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Why I Left America and Other Essays.

For years, in order to contrast the authentic admiration of French fans who, from the start, considered jazz as highbrow culture with the American cliche of the Negro as a natural entertainer, I have circulated among my students Ollie Harrington's masterful cartoon in which a white academic asks his only black colleague, "Doctor Jenkins, before you read us your paper on interstellar gravitational tensions in thermo-nuclear propulsion would you sing us a good old spiritual?" This cartoon is not included among the hundred reproduced in Dark Laughter (nearly a quarter of them in full color), which come from the impressive Walter O. Evans collection of African-American art. But one is delighted to discover unknown facets of Harrington's truly international art, which deals essentially with antagonistic social situations - notably the opposition between black and white, the West and the Third World, the rich and the poor. If Harrington's milder "Negro" humor of the 1940s and '50s is akin to that of Langston Hughes's Jesse B. Simple, there is in his satire of recent developments all the political bitterness usually associated with the great illustrators of the New Masses and left-wing newspapers during the Great Depression, the period when he started his career as a journalist and artist. In the black press, the Pittsburgh Courier ran in 1933 his first regular series, called Scoop, about the mishaps of a small child. In the New York Amsterdam News, his best-known comic strip, about a black man, stout, bald, and mustachioed, began to appear in 1935. Bootsie became so well-known that, Thomas Inge relates in a wonderfully informative introduction, "when Orson Welles suggested that a young black actor call himself Bootsie Washington it spelled his success as a comic dramatist" (xxii). Later, Adam Clayton Powell's People's Voice featured Harrington prominently. A reproduction of the newspaper's initial - February 14, 1942 - issue shows him both as the author of the Jive Grey comic strip and the astonishingly powerful illustrator of a serialized publication of Richard Wright's Native Son.

Inge recalls in detail the fascinating career of Harrington, who exiled himself to Europe in 1951 after having served as a war correspondent there and in North Africa. In Paris, he followed courses at the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere while deriving his limited income from cartoons in the Courier and the Defender. He became one of the stars among the Cafe Tournon group of black expatriates, with writers Richard Wright and Chester Himes, the painter Beauford Delaney, and sculptor Howard Cousins. Himes remembered him as the best storyteller and others as a ladies' man, still others as an excellent host who cooked rabbit stuffed with "hasch." He became Wright's closest friend and, after that author's untimely death, moved to East Berlin, accepting an offer to illustrate a series of American literary classics. In the color pages of the humor magazine Eulenspiegel his art reached maturity; he was meanwhile working for the Daily World, which published a portfolio of his cartoons in 1972. His acerbic criticism of U.S. political practices and racial policies all over the world is direct and stems from a deep sense of moral outrage. Definitely a political artist, constantly involved with the Black liberation struggle, he is an important figure in twentieth-century American expressive culture.

The volume Why I Left America consists of nine essays, all but two of them published between 1961 and 1976. As Julia Wright's foreword makes clear, Harrington focuses first on the meaning and consequences of Richard Wright's expatriation and death in Paris. This is the topic of "The Last Days of Richard Wright," a long obituary piece written for Ebony in 1961, and "The Mysterious Death of Richard Wright" (Daily World 1977), which raises unanswered questions and reinforces the rumor that Wright might have been poisoned because of his pro-Communist opinions (although he left the CPUSA in 1944). Much has been written about this by Wright's biographers - notably Addison Gayle. The latter essay contains, regrettably, a number of errors. For instance, to claim that Wright "resolutely eliminated the second section of American Hunger because it detracted from his anti-fascist, anti-racist message" (23) is to pay little attention to his editor's strong suggestions and to the strong pressures exerted by Communists within the Book-of-the-Month Club editorial structure itself. Wright was indeed very eager to publish most of that second section in the Atlantic Monthly and reprint it in the first edition of The God That Failed in 1949. Harrington also writes that "at about the same time [the year indicated on the preceding page is 1956] Wright became chairman and copresident of a Franco-American group of artists and intellectuals in a movement to free a Communist party leader from federal prison and planned to tour Europe in that role" (24). Wright's participation in, and even the existence of, such a movement has never been reported, to my knowledge, unless Harrington alludes to the French-American Fellowship, which was a short-lived, mostly anti-racist organization in 1950-52. Harrington claims that Wright was living on Rue Regis in 1956, but Wright moved there a couple of years later; the date must be 1958, which is closer to a planned tenth anniversary issue of The God That Failed. Harrington's writing that he received a telegram from Wright during "one wintry weekend in 1961" could easily have been corrected, since Wright died on November 28, 1960. These and other errors undercut Harrington's suggestions about Wright's death by making us suspect that he indulges here in pro-Communist propaganda. Of greater interest to the cultural historian is "Look Homeward Baby," the central essay of the book as well as a major and discerning, inspired piece on home and expatriation. It is complemented by "Why I Left America," a 1991 speech which provides welcome detail on his career and European years. "How Bootsie Was Born" chronicles the genesis of his best-known cartoon character (he was called so by Ted Poston, the city editor for the Amsterdam News), and "Our Beloved Pauli" (illustrated, to my utter delight, with the cartoon on Dr. Jenkins) celebrates Pauli Murray, the author of Proud Shoes, and Paul Robeson. "Through Black Eyes," "Like Most of Us Kids," and "Where Is the Justice" are shorter, topical pieces.

Thanks to these volumes Harrington receives overdue attention, focusing on his accomplishments as a major comic artist. Christine McKay of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library, whose valuable help M. Thomas Inge acknowledges, seems to be the most knowledgeable Harrington enthusiast today. While "Ol Harrington" is still with us, she would do well to start a full-length biography of a man who was not only famous by association but who will remain in history as an actor in, and witness of, our changing world.

Reviewed by Michel Fabre University of Paris III
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Author:Fabre, Michel
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1996
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