- File Size: 4699 KB
- Print Length: 216 pages
- Publisher: Empire State Editions; 1 edition (April 1, 2014)
- Publication Date: August 8, 2019
- Sold by: Amazon.com Services LLC
- Language: English
- ASIN: B00IOMQBOA
- Text-to-Speech: Enabled
- Word Wise: Enabled
- Lending: Enabled
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,850,907 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
A Dancer in the Revolution: Stretch Johnson, Harlem Communist at the Cotton Club 1st Edition, Kindle Edition
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This is an excellent publication that provides an insider’s view of everyday life and culture in Harlem during the period in which the contemporary black community is being formed. (―Henry Louis Taylor Jr. University at Buffalo, SUNY)
Although this book touches on issues of race and class endlessly discussed by the US left for decades, it is primarily the story of one man's experience living in a nation whose history is defined by those issues. that life explains more than a thousand debates. (―Counterpunch)
In this vivid memoir, Howard “Stretch” Johnson shares his unforgettable journey from the dance floor of the Cotton Club to the top echelons of the Communist Party. With colorful tales of the nightlife of the Harlem Renaissance and insightful reflections on the American left and Black freedom struggle, A Dancer in the Revolution is hard to put down. Johnson tells his remarkable life story with wit and grace, sharing stories of pain and regret, but never-ending commitment to social justice. (―Martha Biondi author of To Stand and Fight: the Struggle for Civil Rights in Postwar New York City and The Black Revolution on Campus)
Howard “Stretch” Johnson’s life story, ably edited by Wendy Johnson, is a compelling drama of race, dance, and radical politics of the 1930s to 1960s. No other book offers so much deep personal insight in these areas, and this book deserves as many readers as Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem. (―Paul Buhle authorized biographer of C.L.R. James and retired Senior Lecturer, Brown University) --This text refers to an alternate kindle_edition edition.
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As to the writing, there's good news and bad news because the first person author is more than a zealous advocate for himself, but his lack of any sort of self-consciousness about it leads one to believe that in another sort of way, he's actually giving a very accurate memoir. In other words, if a person's denial about his own shortcomings robs him of the desire to clean up his story into something more impressive, won't he, after a fashion, tend to be more honest? Stretch Johnson has very loose justifications (usually involving a nebulous implication of a racist or other conspiracy against him) for his cheating (of all sorts) his failure to maintain any given job for long and other shortcomings, but of course he could be right about all of this, he might be a mostly innocent victim of circumstances. His pride in describing himself as a model husband however, leaves no doubt - this is a guy who cuts himself a lot of slack. But this is an example of what I'm describing above; because he doesn't seem to get or be self conscious of how contradictory his descriptions of his character and his descriptions of his acts are, the reader seems to be getting a lot of truth.
So in my mind, if the idea of the book is 'Stretch Johnson - American Hero' it's probably a 3 star because he did some great things. But if the idea of the book is 'here's an insight into a pivotal time from an angle you've never gotten before' well it's a 5 star. I settled on 4 because anything which opens our minds to political and racial realities we were missing should be prized. Plus that cover design I bought it to see in the first place is a smash! On the whole, very worth reading.
Tony Pecinovsky, Peoplesworld.org
History is a curious thing, full of drama, intrigue, plot twists and misadventures. Howard “Stretch” Johnson’s posthumously published memoir is similarly curious.
A Dancer in the Revolution: Stretch Johnson, Harlem Communist at the Cotton Club is a quick-paced, fascinating glimpse into the life a one-time Communist Party USA leader. Part anecdotal, part history - though all entertaining - I breezed through A Dancer over a weekend.
I especially enjoyed the matter-of-fact tone of Johnson’s story. His narrative jumps from Depression-era dancer to international communist, from youthful drugs and debauchery to isolation, loneliness and alcoholism during the McCarthy era, when he and other communists went underground, separated from his wife and family.
While working in the mob-run, world-famous jazz scene that was the 1930s Cotton Club, “Stretch” Johnson received “a postgraduate course in the complexities of class relationships in America.” According to him, the Cotton Club was “the laboratory”: The “arrogance of the mob toward society in general was exponentially multiplied when it was mixed with white racist attitudes.”
It was Johnson’s first-hand experiences with racism, as an entertainer, that would shape his political outlook and lead him to eventually join the Communist Party USA. “It was a perfectly logical step in my development,” he wrote, “to join the American Communist Party. Being Black and beginning to look for some solution to the problem of survival, there seemed to be nothing else to do. American society had excluded us.”
It was through the Harlem Young Communist League and American Youth Congress - a party-led, broad-based youth organization - that Johnson gained valuable early experience as an organizer and learned that “Blacks, generally, were not as easily hoodwinked about the advantages of capitalism.” The “disadvantages and penalties the system imposed” through “institutionalized processes and norms that maintain the racist infrastructure,” served to weaken African American loyalty to an economy and ideology that had had quite literally sold them down the river.
In 1941, Johnson attended the Southern Negro Youth Congress convention. SNYC, “a model communist-led youth organization,” challenged racism and Jim Crow head-on in the South. According to Johnson, “The cadre brought forward [by the SNYC and its communist leadership] in the South became the shock troops of the later developing civil rights movement.” James Jackson, Esther Cooper-Jackson, “Stretch” Johnson and many other young communists undoubtedly laid the groundwork and paved the way for the tremendous changes soon to come. They are only now beginning to be recognized for their outstanding, selfless commitment and leadership.
By 1946 Johnson had returned home from war, having spent part of that time with communist partisans in Italy. Now a veteran, he helped to found and organize the communist-led United Negro and Allied Veterans of America (UNAVA), an organizational illustration of “our practical activity,” which “develop[ed] a nationwide campaign on the terminal leave pay issue.” By some estimates, upwards of $300 million - a staggering sum, especially during this time - “was being denied veterans in the South through the control of the distribution of application forms by the [racist] plantation owners.”
Additionally, when African American veterans did receive their terminal leave pay, “white plantation bosses would charge from 50 percent to 75 percent of the value of the checks to cash it.” Terminal leave pay was usually around $300, or about one year’s pay. Undoubtedly, racist plantation owners did not like the idea of a “labor shortage” or of financially independent African Americans.
Eventually, Johnson and the rest of the UNAVA leadership secured an agreement with the War Department “to distribute the terminal leave pay application forms nationally,” which they did with “big fanfare and send-off from our New York headquarters,” where “1 million terminal leave pay blanks had been delivered quite dramatically.” Johnson estimates that “close to $30 million reached the veterans, a sum they would not have obtained without our efforts.”
Johnson’s telling of the UNAVA campaign (an amazing piece of history!), as well as his other adventures, has energy, direction, and propulsive drive. His stories whet the appetite and provide just enough of a hint to lead the curious, like myself, down the rabbit hole, searching for ever more clues to this intriguing phenomenon called history. Johnson is at his best when recounting these stories.
After Khrushchev’s 1956 revelations of Stalin’s crimes, Johnson “quietly” left the Party, “discontinuing my eighteen-year association” without red-baiting or repudiating “my whole past activism in the labor and civil rights struggles.”
While no longer a party member, Johnson continued as an academic and activist until his passing on May 25, 2000.
A Dancer in the Revolution: Stretch Johnson, Harlem Communist at the Cotton Club is honest, maybe sometimes too honest. The events described in Johnson’s memoir paint a flawed, often contradictory, always humanizing picture. “Stretch” Johnson was a dancer and a communist, but he was also so much more. His memoir is well worth the read.