Popular fronts: 'Negro Story' magazine and the African American literary response to World War II.
Yet despite the perserverance of this view, many works have appeared in recent years to challenge it. Gerald Horne's Black and Red: W. E. B. Du Bois & the Afro-American Response to the Cold War, 1944-1963; Maurice Isserman's Which Side Were You On?; Robin D. G. Kelley's Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Depression; and most recently George Lipsitz's revised and updated study Rainbow at Midnight: Labor and Culture in the 1940s have each demonstrated numerous examples of successful affiliation between black and "left" radicals in the 1935-1950 period. These range from progressive collaborations of black sharecroppers and Alabama Communists in the '30s, to the continuation of Communist Popular Front politics in African American literary culture into the early 1940s, to the remarkable insurgency of black labor unionism and anti-fascist, pro-black organizing during the war years. Cumulatively, these works suggest a need for close re-reading of the political, cultural, and literary record of relationships between African Americans and the U.S. left in the post-Depression era. More importantly, they suggest that black and left are not mutually exclusive terms in this period, and that African Americans did much to construct and re-constitute central definitions of American "radicalism" up to and through the beginnings of the Cold War.
This essay examines one heretofore ignored source which complicates, challenges, and adds to conventional wisdom about the plight of black and white radical writers and intellectuals of the 1940s. Negro Story magazine first appeared on the newsstands of Chicago in May of 1944. Sixty-three pages long, plainly adorned, the magazine announced itself as a bimonthly "magazine for all Americans" dedicated to the publication of short fiction about African American people. In "A Letter to Our Readers" in the inaugural issue, founding co-editors Alice C. Browning and Fern Gayden explained that in their own attempts to write short fiction, "the idea struck us that among thirteen million Negroes in America, there must be many who were eager to write creatively if they had a market" (1.1: 1). The editors also voiced a desire to use the short story as a tool of social uplift for black readers, and as a way to involve black literature in the national and international crises of the war:
We believe good writing may be entertaining as well as socially enlightening. . . . we emphasize the belief that the future of the world is at stake during this World War II. But we also believe that Negroes have a great opportunity to achieve integration with the best elements of our society. We, the editors, as Negro women, not only welcome the opportunity to participate in the creation of a better world, we feel that we have an obligation to work and to struggle for it. (1.1: 1; emphasis added).
The ideological tension between wartime patriotism and black social reformism evoked in these lines is symptomatic of a unique political and editorial crisis for African American writers and intellectuals of the early 1940s which Negro Story could not avoid. Not only did Gayden and Browning's polite manifesto mark their bourgeois enculturation as members of Chicago's relatively new "talented tenth" South Side black community, for whom only the War's eventual peace could preserve a newly hard-won prosperity, but the quotidian aspirations of the black Chicago majority literally mobilizing around them. Indeed, 1944 was a tumultuous year for the poor and working class of Chicago's black South Side, which had seen tremendous wartime swelling in the city's black population, met by bitter resistance from white-dominated industry, housing, and civic politics. In 1944 alone, fifty-seven anti-black work strikes occurred through the industrial North, including several in Chicago, despite and because of the increase by nearly one million of black defense and wartime civilian workers since 1940.(2) In response to both worker and union discrimination, Chicago workers had already formed at least two all-black unions - the National Alliance of Postal Employees and the Consolidated Trades Council, representing construction trade workers (see Murray). In March of 1944, prompted by widespread protest of discrimination against blacks in Chicago city housing and the continued application of restrictive covenants, Marshall Field, publisher of the Chicago Sun, convened the Mayor's Commission on Race Relations. The Commission's intention was to avoid a repetition in Chicago of what Arna Bontemps and Jack Conroy, referring to the massive June 1943 rebellion in Detroit by blacks restricted from access to public housing, termed another "Black Pearl Harbor" (see Anyplace 224).
Bontemps and Conroy's apt metaphor encapsulated the social unrest of wartime blacks in cities like Detroit and Chicago, whose internal subversions threatened to destabilize not only the war effort but also the racist social order upon which its militant nationalist psychology depended. It was this psychology that prompted the Chicago Defender, the second-leading black newspaper of the early 1940s, to compare Hitler's Aryan supremacist theories to American racist ideology against blacks, and to argue editorially throughout the early 1940s that "American Race Prejudice Must Be Destroyed" (Anyplace 107). It was also such strongly worded wartime militancy that had inspired in the early 1940s a government backlash against the black press. Attempted repression of its more militant voices had begun as early as 1942, when Archibald MacLeish, director of the Office of Facts and Figures for the Roosevelt Administration, convened a conference of black newspaper editors to ask that they tone down calls for racial reform in respect for national wartime unity. These threats were compounded by Justice Department visits to noncompliant black publications like the California Eagle, edited by Communist sympathizer Charlotta Bass (Finkle 121), as well as the vociferous Pittsburgh Courier, and by government accusations that militant black papers were taking funds from the Germans and Japanese (Ottley 265).(3)
Thus, by May of 1944, when the first issue of Negro Story appeared, these political dilemmas for African Americans had been contextualized in complex ways for editors Browning and Gayden, whose own political educations reflected influences not overtly apparent in the genteel tone of their first-issue manifesto. They were, in other words, not politically naive. Gayden had previously been a member of the Chicago South Side Writers' Group, where she was in direct contact with left, Communist, or otherwise radical writers like Richard Wright, Frank Marshall Davis, Margaret Walker, William Attaway, and Grace Tompkins.(4) Collectively, these writers articulated a political ethos best summarized by Wright's now-famous 1937 essay "A Blueprint for Negro Writing," whose call for a revolution in black writing concomitant with a radical critique of class and race oppression in America was meant to kill off both the feudal black literary past and the perceived narrow aestheticism of the Harlem Renaissance.(5) Browning, a graduate of Chicago Normal College and one-time graduate student at Columbia University, revealed to readers in a May 1945 issue of Negro Story that her inspiration to begin the magazine had come from reading Roi Ottley's 1943 New World A-Coming: Inside Black America. Ottley's study of black intellectual and political life in the early 1940s was for the talented-tenther Browning perhaps most notable for its attack on the black "petit bourgeoisie" for helping to derail the progressive political aims of the Harlem Renaissance, and its measured enthusiasm for black political reform by means of mass collective action in the form of union organizing and what Ottley called a "People's War" (347).(6) While no Communist, Ottley was one of the few black intellectuals of the early '40s to resist the growing demonization of white and black reds by both white liberals and increasingly mainstream black nationalists like A. Philip Randolph, whose March On Washington Movement had begun in part as an all-black movement to protest white Communist influence.(7) Instead, Ottley noted that, though the Communist Party had "lost ground steadily since the war," the "party did more than any other agency in American life toward breaking down the rigid color barriers that once existed between the races" (242).
This brief sketch of early 1940s black political contexts suggests that a problem editors Gayden and Browning inevitably faced was how to resolve pressure on black publishers to defer to wartime restriction on black editorial militancy with a determination to carry forward a black political agenda suitable to an increasingly skeptical and militant black population. In the case of Negro Story, this dilemma resulted in what I will henceforth describe as "popular-front" politics. Specifically, this front took the Janus-faced form of a repeatedly articulated editorial line that the magazine was "independent" and "non-political," while its contents over the course of its two-year bimonthly issuance reflected a commitment to publishing literature which often overtly or subtly embedded aspects of the most militant contemporary left critique of American attitudes about race, class, and sexuality.
Stories and poems published in the magazine suggest that Negro Story's editorial stance, rather than "non-political," was in many ways close to that of black and white Communists, socialists, and internationalists, hose wartime positions combined pro-labor, pro-black, anti-fascist sentiment in equal measure, while remaining suspicious of liberal compromise with either Rooseveltism or its Black Cabinet appeals to accommodation among the African American rank and file.(8) In addition, the stories, poems, letters, and editorials reveal that, rather than distancing themselves from earlier black and white political radicalisms of the 1930s, as might have suited press censors, the editors of Negro Story consciously continued to represent and re-form their critiques of capitalism, American race relations, and imperialism to suit the newly evolving political crises of the mid-1940s, while adding to them a black feminist awareness the magazine's female editors could hardly avoid.
From the outset, issues of Negro Story, beginning with its first in May of 1944, included work by many of Fern Gayden's ex-South Side Writers' Group colleagues, all of it virulently anti-racist, anti-fascist, and uncompromisingly polemical. These included Richard Wright's 1934 short story "Almos' A Man," originally intended as part of his unfinished proletarian-style novel Tarbaby's Surprise and reminiscent of his more famous "Big Boy Leaves Home" from Uncle Tom's Children; Frank Davis's powerful anti-fascist internationalist poem "For All Common People," written after his turn to Communism, resulting from the 1943 Detroit riots; and Grace Tompkins's poem "The Smell of Death," which compares a Georgia lynching to the genocide against Jews at Buchenwald: "Mass murder is appalling, yes / But each death of the whole is one / The total makes the mass."
Like Tompkins's poem, the political and rhetorical immediacy of these pieces could not help but remind Negro Story readers of the "occasional" stories and reportage by writers of the 1930s left written to commemorate strikes, lynchings, and political trials like the Scottsboro case. Indeed, on more than one occasion, Gayden and Browning editorialized in Negro Story that their commitment to publishing short stories and poems based on breaking current events was both a conscious rejection of the political and literary hegemony of white-owned commercial magazines - what they called the "slicks" - and a desire to provide an arena for beginning writers to experiment with what they called "plotless realism." This "plotless realism" - '30s proletarian writers might have called it documentary or reportage fiction - was the predominant literary mode for many of the novice working-class black and white writers who regularly contributed to Negro Story, allowing them to transform racist and sexist acts around the country into fictional polemics meant to charge readers' political awareness. In Davis Grubb's "Rest Stop," published in the October-November 1944 issue, the story of a black soldier killed by a white MP for approaching a white girl served to remind black readers of news accounts of several ongoing 1944 trials against black soldiers falsely accused of rape and dubbed "Little Scottsboro" or "Army Scottsboro" cases by the black press (Murray 360; Finkle 170). In "Something for the War," published in the December 1944-January 1945 issue, a black domestic's blood donation is rejected by white nurses, reminding readers of the Red Cross's official wartime policy of rejecting or separating black from white blood donations for fear of enacting artificial miscegenation. In "Justice Wears Dark Glasses" by Grace Tompkins, a black woman is falsely accused of shoplifting, then railroaded to jail by a brutish white judge. One of the magazine's rare story illustrations depicts the judge in opaque shades, a swastika prominently visible at the end of his gavel.
These three- or four-page "plotless" vignettes, by transforming the short story into anecdotal representations of everyday black suffering, prolonged the strategy of deploying literature in the quotidian guerilla war against class and race oppression initiated by small, independent left-wing journals of the pre-war period.(9) As those journals had, Negro Story sought to reconfigure poetry and short-story writing as literal and figurative black "work," reconstituting black authorship and "production" as small-scale yet subversive interventions in both the material and literary economy of wartime America. Indeed Negro Story's most popular and frequent contributor during its two-year tenure was Chester Himes, whose career, as George Lipsitz has noted in Rainbow at Midnight, is perhaps the most representative of the plight of African American literary and political leftists of the 1940s. A former Ohio WPA worker, ex-prison inmate, bell boy, and manual laborer, Himes struggled throughout the war years to produce literary representations of his workaday experience written out of and between jobs.
Six of Himes's wartime stories were first published in Negro Story. Characteristic of the stories is Himes's proletarianization of his soldier/civilian progatonists (and more implicitly of the author of these stories) as they simultaneously combat racism and class oppression on a day-to-day basis in wartime America. In his first Negro Story story, for example, "He Seen It in the Stars," Himes's protagonist Accidental Brown, like Himes a Los Angeles shipyard worker during the War, falls asleep after a long day while watching a film called Hitler's Children. He wakes in Nazi Germany, where he attempts to save himself from execution by telling Hitler he is the personal slave of the U.S. President. Hitler promptly hangs a sign on Brown's neck declaring him "The President of the American Slaves." But because Hitler has told the Germans all Americans are slaves, the German masses believe Brown to be the President.(10) Punished for his own mis-recognition, Brown is forced by Goebbels to march through the streets of Berlin wearing a sign saying "De Fuhrer Needs Babies for the New Order." Eventually, Brown tells Hitler he has a vision of an American invasion against Germany led by Roosevelt, General MacArthur, Humphrey Bogart, and the Mayor of Los Angeles. When the invasion occurs, Brown wakes up.
Himes decrypted his brilliant allegory of native and foreign fascism in an essay published a year later in Bucklin Moon's Primer for White Folks. After attacking the racist policies of a U.S. Army "that sends unarmed Negro soldiers into a hostile South to be booted and lynched by white civilians," Himes asks, "Are we seeking the defeat of our 'Aryan' enemies or the winning of them?" ("Democracy" 480). Himes's contention that the War represented a chance for African Americans to fight against domestic fascism was nothing less than a reformulation of the Communist Party line on the "Negro Question" that viewed black Americans as victims of interior colonization, a line variously debated throughout the 1930s and continued into the 1940s in the writings and speeches by Earl Browder and Doxey Wilkerson, the Party's most visible black spokesperson.(11) It also acknowledged tacitly A. Philip Randolph's "Double V" wartime rhetoric, linking black civil rights at home to the rebellion of blacks in the Caribbean Islands and Chinese insurgency against Japanese imperialism (Randolph 135).
Thus, Himes's fictional articulation of these themes on the pages of Negro Story was hardly an example of editorial political neutrality. Indeed, the magazine had committed itself from the outset to a biracial, internationalist, anti-colonial editorial stance whose "integrationist" politics tacitly affirmed 1940s black nationalist, socialist, and Communist articulations on the need for progressive interracial solidarity - without formalizing any of these positions in its pages. This, I would argue, was its editorial "independence." Twice in its two-year run, for example, it published work by the Jamaican socialist Roger Mais, who in July of 1944, while a member of Norman Manley's People's National Party, published an anti-colonial tract in its political affairs journal Public Opinion that landed him in jail for six months (Braithwaite 7). Two months earlier Mais had published the story "World's End" in the first issue of Negro Story; in the second issue, published in October after his arrest at home, Mais published an angry letter describing the apathetic response of Jamaican writers to his personal campaign to establish an "indigenous" anti- colonial literature on the island. Mais's anti-colonial militancy was complemented and contextualized for American readers by domestic tales published in Negro Story like "Into the Wide Blue Yonder" by Bessie Scott. The story concerns a black war-bride who learns while playing a Hebrew slave in a local theater production that her husband has been shot down by fascists in the Ethiopia campaign. Such subtle archetypal connections between black oppression at home and racist colonialism abroad could not have been missed by Negro Story readers.
Nor could its status as a haven for white radicals seeking to continue cross-racial alliances forged by their experience and contacts with worker-writers, Communists, and socialists of the 1930s. Among prominent white contributors to Negro Story were Earl Conrad, staff member of the progressive PM newspaper whose biography of Harriet Tubman published during the War endeared him to black leftists, and whose vigilant anti-racist work in Florida against loitering laws, trumpeted by Gayden and Browning in Negro Story editorials, got Conrad thrown out of the state.(12) The fourth issue of the magazine, published in December of 1944, included letters by Conrad, Jack Conroy, author of the classic proletarian novel The Disinherited, and Alain Locke that ran under the heading "What Should the Negro Story Be?" "Experimental and anti-fascist" was Conrad's suggestion (1.4: 59); the more militant worker-writer Conroy was more explicit. While noting that many "imperative questions agitating the minds of industrial workers during the dark thirties" had been resolved by wartime unions, Conroy wrote that "the Negro is still harassed by segregation and discrimination both in military and civil life" (1.4: 59).
Typically, Conroy's contribution to the cause turned out to be more than rhetorical. No fewer than four students enrolled in his course Problems of the Individual Writer, taught at the openly Communist-influenced Abraham Lincoln School in Chicago in the fall of 1943, published in Negro Story, including Esta Diamond, Zena Dorinson, and most significantly James Light. Light, described by Douglass Wixson in his biography of Conroy as the latter's friend and drinking companion (454), was also throughout its two- year tenure one of the magazine's most important radical white voices. In addition to publishing several anti-racist stories, Light contributed a favorable review of Bontemps and Conroy's important migration study They Seek a City. A March 1945 Light review savaged John Steinbeck's Cannery Row, accusing the author of producing a "joyous piece of whimsy" whose message, "bums have fun," was implied to be a sell-out of the worker-writer tradition Light's mentor Conroy and Light's own Negro Story vignettes were meant to sustain.
Such a persistently uncompromising editorial policy drove Negro Story through the first post-War year, 1945, winning and sustaining the support of both local and national unions, and CIO chapters, and individual donations from writers representing the left-ward wing of the black literary establishment.(13) Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, and Chester Himes, who had signed on early as contributors and advisors to the magazine, remained contributors throughout the years 1945-1946. By mid-1945, the magazine's circulation had grown to perhaps 1,000 (Daniel 290), even circulating overseas to black soldiers who were also sometimes contributors. Buoyed by these successes, Browning called a meeting of the new National Negro Magazine Publishers Association to which she had recently been appointed president. On July 30 and 31, 1945, the organization met in Harlem's Hotel Theresa, where Browning led the call for "adaptation in story and article form of case histories of Negro life to cover civil liberties, housing, individual health, socialized medicine, and fascism - native and foreign" (2.2: 63). Attacking post-War problems such as "riots, strikes and race relations," Browning was joined by the editors of Opportunity, Color, Music Dial, Expression, and The African in vowing that "magazines and newspapers should work together in a united front for the Negro" (2.2: 64).
Yet as funds from its limited resources predictably grew short, so did editorial optimism and patience with a post-War political culture that could neither literally nor figuratively support Negro Story's agenda. The biracial rhetoric that had motivated the magazine's editorial political policy began to sound hollow by late 1945, which saw black workers displaced in rapid numbers by returning white war vets, failure by the Roosevelt administration to persist in application of Fair Employment Practice Commission policies preventing discrimination in industry, and an increasingly racist tenor in post-War discourse.(14) In December, Browning, who now ran the magazine alone because of Gayden's full-time supervisory social work career, wrote, "We have no rancor against sincere individuals, and we laud all of the fine liberals who are interested in working together to help solve America's problems, but we have no love for the general hypocrisy, deceit and false attitude of many Americans" (2.2: 62).
Signs of financial stress became more visible in the magazine's pages, too. In early 1946, the poet Fenton Johnson wrote to the editors apologizing for not being able to make a financial contribution. Shortly thereafter, in April 1946, Negro Story brought out what would be its last issue. Typically, its contents were portentous and uncompromising. It included the short story "All That Hair," by Melissa Linn, pen name for a Marietta, Ohio, college graduate who described herself as forced to work as a domestic and waitress after attaining her degree from Ohio State. The story, a precursor to Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, describes a young black girl's attempt to straighten her hair as a way of measuring up to white beauty standards. The issue also included "One More Way to Die" by Himes, a surreal, interior monologue from the point of view of a black urban worker watching himself repeatedly shot by police after hitting a white girl in a bar.
Yet like Himes's protagonist, Negro Story's slow death was offset by what might be called the foretelling birth of political and cultural capital its extinction at least symbolically marked. The magazine's last issue included, for example, a review of Himes's recently released If He Hollers Let Him Go, whose 1945 publication made Himes the official angry and ironic national voice of the black working class; a review by Fern Gayden of Negro Story contributor Gwendolyn Brooks's first book, Street In Bronzeville, a momentous occasion both for African American women writers and for the city of Chicago, whose black under-class now had a nationally recognized poetic voice; and a review of Ann Petry's The Street, whose progressive examination of black working-class female lives was for black and white, male and female writers a welcome and necessary addition - one might even say correction - to the hostile misogyny and bitter renunciation of political hope forecast in Richard Wright's Native Son, a novel whose publication in 1940, with its fatalistic and popularized critique of black-Communist alliance, had seemingly dealt a crushing blow to post-Depression attempts at formulating a radical black literature.
The simultaneous death of Negro Story magazine and the birth of a newly political African American literature to which it clearly helped give rise indicates in microcosm ways in which the story of black literary activism in the 1940s is still to be uncovered through careful rereading of heretofore neglected sources. It also suggests ways in which black literary politics of the 1940s provided a springboard for the later writings and political formations of post-War African American writing. Himes, Brooks, Ellison, and Hughes, among others, continued to build from their early contributions to Negro Story magnificent careers as social and cultural critics from the left, opting ultimately for different political agendas but maintaining a commitment to the transformative social function of black writing. Negro Story's vigorous political critique of liberalism also reflected a shared commitment among black writers and intellectuals to a critical integrationism, tempered by Communist and nationalist politics, that would provide much of the political framework not only for anti-colonial movements abroad in the immediate post-War years, but which would inform the political education in the 1940s and 1950s of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and a generation of Civil Rights activists. Finally, though their own literary careers were short-lived, Gayden and Browning, through their recognition of the value of the short story and of women's voices in the emergence of an African American political and literary economy, may be seen as important precursors to the explosion of black women's literature in the immediate post-War period, when Ann Petry, Alice Childress, and Lorraine Hansberry - each to varying degrees committed to a radical structural critique of American racism, classism, and sexism - merged as strong African American literary and political voices from the left. Indeed, the example of Negro Story could be seen in retrospect as a paradigmatic moment in African American literary radicalism of the 1940s, where the means of production and the production of means necessary for formulating a resistant literary culture attained simultaneous autonomy. That all of this was accomplished under a popular front of black bourgeois apolitical reconciliation indicates not, as popular histories would have it, the mid-century erasure of black literary radicalism in America, but a mid-century reformation and rebirth that foretold what Eldridge Cleaver would call, in a different context, the "shit storm comin'" (Soul 174) that was post-War African American political culture.(15)
1. Of the above works, Record's is the most one-sided and polemical, Klehr's the best-intended but most flawed in its interpretation, and Cruse's the most frustrating because of its conspiratorial tone. Other works treating black, though mostly mainstream, political movements during the War years include Richard M. Dalfiume, Desegregation of the U.S. Armed Forces, 1939-1953: Fighting on Two Fronts (Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1969); Herbert Garfinkel, When Negroes March: The March on Washington Movement in the Organizational Policies of the FEPC (Glencoe: Free P, 1959); and Neil A. Wynn, The Afro-American end the Second World War (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1975). See also James and Dower.
2. See Murray's The Negro Handbook 1944-1945 (New York: Current Books, 1945), which provides a wealth of statistical information on black industrial life in the War years. See also Lipsitz.
3. See Ottley 269. There is ample evidence that censorship of the black press was widespread and drew broad resentment from black readers. Finkle reports that a February 1943 Negro Digest poll found that readers felt censorship had made the black press less militant than it preferred (77). Finkle also reports that the War Department Bureau of Public Relations regularly fed the black press only "positive" news about the War (83). Frank Marshall Davis, in Livin' the Blues, writes that his war dispatches reporting discrimination against black troops for the American Negro Press were often intercepted by the War Department Office of Censorship (271).
4. Gayden appears as a minor figure in the South Side Group in several memoirs. She is described by Davis as "one of the most poised and gracious women I have ever seen" in Livin' the Blues (241) and appears briefly in George Kent's A Life of Gwendolyn Brooks. Kent also notes that Alice Browning, while co-editor of Negro Story, accepted five of Brooks's poems for publication. Brooks published her first, and one of her only, prose "stories," entitled "Chicago Portraits," in Negro Story's first issue.
5. Though often attributed exclusively to Wright, Margaret Walker reports that the essay in fact reflected the thinking of the entire South Side group, which would have included Gayden (77).
6. According to Finkle (211), the term People's War was used by publications of varying political stripe during the War, from the moderate People's Voice, published by Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., to Congress Vue, the black journal of the Communist Party, which used it to stress the connections between the subjugation of colored peoples throughout the world.
7. Randolph's notorious rejection of and paranoia toward Communist influence in the National Negro Congress prompted angry and distorting written outbursts against the Party. In his essay "March on Washington Movement Presents Program for the Negro," Randolph accuses the Party of seeking to "rule or ruin" black political movements in the United States, and formulates the oft-repeated criticism that, "when the war broke, the Communists who had posed as the saviour of the Negro promptly dropped him like a hot potato" (149). There is ample evidence to refute this charge, as presented in Home's Black and Red and Maurice Isserman's Which Side Were You On?, which argues perceptively that "the Communist Party limited its struggle for black rights to those areas that it believed benefited the war effort" (143). While noting that the policy "proved an inadequate response to the black community's demands for redress of long-standing grievances," it was not the "abandonment" of black social causes so often alleged.
8. In making this broad statement I am intentionally avoiding making distinctions among the different and shifting positions occupied by political parties and movements during the war years. Such distinctions are beyond the scope of this paper, which seeks to argue primarily that Negro Story's necessarily ambiguous editorial politics allowed it to draw freely from writers and political positions across the spectrum of "left" and radical movements of the early 1940s. Because of internal revisions and reformulations within the Communist and Socialist left in the 1942-1945 period especially, African American political response to these movements is complex, shifting, and needful of much longer discussion than this paper allows. For such an analysis see, for example, Isserman, Home, and James. It is also clear that the War itself radically conflated the general political goals of Americans across the political spectrum. Conservatives, liberals, and radicals all opposed fascism; all supported "democracy" in one form or another; and many saw or argued for the need to ameliorate racial differences as a means of preserving wartime unanimity at home. However, within this unanimity there was also much turbulence and dissent. Of recent works of scholarship, George Lipsitz's Rainbow at Midnight provides a very compelling casa for the illusion of consensus on ideological definitions of "democracy" and for union rights for black workers as providing an opportunity for the development of a counterhegemonic black proletarian discourse. Lipsitz locates this discourse in the wartime fiction of Chester Himes, particularly the novel If He Hollers Let Him Go. Such a reading should also, I want to suggest, take into account Himes's work in Negro Story, which fulfills as I argue here a very similar function.
9. For good accounts of the variety and role of the independent left press in the 1930s, see Cary Nelson, Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Cultural Memory 1910-1945 (Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1990), and Barbara Foley, Radical Representations: Politics and Form in U.S. Proletarian Fiction, 1929-1941 (Durham: Duke UP, 1993). I particularly owe a debt to Nelson for connecting the mission of genre revision to political revision in the 1930a left press.
10. In black street idiom, slave is slang for a job, and Himes is likely rifling on this double-meaning in the story.
11. Wilkerson, who joined the Communist Party on June 15, 1943, after eight years on the faculty at Howard University, became its educational director for Maryland and the District of Columbia. In 1944, while serving as member of the National Committee of the newly organized Communist Political Association, Wilkerson published the essay "Freedom - Through Victory in War and Peace" in Rayford Logan's What the Negro Wants, alongside A. Philip Randolph's attack on the Communist Party. The essay is important and interesting for insisting on the Party's commitment to linking black civil and political rights to victory in the war effort, and for echoing Communist Party Chairman Earl Browder's formulation that World War II was "A People's War for National Liberation" (see Browder, Victory - and After [New York: International, 1942]). The essay's insistence that the Party is dedicated to wiping out "every law, custom, and habit of thought" which discriminates against blacks was a calculated response to Randolph's claim that the CPUSA and Communist Political Association had "dropped" Negro rights from their agendas. The essay's plea that the "Negro freedom movement must forge the closest possible unity among the Negro people themselves, and between the Negro people and their natural allies in the progressive white population and the organized labor movement" (213), also complements the integrationist political sensibility evinced in Negro Story's coalition of progressive black and white writers and labor supporters.
12. Conrad, one of the organizers of the Federal Writers Project and a Chicago Defender columnist, also prepared a pamphlet on the celebrated 1944 case of Recy Taylor, a black mother allegedly raped by six white boys in Alabama. Gayden and Browning reported intermittently on Conrad's work on the case in their Negro Story editorial column.
13. Organized labor supported Negro Story from the outset. The Federal Hotel Waiters Union, Local 356, was a funding contributor to the first issue. Subsequent issues were supported by financial donations from the regional office of the Chicago District United Auto Workers CIO and the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers. In the second issue Ishmael P. Flory, CIO organizer, was credited with donating a $25 war bond for the best short story and poem published in the magazine based on the labor movement. Esta Diamond, Conroy's Abraham Lincoln School student, was a former trade union writer.
14. For more on the immediate post-War political response of African Americans, see Lipsitz and Manning Marable, Race, Reform, and Rebellion: The Second Reconstruction in Black America, 1945-1990, 2nd ed. (Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1991).
15. See most recently Nelson Peery, Black Fire: The Making of an American Revolutionary (New York: New P, 1994), which singles out Peery's evolution as a Communist while serving in the U.S. Army in World War II as the starting point for his career as a radical.
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Braithwaite, Edward. Introduction. Brother Man, by Roger Mais. London: Heinemann, 1974. v-xxi.
Cleaver, Eldridge. Soul on Ice. 1967. New York: Dell, 1993.
Daniel, Walter C. Black Journals of the United States. Westport: Greenwood, 1982.
Davis, Frank Marshall. Livin' the Blues. Ed. John Edgar Tidwell. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1992.
Dower, John W. War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War. New York: Pantheon, 1986.
Finkle, Lee. Forum for Protest: The Black Press during World War II. Rutherford: Farleigh Dickinson UP, 1975.
Himes, Chester. "Democracy is for the Unafraid." Primer for White Folks. Ed. Bucklin Moon. Garden City: Doubleday, 1945. 479-83.
Home, Gerald. Black and Red: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Afro-American Response to the Cold War 1944-1963. Albany: State U of New York P, 1986.
Isserman, Maurice. Which Side Were You On?. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 1982.
James, C. L. R., et al. Fighting Racism in World War II. Ed. Fred Stanton. New York: Monad, 1980.
Kent, George. A Life of Gwendolyn Brooks. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1990.
Lipsitz, George. Rainbow at Midnight: Labor and Culture in the 1940s. Champaign: U of Illinois P, 1994.
Logan, Rayford W., ed. What the Negro Wants. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1944.
Murray, Florence. The Negro Handbook 1946-1947. New York; Current Books, 1947.
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Ottley, Roi. New World A-Coming: Inside Black America. 1943. New York: Amo P, 1968.
Randolph, A. Philip. "March on Washington Movement Presents Program for the Negro." Logan 133-62.
Walker, Margaret. Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius. New York: Wamer, 1988.
Wilkerson, Doxey A. "Freedom - Through Victory in War and Peace." Logan 193-216.
Wixson, Douglass. Worker-Writer in America: Jack Conroy and the Tradition of Midwestern Literary Radicalism, 1898-1990. Champaign: U of Illinois P, 1994.
Bill Mullen is Associate Professor of English at Youngstown State University. He is the editor of Revolutionary Tales: African-American Women's Short Stories from the First Story to the Present (with Sherry Linton) and Radical Revisions: Rereading 1930s Culture. His essays have appeared in Partisan Review and Radical Teacher.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1996|
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