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The Cry Was Unity: Communists and African Americans, 1917-1936 Paperback – December 1, 1998
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The first book to study the African-American/ Communist relationship in its national and international contexts
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I would recommend this book to anyone interested in Depression-era history.
Solomon is emeritus professor at Simmons College and a member of the Committees of Correspondence. The CofC split from the CPUSA because of objections to the dogmatism and bureaucracy of the Gus Hall regime. The event that finally led to the formation of the CofC was Hall's support for the coup against Gorbachev. Some of the most prominent black members of the CP went with the CofC, including Charlene Mitchell who is co-chair of the CofC with Manning Marable, department head of African-American studies at Columbia University. Although Solomon is white, he explains in his introduction why he was drawn to the black struggle:
"The environment we knew was one of spirited demonstrations to save the lives of Rosa Ingram, Willie McGhee, the Martinsville Seven, and other victims of a racist legal system. It included attending vibrant interracial dances at Rockland Palace in Harlem, sitting in awe in the back of Birdland to ask Charlie Parker to support Du Bois for the Senate, and listening to Miles Davis, engaged by the unhip Marxist Labor Youth League, which somehow thought that Davis's brilliant, elliptical bebop was right for dancing. All of that had nearly disappeared by the mid-1950s. But that defiant interracialism, grounded in the unity of cultural traditions, of shared support for all who labored for an end to oppression at home and abroad never died. Its special commitment to, and admiration for, black culture, history, and community life survived and fused with a pervasive sense that the liberation of one group was essential to the spiritual and physical freedom of all."
What is significant, however, is that Solomon understands the progressive character of black nationalism as well, sparing no effort to show how the Communist Party at various points in its history embraced such initiatives. I want to focus in one particular moment in party history, which is highly revealing for the affinity black party members had for nationalism, namely the African Blood Brotherhood. Despite the separatist name, this group was the instrument of Communist Party involvement in the black struggle in the early 1920s.
Cyril Briggs was the founder of the African Black Brotherhood. Born in 1888 on the Caribbean island of Nevis, he always considered himself a "race man". His father was a white plantation overseer and this accounted for Briggs's light complexion, which earned him the description of the "Angry Blond Negro" later in life, just as Malcolm X was dubbed "Detroit Red" before becoming a nationalist for similar reasons. Briggs moved to Harlem in 1905 and launched a writing career, finally landing a job with the Amsterdam News in 1912.
Briggs was swept up by the self-determination rhetoric of WWI which inspired his editorial, "Security for Poles and Serbs, Why not for Colored Nations?," a call for a separate black state in the United States. He was also a strong supporter of the Irish Easter Uprising of 1916.
Briggs started a new magazine called the "Crusader" in 1918 to focus on the struggle for self-determination and black pride. The magazine made no distinction between such goals and more immediate social and economic issues. It backed the Socialist Party electoral campaigns of A. Philip Randolph and exposed lynchings in the south and job discrimination in the north.
In the February 1919 issue, the Crusader began demonstrating a concern with class in the Marxist sense. Comparing the forced removal of black workers from a Pennsylvania steel town (where they had migrated to during wartime labor shortages) to the Palmer Raid deportations of white foreign-born radicals, The Crusader attributed such actions to the "mailed fist of capitalism." By May and June, the magazine was equating capitalism and colonialism, and projecting proletarian unity between black and white workers as a way to eradicate national oppression of black people.
In the first months of American Communism, Briggs drew close to two members of the party's underground, Otto Huiswoud and Claude McKay, who would later become known as a leader of the Harlem Renaissance. (Huiswoud, another Caribbean immigrant, was a charismatic figure in his own right. He got involved with the Socialist Party while studying agriculture at Cornell University. During a summer job working on a cruise ship, Huiswoud organized a successful job action by black members of the crew for higher pay and better working conditions.) Solomon believes that Briggs became a party member in mid-1921. This connection influenced the direction of Brigg's own organization, the African Blood Brotherhood, which would begin to absorb Marxist influences.
The 1920 ABB convention defined resistance to the KKK, support for a united front of black organizations, and promotion of higher wages and better working conditions for black workers as paramount. While calling for "racial self respect," it also maintained that cooperation with "class-conscious white workers" was necessary. As the ABB drew closer to the Communist Party, nationalistic prejudices as such became less frequent. The Crusader, which was now the semiofficial organ of the ABB, declared that while the oppression of blacks was more severe, blacks and Jews shared a historic experience of persecution.
Furthermore, Briggs began to, as Solomon puts it, "...fuse his own sense of African identity and national culture with Leninist internationalism. He found in African antiquity the primitive communism that provided an Afrocentric root to the vision advanced by the Third International." As opposed to Garvey's nationalist movement, the Marxists of the ABB did not view "Africa for the Africans" as an invitation to capitalist development. He wrote, "Socialism and Communism [were] in practical application in Africa for centuries before they were even advanced as theories in the European world." Within a year or so, the ABB would have evolved into a full-fledged black Marxist organization.