Follow by Email

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Timely Intelligence Walks Into View



Washington, Mary Helen. The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s.  New York: Columbia University Press, 2014. Cloth.  347 pp.  ISBN 978-0-231-15270-9.


When you reach a certain age, you can tell a truth without fear.   It is a truth that I think highly of Mary Helen Washington’s The Other Blacklist in much the same way I think highly of Lawrence P. Jackson’s The Indignant Generation: A Narrative History of African American Writers and Critics, 1934-1960 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011). They complement one another. Both books address literary and cultural issues with scholarly and critical grace.  They are readable and enhanced by conversational style.  They minimize pretense. Were I teaching a graduate seminar on research, these books would be two of the printed texts.  They are that good. While both books are touchstones of effective writing and rhetorical eloquence, Washington’s book is especially good in its specificity about the aims, procedures, and probable outcomes of seeking a balance of qualitative and quantitative research methodologies. It is a truth that I am prejudiced in favor of empiricism and common sense in literary and cultural studies; I have severe reservations about the excesses of the speculative and think intellectual fireworks are ultimately reductive.

Washington’s book has been many years in the making, but our waiting for its publication has not been in vain. By virtue of exacting documentation, she explores key issues in historiography and a researcher’s historicity.  This is a trait we find in the most useful examples of work in cultural studies.  She does not disguise her ideology with the Latinate illocutions best used in canonizing saints literary and otherwise. Clean prose satisfies her needs and ours. In the intellectual climate begot, in part, by fear of increased Federal domestic surveillance, revelations about the sacred secrets of Cold War politics, and confusion about the purposes of discourses in the Age of Information ---in that climate, what Washington has done is justifiable. She is forthright in announcing her research question in the Introduction: “ What happens if you put the black literary and cultural Left at the center of African American studies of the Cold War?” (13).

The most immediate answer is that you write The Other Blacklist.  You conduct interviews. You spend many hours doing archival work and reading empowering secondary works by Sterling Stuckey, Harold Cruse, Michael Denning, Trudier Harris, James Smethurst, Robin D. G. Kelley, Frances Stonor Saunders, and others. You abstain from the seductive pleasures of theory and endeavor to make persuasive connections and interpretations among life histories, hardcore pre- and post-Cold War politics, and the functions of criticism, aesthetics, and writing that desires to have the status of what counts as “literature” in the United States and other parts of the world. You agonize over the multitude of other questions your research question spawns. You avoid being tendentious.  As you explore the Cold War tropics of discourse, you succeed in writing a book that will appeal to your peers as well as to general readers who wish to know what is still being withheld from us about labor, literary inclusion and exclusion, practices of literacy and the endless quest for justice and freedom. Or, better yet, why many of us can feel that maximized national security policies have made us hostages without sanctuary.


One of the peculiar features of The Other Blacklist is how frequently Washington uses such phrases as “what I want to do,” “what I have tried to do,” “I trace,” “I chart,” “my intention is to show.”  These simple declarations of intention and desire have the cumulative effect of exposing Washington’s awareness that research findings are provisional not definitive.  From my vantage, her rhetorical strategies do not betray trepidation about her authority or depth of knowledge.  Rather they inspire greater confidence that she knows what she is discussing and why she is seeking to discover what many scholars, anthologists, and critics have chosen to ignore or denigrate. Respecting the limits of critical thought as one triumphs over those limits is the mark of the seasoned scholar. Washington seems to be determined that we understand concerns about labor and race, about work, led some African American writers and artists to embrace leftist ideologies or the Communist Party and that their choices of remaining in the leftist orbit or departing from it were complex not simple. One must turn to Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (1983) and Harold Cruse’s The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (1967) for fuller explanations of those choices. In this matter of political choices they were not unlike their non-black comrades; they were very much unlike those comrades, however, in what they brought to the Left from their vernacular heritage of folklore, oral traditions and literature, and other forms of cultural expressiveness. In what she discusses about aesthetics and the Left, Washington is very clear in noting this fact.


Reading Bernard Bell’s comments in Chapter 6: “Myth, Legend, and Ritual in the Novel of the Fifties” of The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987) against those which Washington makes about Alice Childress,  Lloyd Brown, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Frank London Brown directs attention to the making of knowledge.  Bell speaks of parallel movements in the novel: “a movement away from naturalism and nonracial themes, and a movement toward the rediscovery and revitalization of myth, legend, and ritual as appropriate sign systems for expressing the double-consciousness, socialized ambivalence, and double vision of the modern black experience” (189).  The deductive motion of Bell’s assertion takes us into the region of metahistory. Washington is inductive.  She works case by case, trusting particulars more than organic generalities, as she takes us into the heart of less traveled territories. Bell and Washington provide divergent insights about how traditional naturalism and realism got transformed into modernism.

In the chapters on Lloyd L. Brown and Frank London Brown, Washington makes the fullest display of her analytic and interpretive powers.  Her discussion of Lloyd Brown’s Iron City (1950) as a challenge to Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940) is capital.  Her use of autobiographical details derived from F.O.I.A. materials on Frank London Brown to explicate his first novel Trumbull Park (1959) and to reconsider why its leftist aesthetics render it something greater that merely a civil rights novel is a model for understanding how “reality” is transformed into “fiction.”  The chapters on Gwendolyn Brooks and Alice Childress encourage our having more sustained engagement with their contributions to womanist literary discourse, just as the chapter on “spycraft” urges us to attend to role of surveillance in American literary politics. In short, The Other Blacklist makes a powerful case for our need to understand the Left and the 1950s as a prelude to the now emerging revisionist research on the Black Arts Movement and its aftermath.




Only after we have read the book in its totality –introduction, six chapters, epilogue, notes (which frequently prove as exciting as the main text), and works cited [where a few of us will note the absence of Freedomways 20.3 (Fourth Quarter 1980), a special issue on Charles White]—do we appreciate fully its didactic logic and how timely intelligence walks into view.  Washington has written a nuanced guide for future research and responsible scholarship.  The epilogue firmly expresses one contribution revisionist American literary history can make to clarify muddled thought about what it means to be an American who reads by choice or default.  Washington uses Julian Mayfield’s seldom read novel The Grand Parade (1961) and its final scene of the young girl Mildred in a newly “integrated” school to make a stringent critique of the left and suspect, racialized liberalism: “the black girl , studying and singing for legitimacy, has been assigned her role as the newly racialized and restigmatized integrated subject, now retooled for the modern integrationist narrative”(272). The integrationist narrative and its bastard post-racial narrative grandchild are defunct.  Lloyd L. Brown, Charles White, Alice Childress, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Frank London Brown, as Washington aptly concludes “critiqued the Left even as they believed in many of its goals.  In the end they were  artists on the Left on their own terms, experimenters and protestors in both their activism and their art” (273).  Future American literary histories of all colors ought to inform the public that little is to be gained from critiques of the always shifting Right, Center, and Left unless the dominant power of surveillance is recognized.  Washington has identified the possibility that all American writers are protest writers.  Indeed, those writers who might stridently protest that the case is otherwise, that only the marginalized protest, are the best protestors we shall ever know.


Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

May 11, 2014

No comments:

Post a Comment