defense of the John Reed Clubs.
But the problem of the clubs did not seem important.
What did seem important was: Could a Negro ever live
halfway like a human being in this goddamn country?
day I sat through the congress sessions, but what I heard did
not touch me. That
night I found my way to Harlem and walked pavements filled with
black life. I was
amazed, when I asked passers-by, to learn that there were
practically no hotels for Negroes in Harlem.
I kept walking. Finally
I saw a tall, clean hotel; black people were passing the doors
and no white people in sight.
Confidently I entered and was surprised to see a white
clerk behind the desk. I hesitated.
like a room,” I said.
here,” he said.
isn’t this Harlem?” I asked.
but this hotel is for white only,” he said.
is a hotel for colored?”
might try the Y,” he said.
an hour later I found the Negro Young Men’s Christian
Association, that bulwark of Jim Crowism for young black men,
got a room, took a bath, and slept for twelve hours.
When I awakened, I did not want to go to the congress.
I lay in bed thinking, “I’ve got to go it alone . . .
I’ve got to learn how again . . .”
dressed and attended the meeting that was to make the final
decision to dissolve the clubs.
It started briskly.
A New York Communist writer summed up the history of the
clubs and made a motion for their dissolution.
Debate started and I rose and explained what the clubs
meant to young writers and begged for their continuance.
I sat down amid silence.
Debate was closed. The
vote was called. The
room filled with uplifted hands to dissolve.
Then came a call for those who disagreed and my hand went
up alone. I knew
that my stand would be interpreted as one of opposition to the
Communist Party, but I thought: “The hell with it.”
Source: The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 174, No. 2 August 1944
* * *
My Story, My Song (Featuring blues guitarist Walter Wolfman Washington)
* * * *
By Lorraine Hansberry
I can hear Rosalee
See the eyes of Willie McGee
My mother told me about
My mother told me about
The dark nights
And dirt roads
And torch lights
And lynch robes
faces of men
Faces of men
Dead in the night
* * *
Writer Lorraine Hansberry's
sober eulogy of the death of Willie McGee weighed heavy on the
hearts and minds of the American Left. On May 8, 1951, a crowd of
five hundred lingered outside the courthouse of Laurel, Mississippi,
to witness the execution of yet another black man convicted for
allegedly raping a white woman. His 1945 lightning trial resulted in
a guilty conviction delivered in less than two and a half minutes by
an all-white, male jury, setting off a heated five-year legal
struggle that drew national headlines. Despite an aggressive appeals
defense team who attempted every legal maneuver in the book, the US
Supreme Court ultimately chose not to intervene. With the legal
lynching of the Martinsville Seven in February, Ethel and Julius
Rosenberg's conviction in March, followed by the execution of McGee
in May, 1951 was a bad year for Left-leaning lawyers (Parrish 1979;
Rise 1995). Most discouraging, national news sources like the New
York Times and Life magazine red-baited the "Save Willie
McGee" campaign and—as Life reported—its "imported" lawyers (Popham
1951a; Life 1951). Few felt McGee's passing with as heavy a heart as
his chief counsel, thirty-one-year-old Bella Abzug.
Before Abzug became a representative in
Congress and a leader in the peace and women's movements, she confronted the
Southern political and legal system at the height of the early Cold War.
Retained in 1948 by the Civil Rights Congress (CRC)—a New York-headquartered
Popular Front legal defense organization—the novice labor lawyer honed her civil
rights . . .
* * *
Bill Moyers and James Cone (Interview) /
A Conversation with James Cone
* * *
Coltrane, "Alabama" /
Kalamu ya Salaam, "Alabama"
A Love Supreme
A Blues for the Birmingham Four
/ Eulogy for the Young Victims
/ Six Dead After Church
* * *
* * * * *
The Black Count
Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo
By Tom Reiss
Here is the remarkable true story of the real Count of Monte
Cristo—a stunning feat of historical sleuthing that brings to
life the forgotten hero who inspired such classics as The
Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. The
real-life protagonist of The Black Count, General Alex
Dumas, is a man almost unknown today yet with a story that is
strikingly familiar, because his son, the novelist Alexandre
Dumas, used it to create some of the best loved heroes of
literature. Yet, hidden behind these swashbuckling adventures
was an even more incredible secret: the real hero was the son of
a black slave—who rose higher in the white world than any man of
his race would before our own time. Born in Saint-Domingue (now
Haiti), Alex Dumas was briefly sold into bondage but made his
way to Paris where he was schooled as a sword-fighting member of
the French aristocracy.
Enlisting as a private, he rose to command armies at
the height of the Revolution, in an audacious
campaign across Europe and the Middle East—until he
met an implacable enemy he could not defeat.
* * *
Debt: The First 5,000 Years
By David Graeber
Before there was money, there was debt. Every economics textbook says the same thing: Money was invented to replace onerous and complicated barter systems—to relieve ancient people from having to haul their goods to market. The problem with this version of history? There’s not a shred of evidence to support it. Here anthropologist David Graeber presents a stunning reversal of conventional wisdom. He shows that for more than 5,000 years, since the beginnings of the first agrarian empires, humans have used elaborate credit systems to buy and sell goods—that is, long before the invention of coins or cash. It is in this era, Graeber argues, that we also first encounter a society divided into debtors and creditors. Graeber shows that arguments about debt and debt forgiveness have been at the center of political debates from Italy to China, as well as sparking innumerable insurrections.
He also brilliantly demonstrates that the
language of the ancient works of law and religion (words like
“guilt,” “sin,” and “redemption”) derive in large part from
ancient debates about debt, and shape even our most basic ideas
of right and wrong.
We are still fighting these battles today without
knowing it. Debt: The First 5,000 Years is a fascinating chronicle of this little known history—as well as how it has defined human history, and what it means for the credit crisis of the present day and the future of our economy.
Economist Glenn Loury /Criminalizing a Race
* * * * *
The New Jim Crow
Mass Incarceration in the Age of
By Michele Alexander
Contrary to the
rosy picture of race embodied in Barack
Obama's political success and Oprah
Winfrey's financial success, legal
scholar Alexander argues vigorously and
persuasively that [w]e have not ended
racial caste in America; we have merely
redesigned it. Jim Crow and legal racial
segregation has been replaced by mass
incarceration as a system of social
control (More African Americans are
under correctional control today... than
were enslaved in 1850). Alexander
reviews American racial history from the
colonies to the Clinton administration,
delineating its transformation into the
war on drugs. She offers an acute
analysis of the effect of this mass
incarceration upon former inmates who
will be discriminated against, legally,
for the rest of their lives, denied
employment, housing, education, and
Most provocatively, she reveals how both the move toward colorblindness and affirmative action
may blur our vision of injustice: most
Americans know and don't know the truth
about mass incarceration—but her
carefully researched, deeply engaging,
and thoroughly readable book should
* * *
Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement
Lewis and Michael D’Orso
Alabama sharecropper's son, went to Nashville to
attend a Baptist college where, at the end of the
1950s, his life and the new civil rights movement
became inexorably entwined. First came the lunch
counter sit-ins; then the Freedom Rides; the Student
Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Lewis's
election to its chairmanship; the voter registration
drives; the 1963 march on Washington; the Birmingham
church bombings; the murders during the Freedom
Summer; the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party;
Bloody Sunday in Selma in 1964; and the march on
Montgomery. Lewis was an active, leading member
during all of it. Much of his account, written with
freelancer D'Orso, covers the same territory as
The Children. Halberstam himself appears
here briefly as a young reporter but Lewis imbues it
with his own observations as a participant.
He is at times so self-effacing in this memoir that he
underplays his role in the events he helped create. But he has a
sharp eye, and his account of Selma and the march that followed
is vivid and personal. He describes the rivalries within the
movement as well as the enemies outside.
After being forced out of
SNCC because of internal politics, Lewis served in President
Carter's domestic peace corps, dabbled in local Georgia
politics, then in 1986 defeated his old friend Julian Bond in a
race for Congress, where he still serves. Lewis notes that
people often take his quietness for meekness. His book, a
uniquely well-told testimony by an eyewitness, makes clear that
such an impression is entirely inaccurate.—Publishers
Greenback Planet: How the Dollar Conquered
the World and Threatened Civilization as We Know It
By H. W. Brands
In Greenback Planet, acclaimed historian H. W. Brands charts the dollar's astonishing rise to become the world's principal currency. Telling the story with the verve of a novelist, he recounts key episodes in U.S. monetary history, from the Civil War debate over fiat money (greenbacks) to the recent worldwide financial crisis. Brands explores the dollar's changing relations to gold and silver and to other currencies and cogently explains how America's economic might made the dollar the fundamental standard of value in world finance. He vividly describes the 1869 Black Friday attempt to corner the gold market, banker J. P. Morgan's bailout of the U.S. treasury, the creation of the Federal Reserve, and President Franklin Roosevelt's handling of the bank panic of 1933. Brands shows how lessons learned (and not learned) in the Great Depression have influenced subsequent U.S. monetary policy, and how the dollar's dominance helped transform economies in countries ranging from Germany and Japan after World War II to Russia and China today.
* * * * *
The Courage to Hope
How I Stood Up to the Politics of Fear
Sherrod sets the
record straight on her forced resignation from the Department of
Agriculture in 2010. The author. . .was director for the USDA's
Rural Development in Georgia when conservative political blogger
Andrew Breitbart attacked her for allegedly reverse racist comments
she made at an NAACP event. The threat of exposure on national TV
was enough to send the USDA running for cover, and she was
dismissed. Sherrod decided she had to fight back. She and her
husband have been directly involved in the struggles for political
and economic justice in Georgia and elsewhere since the 1960s, and
they were part of Martin Luther King's movement for civil rights.
She writes about growing up in segregated Georgia and the
circumstances surrounding her father’s murder and the arson of her
family home—at that time, “fear was the daily diet that kept the
status quo alive.” In the ’70s, Sherrod and her husband worked with
other farmers in Georgia on experimental projects.
Denied drought assistance funds by the USDA, they faced foreclosure and joined a
class-action suit to redress the discrimination. Eventually, they
won the settlement, a decision strongly opposed by conservatives.
Sherrod writes sharply about the continuing legacy of racism and how
economic policy, hidebound bureaucracy and plain malice affect poor
people everywhere, and why pretending that we are in a post-racial
world doesn’t help anyone. An inspiring memoir about the real power
of courage and hope.
* * * * *
The White Masters
of the World
The World and Africa, 1965
By W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Bois’
Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization
* * *
Ancient African Nations
* * * *
If you like this page consider making a donation
* * *
Negro Digest / Black World
Browse all issues
* * *
Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
Only a Pawn in Their Game
Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery /
George Jackson /
* * * *
The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg
Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804
January 1, 1804 -- The Founding
* * * * *
* * * *
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