When the Harlem Renaissance Went to Communist Moscow


Jennifer Wilson in the NYT:

Moscow had not joined Paris and Berlin as havens for black American artists and writers seeking opportunities unimpeded by the color line. It had one advantage, however, over those other European capitals: In the Soviet Union, racial equality was not merely incidental but a state project. Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet state, saw in the development of a black proletarian consciousness the greatest potential for revolution in America. And at that point, consciousness-raising in Soviet Russia was still — before Joseph Stalin’s rise to power — a matter left to artists.

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that when the Soviets invited two representatives to speak on “the Negro question” years earlier (to mark the fifth anniversary of the Russian Revolution), one was a poet. The Jamaican-born Claude McKay had just published “Harlem Shadows,” a book of verses many considered the literary spark that had ignited the Harlem Renaissance. In Soviet Russia, McKay traveled to Red Army camps to read poetry from the volume, including his famous sonnet “If We Must Die.” McKay, though there as a political representative, devoted much of his speech, which he titled “Soviet Russia and the Negro,” to the role of the arts in racial progress. He talked about what he considered tired white expectations for black art, writing that Europeans were only familiar with “the Negro minstrel and vaudevillian, the boxer, the black mammy and butler of the cinematograph, the caricatures of the romances and the lynched savage who has violated a beautiful white girl.”

More here.