Reconstruction 8.1 (2008)


Return to Contents»

 

SNYC, Freedomways, and the Influence of the Popular Front in the South on the Black Arts Movement / James Smethurst [1]

 

Abstract: Tracing out cultural and political affiliations that persisted despite the effort of the repressive state apparatus, this essay examines the oft-neglected organizational and cultural connections between the Old Left and the new. Arguing that the work of Popular Front artists and activists in the South prefigured Black Arts literature and visual arts notions of how artists should relate to the community that marked, the paper recasts the continuities between the 1930s and 1960s.

 

<1> The spectacle of a white pitchman hawking patent medicines accompanied by a black or blacked-up white musician on the banjo had long been a familiar one in the small town South in the 1940s. However, today, the eyes of the passing miners and their families were caught by the sight of a young black speaker joined by a white banjo player. Even more strangely (and thrillingly for black listeners), the speaker did not extol the miraculous virtues of some tonic, but instead called for the end of Jim Crow segregation and urged the listeners to claim their voting rights. The speaker was the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) activist and Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC) leader James Jackson and the banjo player, Pete Seeger. [2]

<2> Jackson and Seeger performed a sort of street theater in their tour of mining camps and sharecropper communities near Birmingham, Alabama, a particularly radical (and courageous) form of Popular Front theater that drew on the familiar tropes and images of regional popular culture while turning them on their heads, visually, aurally, and ideologically. This sort of arresting refiguring of popular culture for radical political purposes performed in public spaces was, of course, a hallmark of the Black Arts movement in the 1960s and 1970s - Amiri Baraka and Ed Bullins were each in their particular ways notably adept at this kind of adoption and adaptation. It serves as a reminder of the ways in which the engaged black cultural movements of the 1930s and 1940s across the South prefigured and in many ways enabled later black radical artistic production in ways that have been seldom traced - though scholars like Patricia Sullivan, Erik McDuffie, Michael Honey, Robert Korstad, Barbara Ransby, Adam Fairclough, and Glenda Gilmore, to name a handful, have recently done (and are doing) valuable studies of indigenous southern politics, especially African American politics, and the Left before (and during) the Cold War.

<3> However, it seems to me that one area that has only been hinted at, for the most part, but not really examined is the significant influence this pre-Cold War southern Left exerted on the development of U.S. politics and culture outside as well as inside the region. My purpose here, then, is to begin to consider some of the cultural legacies of the Popular Front in the South, sketching a few of the ways in which the southern Popular Front, particularly SNYC, and African American radicals who came of political age in the Popular Front, influenced the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s with the hope of furthering a larger conversation on what is in fact a very large subject.

<4> Young black radicals in a variety of Popular Front organizations, particularly SNYC, were important in promoting a politicized African American art and literature in the South during the 1930s and 1940s. As with the militants of the later Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the black student movement of the 1960s, some of these activists had lived most of their lives to that point in the South; some had been born in the South, but had moved elsewhere with their families during the great migration; and still others were almost entirely new to the region. The Cold War forced many, though not all, of these radicals to leave the region or hide their political affiliations and destroyed or isolated the institutions through which they had found expression.

<5> However, as the intensity of the Cold War abated and as new possibilities were presented by the Civil Rights upsurge of the late 1950s and early 1960s, these activists drew on their experiences in the Popular Front and the still surviving network of contacts forged in the 1930s and 1940s to help create new political and cultural institutions that in turn facilitated and influenced the formation of new radical African American cultural initiatives elsewhere. The particular initiative with which this essay is primarily concerned is the journal Freedomways.

<6> While growth of scholarship on the political, cultural, and social world of the Communist Left in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s has increased our general sense of the Popular Front, it is probably still worth glossing the Popular Front a bit. The policy of the Popular Front arose after the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933 and fascist or semi-fascist movements took over (or threatened to take over) governments throughout Europe. In keeping with the general tenor of "Third Period" politics, there had been some sense in the Communist Left inside and outside Germany that when Hitler was appointed Chancellor by Von Hindenburg, the Nazis would be unable to solve the acute economic problems facing the Weimar Republic, giving the Communists new opportunities to make a social revolution. Instead, Nazi rule in Germany quickly destroyed the largest, and most influential, Communist Party in the world outside of the Soviet Union.

<7> As a result, the Communist International (Comintern) concluded that the threat of fascism was the paramount danger to social progress and required an alliance of all democratic forces from a variety of social classes ("the people"), emphasizing the particular democratic traditions (and iconography associated with those traditions) of individual countries. There was clearly an internationalist aspect of the Popular Front against fascism, perhaps most dramatically embodied in the International Brigades of volunteers who fought for the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War. After all, the Comintern was moved to change its policy by what it perceived as a worldwide threat, not simply a problem restricted to a single nation or handful of countries. However, the Popular Front had a strongly nationalist aspect in its actual application in particular counties since in the analysis of Comintern leader George Dmitrov one of the chief ideological reasons that the Nazis were able to triumph in Germany and the Fascists in Italy was because they were more adept than the Communists and Socialists in engaging national identity in those countries. [3]"The people" in many respects corresponded to a Communist multi-class formulation of nationality as opposed to the more internationalist and less nation-based concept of "the working class" - though the idea that the working class (albeit a more nation-specific vision of the working class) was at the heart of the struggle against fascism and reaction generally remained a central part of Popular Front art and politics. This notion of "the people" included, in the United States, various liberal or social democratic groups (such as the NAACP and the Socialist Party) and individuals (such as John L. Lewis, W.E.B. Du Bois, and A. Phillip Randolph) that the Communists decried previously as "Social Fascists" who would mislead the working class when final capitalist crisis came during the so-called "Third Period." So in the South, as elsewhere, the Popular Front engendered a network of activists and artists that included people closely affiliated with the CPUSA, such as James Jackson, Esther Cooper Jackson, Louis Burnham, Augusta Strong, Ed Strong, Don West, Lee Hays, Hosea Hudson, and Elizabeth Catlett, and others whose political sympathies were on the Left, but whose organizational affiliations are less clear or definitely non-Communist, such as Hale Woodruff, John Handcox, John Biggers, Myles Horton, and Samella Lewis.

<8> As an official Comintern policy, the Popular Front lasted only from about 1935 to the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact (a.k.a. the Hitler-Stalin Pact) at the end of 1939 - and, indeed, the Comintern itself was dissolved in 1943. However, the Popular Front style of political and cultural work remained, for the most part, the dominant approach of the CPUSA long after 1939 - really until the present - even if the Cold War diminished the reach of such a strategy. For example, the names of the leftwing Abraham Lincoln School in Chicago, Jefferson School of Social Science and the Jefferson Bookstore in downtown Manhattan, and George Washington Carver School in Harlem continued to claim as their own American democratic icons Popular Front-style in the 1940s and 1950s (and beyond), whatever the ideological zigs and zags of the CPUSA and the international Communist movement. I mention this because some of the most important cultural work of the Popular Front in the South, such as John Biggers's 1953 Houston mural The Contribution of the Negro Woman to American Life and Democracy, took place long after the official end of the Popular Front. The call for the founding of SNYC emerged from the 1936 founding meeting of the National Negro Congress in Chicago. SNYC was officially launched the next year when five hundred delegates from a wide range of political, civil rights, labor, community, religious, and fraternal organizations gathered in Richmond, Virginia (where Communists, especially Richmond-native James Jackson, played pivotal roles in the organization of black tobacco workers). Over the next decade leaders of SNYC included native southerners, such as Virginians Esther Cooper Jackson and James Jackson and Alabaman Sallye Davis (mother of Angela Davis), products of the great migration, such as Edward Strong (born in Texas and raised in Michigan), and northern transplants, such as the Harlemite of Caribbean descent Louis Burnham (originally the National Negro Congress's youth coordinator) and the Brooklynites Dorothy Burnham and Augusta Jackson, many of whom had come to SNYC out of the Young Communist League and the National Student Movement.

<9> SNYC organized what may be the first off-campus southern African American visual arts show in Birmingham, Alabama in 1939. It sponsored or helped initiate two radical theaters, the People's Theatre in Richmond and the People's Theatre in New Orleans - which SNYC claimed were the first community theaters in the South. [4] The New Orleans theater was led by Dillard University professor Randolph Edmonds, an important playwright and director and one of the key figures of African American theater education. ( Edmonds sparked the founding of the National Association of Dramatic and Speech Arts, an organization of black theater workers, scholars, and educators primarily on historically black campuses, to counter the hostility and exclusionary policies of white-led theater associations.) The SNYC-sponsored Puppet Caravan Theatre, which numbered the poet Waring Cuney (an innovator of the Harlem Renaissance genre of blues poetry along with Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown) and Esther Cooper Jackson among its members, toured the South, presenting plays on voter registration and labor rights to mining families, farmers and farm laborers, anticipating the work of the Free Southern Theatre twenty years later. SNYC also published poetry in their journal Cavalcade (which the group asserted was "the only news-magazine by and for American Negro youth") and featured such important African American artists as Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, Sterling Brown, Josh White, and Pearl Primus in their activities. [5] And, as noted above, much of the public work of SNYC and the Popular Front in the South featured a deep awareness of regional and national popular culture, of medicine shows, gospel quartets (Communist and Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers Union leader Hosea Hudson was active in a CIO gospel quartet in Birmingham), jazz, blues, and black vaudeville, as well as more "high" art forms, lending to SNYC events an aspect of political theater.

<10> Of course, SNYC was not unique in this attention to culture. One of the notable things about the Left African American arts scene supported by SNYC is how much it resembles what was going on elsewhere in the country. The black Left, particularly those artists and activists in and around the CPUSA, all across the United States were instrumental in the founding or strengthening of cultural institutions and the staging of art shows, galleries, theaters, concerts, poetry readings, study groups, schools, artists workshops, and so on, from Los Angeles to Harlem, from Minneapolis to Birmingham. However, though SNYC worked closely with liberal and radical white southerners in the CPUSA, the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, the League of Young Southerners, the CIO, and other organizations, it was dedicated to the idea of building black political and cultural institutions run by and for African Americans with an intensity that was unmatched anywhere - except perhaps in Chicago. It also reached out to prominent black political, educational, and cultural leaders within and beyond the South, including W.E.B. Du Bois (who made his famous "Behold the Land" speech at the 1946 SNYC convention in Columbia, South Carolina), Paul Robeson (who performed at the convention the night before Du Bois's speech), Montgomery, Alabama Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters leader (and late a local leader of the NAACP and one of the chief architects of the Montgomery Bus Boycott) E. D. Nixon, and Dillard University president Albert Dent, forming a network of contacts inside and outside the South that survived the rigors of the McCarthy Era and the demise of SNYC to a significant extent. In short, the activities of SNYC and the Popular Front in the South did not simply run parallel to those of black Left labor militants, civil rights activists, artists, intellectuals, and so on, in other cities, but were closely interlocked with them, giving the Jacksons, the Burnhams, Ed Strong and other SNYC veterans valuable connections and resources they could draw on when they conceived and founded Freedomways.

<11> Cold War repression and internal struggle within the CPUSA led to the dissolution of SNYC in 1949 and the relocation of many of its leading activists, and many of the most public leaders of the southern Popular Front, outside the region, especially after the anti-Red hysteria following the Wallace presidential campaign in 1948. Those writers and artists who did remain in (or returned to) the South in the 1950s, such as Margaret Walker, Octave Lilly, and Marcus Christian, became quite circumspect in their politics, and, in the case of Lilly and Christian faded into obscurity even locally, until Tom Dent (in part recreating the sorts of relationships he had had with Esther Cooper Jackson and the Freedomways circle in New York) sought them out after his return to his native New Orleans. Quite a few of the political migrants to the North, including James Jackson, Esther Cooper Jackson, Louis Burnham, Dorothy Burnham, and Edward Strong eventually ended up in Philadelphia or New York, where some almost immediately became involved in Paul Robeson's new newspaper Freedom. Louis Burnham in particular helped Robeson found Freedom, becoming the paper's managing editor. Freedom, much like SNYC's Cavalcade, was a radical Left political publication with a strong interest in culture, featuring the work of, among others, playwright Lorraine Hansberry, playwright and fiction writer Alice Childress, novelists Lloyd Brown, Julian Mayfield, and John O. Killens, and poet Frank Marshall Davis. In fact, if one was going to look for an antecedent African American publication most closely parallel to Freedom in its interests and editorial policies, one might well be inclined to name Cavalcade.

<12> Freedom, too, fell victim to McCarthyism in 1955 - a sort of African American nadir of the McCarthy Era that saw the collapse of many late Popular Front black organizations, such as the Civil Rights Congress and the National Negro Labor Council and the persecution of many of the leading black Popular Front militants. James Jackson, for example, spent much of the early 1950s underground as leading Communists were charged and imprisoned or deported under the Smith Act. During that period the FBI harassed the Jackson family unmercifully, going so far as to try to get one of the Jackson children expelled from her publicly-supported nursery school in Brooklyn. [6] However, despite this repression Louis Burnham and Edward Strong almost immediately began circulating a prospectus for a progressive black journal to replace Robeson's paper among what remained of the circle of activists that had supported Freedom. These efforts (and, indeed, the creation of Freedom in the first place) can be seen both as part of the Leninist devotion to the printed political organ as the centerpiece of political work and to the long African American tradition of establishing black run journalistic institutions that combined art and literature with reportage and political analysis in the service of African American political interests, reaching back to Woman's Era and The Crisis in the early twentieth century - if not to Frederick Douglass' North Star in the nineteenth. These efforts were initially unsuccessful. [7] However, with the rise of a new activist Civil Rights Movement and some diminishment in McCarthyism in the late 1950s Burnham, now a columnist for the National Guardian, saw an opening. One important sign of a change in the political climate (even though anti-Communism and government repression would continue to exert much pressure) was the Supreme Court's 1957 Yates v. United States decision, which found that prosecution of people for their beliefs (even if those beliefs might abstractly support violent revolution) under the Smith Act was unconstitutional. One of the defendants in this landmark case was James Jackson, who had emerged from the underground in 1956 and was convicted of "conspiracy" under the Smith Act.

<13> Burnham envisioned an African American-led Left cultural journal that would provide a place for younger black artists to present and develop their work within the context of the new Civil Rights Movement and the liberation and nation-building movements in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, particularly after the Bandung Conference of 1955. He also saw it as a place where older artists, such Alice Childress, John Oliver Killens, Lorraine Hansberry, W.E.B. Du Bois, Shirley Graham Du Bois, Margaret Burroughs, Elizabeth Catlett, and others who had been a part of the Freedom circle and other progressive black cultural institutions, could reach out to a new audience, especially among the younger militants, after being isolated (and in some cases exiled) by McCarthyism. In short, the new journal was to provide a venue for politically engaged literature, art, and social commentary, giving older and younger artists a vehicle for linking their work to the liberation struggles at home and abroad, infusing the older generation with some of the energy and optimism of the younger and providing the younger with the perspective and historical (and cultural) memory of the older. The nucleus of activists with whom Burnham first discussed the journal consisted largely of former leaders and supporters of SNYC: Edward Strong, Augusta Savage Strong, Shirley Graham Du Bois, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Esther Cooper Jackson. As the name suggests, the new journal that became Freedomways continued the Left, anti-imperialist, anti-Jim Crow culturally oriented project of Freedom within the new context of the revived Civil Rights Movement, the struggle against McCarthyism, and the successes (and failures) of the African, Asian, and Latin American independence movements that were strongly inflected by the geopolitics of the Cold War. Again, they also saw themselves as working within the tradition of Cavalcade, The Crisis and black-run journals of reportage, political opinion, and art in the service of liberation reaching back to the antebellum era. (And, of course, this linkage was a living one for the group since it included the founder of The Crisis, the nonagenarian W.E.B. Du Bois among its numbers.) [8]

<14> The realization of the journal took a giant step forward when Burnham recruited Esther Cooper Jackson to the staff in 1959. Burnham died in early 1960 before the journal could get off the ground. Ed Strong also died before the magazine was launched. However, despite these enormous losses, W.E.B. Du Bois and Shirley Graham Du Bois strongly supported its continuation. Jackson, who became the managing editor of the new journal, spent a year building a support network and raising money. She also put together the editorial board. The first issue appeared in 1961 and the last in 1985, making the journal one of the most long-lived, if not the most long-lived, of the continuously published black radical periodicals founded in the 1960s. While there would be considerable change in Freedomways editorial masthead during the next two and a half decades, Jackson would be the organizational center and anchor of the journal over its entire lifetime. For the first few years, Shirley Graham Du Bois served as the editor. However, Shirley Graham Du Bois's ability to keep close tabs on the nuts and bolts work of editing and producing the magazine was limited by her expatriation to Ghana with her husband - with the result that much of that work was done by Jackson and John Henrik Clarke.

<15> While often critical of African American nationalism (especially cultural nationalism), Freedomways, conceived, organized, and run entirely by African Americans (though publishing work by non-African American writers), was often more sympathetic to nationalism, and certainly the notion of African American self-determination (under the rubric of black liberation), than such critics as Harold Cruse would suggest. Of course, the dominant tenor of the journal was one of black institution building - a hallmark of the later Black Arts Movement. In the spirit of SNYC, Esther Jackson and the board adamantly insisted that African Americans run the journal. In fact, Freedomways was stricter in this respect than some other journals more closely associated with the new black nationalism, notably Liberator (of which a white leftist, Lowell "Pete" Beveridge, was a key staff member in its formative years). This adherence to the principle of an all-black editorial board (though white and Latina/o authors contributed essays and reviews to the journal) caused friction between Freedomways and some white Leftists, especially the prominent Communist historian Herbert Aptheker.[9] Nonetheless, the policy remained in place until the demise of the journal in the late 1980s.

<16> As the journal moved through its first decade, the worldview of most of the younger (and sometimes older) poets, fiction-writers, and other artists associated with the magazine was, as John O. Killens (a member of the older generation) approvingly characterized the ideology of the late Lorraine Hansberry in its pages, "Black nationalist with a socialist perspective." [10] In keeping with Louis Burnham's original vision of the magazine, Freedomways undertook to reclaim and make relevant for younger readers earlier moments of radical black art, publishing and promoting older writers (and often older poems of these writers), such as Margaret Walker, Claude McKay, Jacques Roumain, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Sterling Brown, and reproducing the work of such older visual artists as Charles White, Elizabeth Catlett, and Jacob Lawrence. At the same time, it undertook to alert older readers to the new currents in black art and politics, printing the work of such younger artists as Mari Evans, Paule Marshall, Rosa Guy, Tom Feelings, Nikki Giovanni, David Henderson, Calvin Hernton, Woodie King, Audre Lorde, Haki Madhubuti, Aishah Rahman, Clayton Riley (longtime staff member of Liberator), Askia Touré, and Alice Walker.

<17> Through its wide range of contacts among older and younger activists, the journal was able to bring together an incredibly wide range of black artists, intellectuals, political organizers, and politicians in its pages and at its events, again recalling the sort of networks that SNYC built. Freedomways-sponsored events included book parties, readings, art shows, benefit concerts, holiday celebrations, tributes to important political and cultural figures, and so on. The diversity of the participants in these events stretched across ideologies, age cohorts, and artistic media and disciplines mixing "high" and "popular" culture in good Popular Front fashion. One benefit performance at the Village Gate in 1964 included jazz musicians John Coltrane, Abbey Lincoln, and Max Roach, folk singer Len Chandler, and comedian Dick Gregory - belying the commonplace that Coltrane (who supported a number of Freedomways efforts) avoided all formal political associations during the 1960s. A 1962 "Artists' Salute to Freedomways" at Smalls Paradise in Harlem featuring jazz pianist Randy Weston, opera singer Leontyne Price, and comedian Godfrey Cambridge. (Tickets were sold at the Memorial African Bookstore, a nationalist landmark in Harlem.) A Freedomways benefit tribute to Gwendolyn Brooks in 1966 showcased actors Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, former labor leader (and future Harvard Afro-American Studies head) Ewart Guinier, and musicians Lucky Thompson and Dizzy Gillespie.[11]

<18> Perhaps the best example of this range can be found in the 1968 centennial celebration of W.E.B. Du Bois's birth that Freedomways organized. The sponsors list for the celebration included Marxists, nationalists, and liberals of many stripes, such as CPUSA's National Chairman, Henry Winston, the NAACP's Roy Wilkins and, Amiri Baraka, who was then moving more deeply toward cultural nationalism. That so many individuals who had such bitter (and prominent) ideological disputes in the 1950s and 1960s would even sit in the same room might in retrospect seem remarkable. Again, this reclamation of the "People's Front" model here was not serendipitous or simply a natural product of the era, but the consequence of conscious and difficult work by the journal's staff. For example, Esther Jackson insisted on the participation of Wilkins over the objection of Shirley Graham Du Bois, who was still understandably angry over the role that Wilkins had played in the persecution of her husband during the McCarthy Era. However, Jackson (who, as noted above, also suffered greatly during the Red hunts of the 1950s) felt that as matter of principle and of political effectiveness, there should be a leader of the NAACP, the organization that W.E.B. Du Bois had helped found and had been so long associated, on the program. [12] And, though the political and cultural diversity of the Du Bois centennial might seem unlikely (though, again, not perhaps if one is familiar with the pages and activities of the journal), it was an important forerunner to such Black Power events as the first Congress of African People (CAP) convention in Atlanta a couple of years later and the 1972 Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana that featured a similarly wide ideological and artistic spectrum of participants.

<19> Harold Cruse castigated the magazine as being dominated by a tired CPUSA integrationism, claiming "that the very disturbing thing about what Freedomways prints is that it is all so frighteningly superficial, routine, and unoriginal." [13] Yet young writers prominently identified with the new nationalism, even variants of cultural nationalism, such as Madhubuti and Touré, published in Freedomways as late as the 1970s despite the increasing conflicts between Marxists and cultural nationalists within CAP and other Black Power organizations. One might add that, ultimately, Freedomways was more positive about these writers than Cruse, who frequently and ferociously took them to task for an insufficient political background and a lack of ideological clarity. [14] Esther Jackson, and a number of the staff members of the journal, especially Jean Carey Bond and John Henrik Clarke, developed close personal relationships with a number of the young black artists active in the Lower Eastside literary scene of the early 1960s out of which Black Arts in New York largely grew - in the case of Clarke (who taught at the Black Arts Repertory Theatre and School in Harlem) and Jackson serving as elders for the young artists. Members of the proto-Black Arts Umbra Poets Workshop, particularly Tom Dent (who had known Esther Jackson from childhood through the contacts that SNYC had made with his father Albert Dent, the president of Dillard University in New Orleans), Calvin Hernton, and David Henderson regularly attended Freedomways events. Likewise, Jackson and others in the Freedomways circle supported Umbra and frequented Umbra readings, fundraising parties, and so on. This sort of relationship often continued as the Black Arts Movement grew. Dent remained a strong supporter (and eventually an editorial board member) of Freedomways after his return to his native New Orleans, where he became devoted to bringing different generations of black southern writers and artists together in such organizations and institutions as the Free Southern Theatre, BLKARTSOUTH, Nkombo, and the Southern Black Cultural Alliance (perhaps the most successful of regional Black Arts organizations). [15]

<20> Similarly, artists closely linked to the journal mentored some of the best-known younger black writers - as in the relationships between Madhubuti and Margaret Burroughs and between John Killens and Nikki Giovanni. And, the Freedomways book column of Ernest Kaiser (a research librarian at the Schomburg Library [now the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture] in Harlem who long associated with black Left circles in New York) was for decades considered by many of the younger artists to be a vital and extraordinarily extensive annotated compendium of new African American writing. If one went to the National Memorial African Bookstore in New York, Vaughn's Bookstore in Detroit, the Aquarian Bookstore in Los Angeles, and the Timbuktu Market of New Africa in Atlanta to find the black titles that so-called "mainstream" bookstores did not stock, in many cases one was made aware of the existence and something of the content of these books in Kaiser's column. The journal also featured the lithographs, cartoons, caricatures, paintings, and so on, of leading older and younger visual artists, including Elizabeth Catlett, Charles White, Romare Bearden, Ollie Harrington, Jacob Lawrence, Tom Feelings, and Hugh Harrell who donated their work to the journal as a means of giving it financial support. In turn Freedomways allowed these artists, some of whom (like Catlett and Harrington) had been in exile since the McCarthy Era, access to an increased audience in the United States.

<21> Obviously much more could be said here. A whole other (though - as seen above in Freedomways' promotion of the visual arts - interconnected) line of the influence of black Popular Front artists on the engaged black visual art of the 1960s and 1970s can be traced through the work of Left artist-educators such as Hale Woodruff, Elizabeth Catlett, Charles White, Samella Lewis, and John Biggers, at historically black colleges and universities in the South. Their impact on the development of radical African American public art in the 1960s and 1970s as well as on seminal 1960s politically engaged black visual arts groups, such as the OBAC Visual Arts Workshop in Chicago and the Spiral group in New York, is profound, but beyond the scope of this essay.

<22> The legacy of the Popular Front in the South is in many ways complicated and sometimes hard to trace. As mentioned before, only a few Left-influenced southern organizations and institutions, such as the Southern Conference Education Fund (an offshoot of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare) and the Highlander Folk School survived McCarthyism - and even those surviving groups and institutions were much impaired by the Cold War. However, the work that Popular Front artists and activists did in the South, in such institutions as SNYC (and the historically-black schools) inspired and prefigured the notions of how artists should relate to the community that marked Black Arts literature and visual arts. Again, even though many of the leading figures of the southern Popular Front left the region due in many cases to Cold War pressures that were particularly intense in the South, they took the lessons, the style, and the dedication to black institution building developed in SNYC (and, often the CPUSA), with them, creating institutions, especially Freedomways, that not only supported the Black Arts upsurge of the 1960s and 1970s, but provided models how such institutions, drawing on different generations of geographically and ideologically diverse black radicals, might be created and run by African Americans with a strong belief in both black internationalism and self-determination within a basically, though not exclusively Marxist framework.

 

Notes

[1] This essay is dedicated to the memory of James E. Jackson, Jr. (1914-2007). [^]

[2] Author's interview with James and Esther Cooper Jackson, July 8, 2002, Brooklyn, New York. [^]

[3] George Dmitrov, Against War and Fascism, (New York: International, 1986), 76-82. [^]

[4] Esther Cooper Jackson and James Jackson Papers, Edward Strong Correspondence Folder, Box 6, Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University. [^]

[5] Edward Strong Correspondence Folder, Box 6, Esther Cooper Jackson and James Jackson Papers; letter from Esther Cooper Jackson to Aaron Douglass, March 13, 1942, SNYC Correspondence, Box 14, Esther Cooper Jackson and James Jackson Papers; letter from Pearl Primus to James Jackson, July 8, 1946, Box 14, Esther Cooper Jackson and James Jackson Papers; and author's interview with James and Esther Cooper Jackson. [^]

[6] Patricia Sullivan, Days of Hope: Race and Democracy in the New Deal Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), 249-275; Glenda Gilmore, Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1919-1950, ( New York: W.W. Norton, 2007), 400-444; author's interview with James and Esther Cooper Jackson. [^]

[7] W.E.B. Du Bois papers, reel 72, Special Collections, W.E.B. Du Bois Library, University of Massachusetts Amherst. [^]

[8] Author's interview with James and Esther Cooper Jackson. [^]

[9] Author's interview with James and Esther Cooper Jackson. [^]

[10] John O. Killens, "Lorraine Hansberry: On Time," in Freedomways Reader, edited by Esther Cooper Jackson, 337 (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1980). [^]

[11] Flyer for "Artists' Salute to Freedomways" at Smalls Paradise June 8, 1962, flyer for holiday benefit for Freedomways at Village Gage December 27, 1964, and flyer for benefit tribute for Freedomways in honor of Gwendolyn Brooks May 22, 1996, Freedomways Box, Box 8, Esther Cooper Jackson and James Jackson Papers. [^]

[12] Author's interview with James and Esther Cooper Jackson. [^]

[13] Cruse, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: A Historical Analysis of the Failure of Black Leadership, (New York: Quill, 1984), 249. [^]

[14] A good example of this sort of attack is Cruse's scathing dismissal of Baraka, Neal, and the Black Arts Repertory Theatre and School in The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (533-543). [^]

[15] Author's interview with James and Esther Cooper Jackson; letter from Tom Dent to Esther Jackson April 17, 1971, Box 8, Esther Cooper Jackson and James Jackson Papers. [^]

 

Return to Top»



ISSN: 1547-4348. All material contained within this site is copyrighted by the identified author. If no author is identified in relation to content, that content is © Reconstruction, 2002-2012.