Black Radicalism and the New Left, 1955–1970

Endorsed by the Society for U.S. Intellectual History

Friday, April 3, 2020, 8:00 AM - 9:30 AM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: African American; Politics; Social and Cultural


2020 OAH Panel Abstract:

Black Radicalism and the New Left, 1955-1970

This goal of this panel is to re-envision the history of the New Left by exploring the formative contribution of black radicalism to New Left thinking in the United Kingdom and the United States. A common understanding of the 1960s New Left frames it as primarily a white student movement, perhaps initially inspired by the Black Student Movement in the South to a more singular focus on stopping the war in Vietnam. Historians have tended to emphasized discontinuity between iterations of the Left in the U.S., which has made it especially hard to recognize the significant contributions of 1940s-era black radicals in keeping multi-faceted analysis connecting labor, race, class, and gender exploitation in circulation as part of the era’s creative expressions of culture and politics. Yet the concepts of intersectionality, “triple oppression,” black internationalism, and, indeed, especially in the case of the British New Left, any nuanced vision of race and racism substantially grew out of the black New Left in the 1950s and 1960s. The papers in this panel emphasize the influence of black leftists and radical organizations on the shape of the New Left in the 1960s and 1970s, a time in which notions of “liberation” and “self-determination” came to take precedence over “equality” as key terms of the Left in the United States and the United Kingdom.

Jim Smethurst’s paper looks at the British political and cultural work alliances set in motion by black Communist Claudia Jones, deported from the US in 1955, in founding the newspaper, the West Indian Gazette and Afro-Asian Caribbean News in London in 1958. Its fundamental argument is that Jones brought a U.S. black Left approach institution building with profound effects on British radicalism. Judith Smith’s paper explores the contributions of a group of radical Blacks artists (Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Harry Belafonte, Lorraine Hansberry, John O. Killens and Alice Childress) who built on their their work in organizations allied with the Communist Left in the late 1940s to develop new stances of black nationalism, liberation, and self-determination. Rachel Rubin’s paper analyzes the radical cartoons published by African American cartoonist Brumsic Brandon, Jr., most famous for his long-running strip Luther, to depict what Rubin labels a “declarative rejection of systemic racism” in Freedomways, a journal that was founded by veterans of the Black Popular Front working with younger African American radicals energized by the rise of SNCC and the Black Student Movement in the early 1960s. Rubin’s paper conclude by taking up the larger questions of the influence of radical black cartooning on the U.S. Left in the 1960s and 1970s.

Gerald Horne of the University of Houston will comment on the papers.

Papers Presented

Radical Black Artists Constitute a Black “New Left,” 1958–1964

By mid 1956, surveillance, legal sanctions, and public revelations of Joseph Stalin’s crimes left the American Communist movement in shambles, Consequently organizational structures that had supported a thriving black cultural Left in the late 1940s and early 1950s were severely weakened. Nevertheless, radical black artists who had been part of this late Popular Front Left, such as Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, John O. Killens, Harry Belafonte, and Lorraine Hansberry, did not abandon their left activism or renounce or distance themselves from the Communist Left. They continued to publicly and strategically critique anti-communism.

This paper will outline how their stance as part of black Popular Front organizations movement continued to serve the black radicals, and also how they consciously sought to articulate new positions in response to their analysis of their current moment. They continued to strategize with each other about how to promote the black struggle, liberation, and self-determination, and how to articulate a black arts cultural nationalism. They began to imagine new forms of “Negro nationalism” that were anti-colonialist and might provide a framework to drive efforts to dismantle the systems of segregation and stop the white terrorist attacks on black lives. They also continued to explore the structural connections between white supremacy, militarism, labor exploitation, and normative gender ideals. Finally, this paper will explore what might be gained by rethinking these positions as articulating a kind of black “New Left” formulation that deeply influenced the Left as whole during the 1960s and 1970s.

Presented By
Judith Ellen Smith, University of Massachusetts Boston

Claudia Jones, the West Indian Gazette and the Rise of a New Black Radicalism in the U.K. and the U.S.

One of the most productive pre-black arts/black power British-U.S. radical black initiatives revolved around the black Communist leader Claudia Jones, who was deported from the United States, ending up in Britain in 1955. This paper will focus on Jones and the West Indian Gazette and Afro-Asian Caribbean News (WIG) a London-based paper that Jones founded in 1958. WIG was, as Stuart Hall (the first editor of New Left Review) pointed out, “an inspired medium for the organization of Caribbeans in Britain.”

While Jones is currently best known in the United States for her articulation of “triple oppression” as a sort parent of intersectionality, this paper will argue that one of Jones’s major legacies is that she brought to Britain a black U.S. Left penchant for building black political and cultural institutions. This institution building shaped the direction of black British radicalism and, ultimately, the development of the British Left in the 1960s and 1970s, introducing a much increased consciousness of race and racism in the United Kingdom to the New Left and cultural studies as well as to such Old Left groups as the Communist party of Great Britain and its journal Marxism Today. In turn, Jones and her circle, again due largely to her radical U.S. connections, would have a significant affect on radical black internationalism in the United States.

Presented By
James Smethurst, University of Massachusetts Amherst

SUPERBLACK: Brumsic Brandon’s Freedomways Cartooning

Brumsic Brandon, Jr. is acknowledged as the first African American cartoonist to be published in mainstream newspapers; while his comic strip Luther (introduced in 1969) smuggles in a great deal of commentary (the name, for instance, immediately invokes Marting Luther King Jr.), it was also required to seem non-threatening—hence the focus on cute, big-eyed children. Brandon receives much less attention for his sharp, biting cartoons in the African American journal Freedomways, work he described in 1974 as “a giant step away from being the butt of a joke and another giant step into the position of pointing an accusative finger.”

This paper will sketch out how Brandon’s work in Freedomways points that finger in ways that connect it to the New Left. While Freedomways published articles on the revolutionary potential of the youth movement, began using the terms “liberation” and “black power,” and presented the “superni**er” of blaxploitation films as a folk hero, Brandon’s cartoons illustrated (so to speak) a move away from obligatory politeness to a declarative rejection of systemic racism. He depicted characters called “Superblack” and “Soul Brother,” called out polite covering-up of racism, and efficiently used Afrocentric clothing and hairstyles to convey a move toward self-definition (and construct the meaning of his cartoons). This paper will combine historicizing of Brandon’s work with close textual readings of cartoons that Freedomways published. It will also offer provisional thoughts on the relative neglect accorded to black left cartooning and its impact on 1960s U.S. radicalism generally.

Presented By
Rachel Rubin, American studies, Cultural history of the American left

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Gerald C. Horne, University of Houston
Dr. Horne holds the Moores Professorship of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston. He is the author of more than thirty books and one hundred scholarly articles and reviews. His current research includes an examination of U.S.-Southern African relations since the so-called “Anglo-Boer War” at the end of the 19th century and an analysis of the Political Economy of the music called “Jazz” from the late 19th century to the present.

Presenter: Rachel Rubin, American studies, Cultural history of the American left
Rachel Rubin is Professor of American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston and Director of the Center for the Study of Humanities, Culture, and Society. She has published widely in a variety of fields, with a particular interest in the relationship of left politics and cultural production, working-class cultural productions, and American ethnic literatures. Among the books she has written or edited are Well Met: Renaissance Faires and the American Counterculture, Immigration and American Popular Culture and Southern Radicalism since Reconstruction, and American Popular Music: New Approaches to the Twentieth Century, Merle Haggard’s Okie from Muskogee, and a forthcoming collection of “critical interviews” with a variety of artists/activists, ranging from the visual artist Betye Saar to rapper Boots Riley of the Coup. She currently working on a study of the Patrice Lumumba Friendship Institute in Moscow.

Presenter: James Smethurst, University of Massachusetts Amherst
James Smethurst is Professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is the author of The New Red Negro: The Literary Left and African American Poetry, 1930-1946 (1999), The Black Arts Movement: Literary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s (2005), which won the Organization of American Historians’ James A. Rawley Prize and was a 2005 Choice Outstanding Academic Title, The African American Roots of Modernism: From Reconstruction to the Harlem Renaissance (2011), and the forthcoming Brick Songs: Amiri Baraka, Black Music, Black Modernity, Black Vanguard. He also co-edited Left of the Color Line: Race, Radicalism and Twentieth-Century Literature of the United States (2003) with Bill V. Mullen, Radicalism in the South Since Reconstruction (2006) with Rachel Lee Rubin and Christopher Green, and SOS—Calling All Black People: A Black Arts Movement Reader (2014) with John Bracey and Sonia Sanchez. He is working on a history of the Black Arts Movement in the U.S. South.

Presenter: Judith Ellen Smith, University of Massachusetts Boston
Judith Smith is Professor of American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, where she teaches courses on the history of media, America on screen from 1932-1964, and US Culture since 1945. Her writing on postwar film, stage, radio and television appeared in various published essays and in Visions of Belonging: Family Stories, Popular Culture, and Postwar Democracy, 1940-1960 (2004), and Becoming Belafonte: Black Artist, Public Radical (2014). Professor Smith worked closely with the filmmakers on the major NEH funded film documentary Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart: Lorraine Hansberry. The proposed paper is part of a new project, tentatively titled “Alternative Freedom Dreams: the Black Popular Front and the Emergence of a Black New Left, 1958-1970.”