A report by Jennifer Wilson for the New York Times.
In June 1932, the poet Langston Hughes arrived in Moscow as a part of group of 22 African-Americans who had been hired to act in a Soviet film about race relations and labor disputes in the American South. The cast had been assembled by Louise Thompson, an African-American activist who helped found the Harlem branch of the Friends of the Soviet Union, an initiative of the Communist International. Thompson saw in the film (which had the remarkably literal title “Black and White”) an opportunity to counter the distorted and stereotypical depictions of the African-American experience that plagued Hollywood films.
Hughes echoed Thompson’s frustrations with American cinema, explaining to a friend that he was putting his faith in the Soviets because “the American Negro stands very little chance of achieving true representation” in Hollywood. The 1929 Soviet production of “China Express,” a movie about a working-class revolt on a train traveling to Suchow from Nanking, inspired confidence in Hughes and Patterson that the Soviets could make quality pictures about people of color that didn’t reduce them to minstrels.
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.”
In Moscow, McKay spent evenings with poets, novelists, painters and figures from new avant-garde theater houses. With his Soviet colleagues, McKay wrote, “I was a poet, that was all, and their keen questions showed that they were much more interested in the technique of my poetry, my views on and my position regarding the modern literary movements than in the difference of my color.”
It was this promise of a creative solidarity unhindered by racial segregation that propelled Thompson, Hughes and the cast to invest their hopes in “Black and White.” When production the fell through, tempers flared. Some of the cast accused the Soviet Union of betraying the African-American cause to curry favor with Washington, from which the Soviet Union was hoping to receive official recognition. Hughes, perhaps the most seasoned artist of the group, attributed the failure to creative differences (too many people with opinions). Reflecting on the project years later, he wrote: “O, Movies. Temperaments. Artists. Ambitions. Scenarios. Directors, producers, advisers, actors, censors, changes, revisions, conferences. It’s a complicated art — the cinema. I’m glad I write poems.”
After the production of “Black and White” fell apart, many members of the cast stayed in the Soviet Union, believing it was their best place for their artistic careers. The actor Wayland Rudd was hired by one of Moscow’s experimental theater companies. The writer Loren Miller stayed to edit a Soviet anthology of African-American poetry. Lloyd Patterson, a recent college graduate who had signed on to the project merely looking for adventure, became a designer for film sets. His son Jimmy, still a baby, appeared in a famous 1936 Soviet film “Circus” in which a young white American woman with a black child flees the United States for racial sanctuary in Soviet Russia. Hughes stayed for several months in Soviet Central Asia, particularly Uzbekistan, reporting on Soviet reforms for various American publications, including the NAACP journal The Crisis. He was reportedly the first American poet whose work was translated into Uzbek.
Despite its demise, “Black and White” did not deter other black artists from taking a chance on the Soviet film industry. The singer and actor Paul Robeson arrived in Moscow in 1934 at the invitation of Sergei Eisenstein, the director behind such revolutionary classics as “Battleship Potemkin,” “October” and “Strike.” Inspired by the play “Black Majesty,” penned by C. L. R. James, an Afro-Trinidadian communist scholar and writer, Eisenstein had invited Robeson to potentially star in a film about the Haitian Revolution.
“I feel like a human being for the first time,” Robeson told reporters after he arrived in Russia. Of all the African-American artists and activists who traveled there, none developed as enduring a relationship with the Soviet Union as Robeson. Upon his arrival, he was received ecstatically by the Soviet theatrical establishment, which invited him to sing an aria onstage from Modest Mussorgsky’s opera “Boris Godunov.” Despite Soviet atheism, he was asked to sing Negro spirituals over the radio and at government parties. His song “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” became newly emblematic of his relationship to his home country; the Soviets had put his recording of the song over an animated short film about racism and labor exploitation in the American sugar industry.
But by the time Robeson was beginning his great romance with the Soviet project, McKay and many African-Americans (including the novelist Richard Wright) were moving away from it. McKay, like many of the Russian artists he collaborated with in Moscow, would have a falling out with communism. The instigating event, for him, was Soviet Russia’s failure to cease trade with Italy even after Mussolini had invaded Ethiopia, then ruled by Haile Selassie. The invasion was widely seen as an affront to the very idea of black sovereignty. McKay would turn his political disillusionment into “Amiable With Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair Between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem.”
Wright would soon join McKay in his disillusionment. In 1944 he wrote an article for The Atlantic Monthly called “I Tried to Be a Communist.” Frustrated by the American Communist Party’s tepid response to his novel “Native Son,” Wright wrote to a friend that the party “encourage[s] the creation of types of writing that can be used for agitprop purposes,” but had “a tendency to sneer at more creative attempts.”
Hughes’s overt involvement in communism also waned by this time, but perhaps more out of necessity. He was under intense scrutiny from Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee, which accused him of being at one time or another part of 91 communist organizations. Hughes, though, like Wright, did sense that too close an affiliation with a political organization or ideology could prove to be artistically stifling. Explaining to a friend why he never officially joined the Communist Party, he said, “It was based on strict discipline and the acceptance of directives that I, as a writer, did not wish to accept.”
Robeson was one of the last black “sojourners” to see in the Soviet Union an alternative to the racist and exploitative culture of the West. Between the Nonaligned Movement and a resurgence of black nationalism, the brand of communism bred from the Global South seemed to many by the 1960s and ‘70s to be a sharper weapon against racism and colonialism. As the black feminist writer Audre Lorde wrote when she reflected on her 1976 trip to Moscow, “Russia became a mythic representation of that socialism which does not yet exist anywhere I have been.”
Russia has long served as a repository for different kinds of mythology, from the Third Rome to the Red Scare. The myth of Russia as a racial paradise was perhaps one of its best, both as a muse to black artists across the diaspora and as a strategic tool in the African-American fight for political recognition. But as an early adherent, Hughes implied that the Soviet Union was just part of a larger narrative of black creative and political revolution; as the refrain of his 1938 poem “Ballad of Lenin” reads:
Comrade Lenin of Russia,
High in a marble tomb,
Move over, Comrade Lenin,
And give me room.