Seeing Red.

What is freedom when you cannot do anything? The theme that I recognized throughout this week’s readings was the intolerable claustrophobic environment that restricted any sort of political movement in the black community. The southern white population offered no end to the continuous harassment and restricted living conditions of African Americans, yet wondered in shock and often disbelief why African Americans rose up in various ways against them.

Communist Party poster from the early 20th century. Looks promising.

Many African Americans looked to Communism in the early twentieth century because it claimed to be a system of government that recognized no class or race as superior; the very definition of Communism is founded in the ideal that all people have the same national goal of equality in life and work. Black southerners such as Lovett Fort-Whiteman traveled to Moscow and were amazed at the equal treatment they received from their comrades.

The evil done in the name of Communism by party leaders has tainted (and perhaps even destroyed) the original goal of this system of government. I can understand why this system appealed to those African Americans (and whites as well) living in the 1920s and 1930s American South. In a world that abused their rights, forced them to work overtime for little pay, and showed them no respect, as in the case of Lovett Fort-Whiteman’s friend Oliver Golden, Communism was an answer. It promised to bring change to the lives of African Americans, many of whom were educated but found jobs “incommensurate with their educations.” [1]

Richard Wright’s short story “Fire and Cloud” also explains the draw of turning “red.” Dan Taylor, the main character, is a reverend trying to help his congregation find food to feed their families, and conditions get continually worse. When the whites of the town refuse to provide any help and deny any undue suffering, the black community turned to the Communists in order to arrange a demonstration in the town center to strike for food.

In both the short story and in Gilmore’s exploration of Lovett Fort-Whiteman and the growth of African American Communists, the white people in each community try to quell the movement toward Communism and claim that joining was anti-American. African Americans had no room to move. They could not move up in the democratic system of the United States, although it claimed everyone was equal; and when they found a new form of government that treated them as human beings, they were called anti-American. In “Fire and Cloud” the black community joined the Communists in a demonstration for food because they wanted change (and food); it did not necessarily mean that they agreed wholeheartedly with the Communists. As Dan Taylor explained to the mayor, “they jus hungry. Theys marchin cause they don know whut else t do.” [2] As Gilmore wrote in her chapter titled “Jim Crow Meets Karl Marx” in Defying Dixie, the magazine Afro-American said: “If the American Federation of Labor has something better to offer the American Negro than the Communists of Moscow, then they need not fear any widespread development of this radicalism.” [3] The problem was that America had nothing better to offer. At once a freeing notion, Communism attracted its own prejudices in due time.

I wanted to make a note here to say that this dilemma of government reminded me of a more recent political topic. When the people of Palestine elected Hamas leaders into power, much of the world considered it a sign that all of Palestine was a threat, because the Hamas organization was previously only recognized for its violence against Israel. While the group’s hostile past is true, the nation did not elect its leaders because of it. The country had experienced an extreme downfall and was forced to bring change to their government. The only choice they had was to choose Hamas over the stalling Fatah government. We can also see this in our own country, with the election of Republican Scott Brown into a historically Democratic seat because change is not coming swiftly. If the country (or group) is in distress, its people align themselves with what will bring change.

In “Fire and Cloud,” Dan Taylor discovers hatred as an emotion within himself after he is savagely beaten and whipped by white men whom he had earlier tried to acquiesce by playing the stereotypical black man to their white. At different points in the story, both he and his son, Jimmy, believed that they could not just sit around and do nothing. Just before he was beaten, Wright wrote of Taylor, “[he] saw it coming, but could do nothing.” [4] In a world where black men (and women) knew what was coming for them if they dared to challenge Jim Crow and were forced to live behind the bars of race and class, the Communist promise of equality seemed to be the change they hoped for.

[1] Glenda Gilmore, Defying Dixie, (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2008), 48.

[2] Richard Wright, Uncle Tom’s Children, (New York: Harper Perennial, 2004), 183.

[3] Gilmore, 52.

[4] Wright, 197.

4 thoughts on “Seeing Red.

  1. I agree Cynthia and throughout the readings I kept thinking how African Americans’ choices in the south during Jim Crow mostly came from a necessity to survive. The appeal of communism offered the potential to create a society in which they at least would have food for their families. I think it is interesting that Wright seemed to markedly delineate the seperate spheres of political and religious ideology (which I think often overlaps in people’s thinking) within the character of Reverend Taylor. He was a man who always sought help from God and trusted that his belief would save his congregation, but his near death experience changed his path and his political convictions ultimately won in the end.

  2. I think any actions taken by African Americans during this time would have been met with hostility and opposition from white Americans. As Gilmore points out, the goal of Jim Crow was to restrict the African American population to the point of disenfranchisement and oppression. No matter what political ideology or system black Americans turned to, it would have been met with heavy opposition from whites.

  3. “they jus hungry. ”
    Being hungry will get you to join about any club if it promises to meet your basic needs. If we look around this incredibly violent world of ours, all these acts of war can be tied back to that hunger.
    I have little faith in the political process and I think the human essence of the characters drive these characters much farther than the ideology of political movements.

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