TheGrio Daily

theGrio Daily presents: Red Flags Black Communists

Episode 178

theGrio Daily’s Michael Harriot hosts a discussion on “Red Flags,”  the companion podcast for theGrio Black Podcast Network’s, “Harlem and Moscow.”  “Harlem and Moscow” is an audio drama based on the true story of the Harlem Renaissance in the Soviet Union.   

In this episode of Harlem and Moscow: Red Flags, host Michael Harriot is talking to experts about the conditions in America circa the 1930s that made the Soviet Union and Communism very appealing to Black folks in the states. We learn more about the African Blood Brotherhood, the CPUSA, and other communist movements led by Black Americans. The experts dispel myths about Black Americans’ relationship to communism and dive into the history of Black workers’ movements in the South. Plus we learn about the real origins of the phrase “Stay Woke,” and much more! Michael is joined by historian and author of the book “Hammer and Hoe,” Dr. Robin D.G. Kelley as well as the playwright of “Harlem and Moscow” Alle Mims.

Music Courtesy Of:

“Город под подошвой”
Scady, Max Kravtsov, Erik Gamans
Courtesy of Sonic Librarian

“Scottsboro Boys”
Lead Belly
The Smithsonian Folkways Collection

Full Transcription Below:

Announcer: You are now listening to the Griot’s Black Podcast Network, Black Culture Amplified.

Michael Harriot: Hello, comrades. Welcome to Harlem in Moscow, Red Flags, the official companion podcast to the Griot’s audio play. Harlem in Moscow and you’re listening to Oxxymiron, apparently this Russia’s hottest rapper. That’s what they tell me If you didn’t know Russia loved hip hop I didn’t either and you probably also didn’t know that the Harlem Renaissance Was a huge moment there too.

I am your host, Michael Harriot, host of theGrio Daily. Harlem and Moscow, the audio play is based on the real life trip that 22 black Harlemites took to the Soviet Union at the heart of the Harlem Renaissance. Imagine being in Moscow in the 1930s, well, imagine being in Moscow like in the 2020s. I’ve got the perfect guest to talk about why Soviet communism was so appealing to black Americans that they left Harlem for a life in the USSR of all places.

Let’s start with someone who knows a lot about communism, labor, and black people, renowned academic, activist, historian, and Harlem native, Dr. Robin D. G. Kelly, and the person who wrote Harlem and Moscow, playwright Alle Mims. We’re talking about the red flags in episode three and 

Jared Alexander: four. Hey Michael, the group is living their best lives in Moscow.

They’ve got more money than they know what to do with while they’re waiting to start filming the movie that they think will uplift the black race and start a revolution back home in America. They find out that the script “needs work”. This is just the beginning, because the red flags keep coming. When the movie’s German director, Carl Junghans, arrives, he basically complains that the group is not black enough.

The director’s mad that the cast is too light skinned. They can’t sing spirituals the way he wants. He’s looking for Mahalia Jackson, but they can’t even hold a note. And Dorothy West won’t dance on demand. It’s a whole thing. And it gets real messy when the Soviets sends the group to an all expenses paid beach trip, only to cancel the movie while they’re out having a good time.

And as Henry Lee tells it, Comrades, We’ve been screwed. 

Michael Harriot: Thanks. Thanks for that recap. You know, what are the things besides, uh, you know, I love as a fan of the Harlem Renaissance, you know, I’m, my heart always bursts whenever I hear someone use the term old face. So, you know, I was in love with this, uh, but, uh, but one of the, one of the things that you do so well in this audio play.

is, you know, expose the audience to the layered nuances of like communism. And it’s a conversation that’s going on now, um, about comm about caste. Well, it’s surrounding caste and social hierarchy and class. And race and, and how like those two things are juxtaposed and are different, even though a lot of times we’d like to kind of conflate the two things or the three things.

And. You know, I wanted, I wanted to ask Dr. Kelley, this play takes place during the Harlem Renaissance and you know, Marx and Engels write the Communist Manifesto in the late, right before the emancipation of enslaved people in the 1840s. And so, you know, the idea of communism and it being a bad thing has always been closely tied.

To like an evil that is black people’s wokeness or desire for freedom. And can you kind of give us a, like a timeline of where. And how the communist communism became a thing in in Black America and in America in general, 

Dr. Robin D.G. Kelley: you know, the Communist Party officially started in 1919 and we do various iterations.

And even then in 1919, there was a black. radical organization called the African Blood Brotherhood. Many of the members of the Communist Party came out of the African Blood Brotherhood. In other words, they didn’t need the Communist Party to tell them to become Marxist or to become communist. They’re already moving that direction.

Uh, Harry Haywood, who’s also one of the figures, uh, you know, who figures prominently in this, in this trip, uh, he also, uh, joined the Communist Party, he came out of the African Blood Brotherhood. And let me just add one more thing. Lovett Fort Whiteman, who actually co authored that script, um, and in fact, he’s African American, he’s from Texas.

Uh, he had worked with Georgie Grebner and, uh, Carl, uh, Yungas. Uh, and, and some of the most offensive parts of the script were written by a Black man, Levin Fort Whiteman. In fact, that story that you talk about in the play, uh, which I thought was amazing, where he, where he kind of imagines, uh, The son of a white employer dancing with a black maid.

That’s from a short story that Levitt Fort Whiteman wrote. Uh, and he’d actually been living in the Soviet Union and unfortunately he dies there in a gulag. Uh, so part of, part of the attraction to the communists was tied to two different things. These many, many things, but two things. One having to do with the Scottsboro case where nine young black men were, um, Railroaded literally it into, um, being, uh, prosecuted for raping two white women.

That’s a whole story we could talk about. And that was an international case and an international cause celebra. And everyone in Soviet Union knew about the Scottsboro Boys. Uh, and then the other thing was there was an attraction, uh, to the idea that a socialist country, Moscow’s in particular, which had black members in the city council, you know, um, That, that the Soviet Union represented, uh, a stance against racism in a way that the U.

S. didn’t. And no matter what people thought about the limits of the Soviets, uh, it was far better in terms of the way it represented race than what people are experiencing in, in the lynching world of the United States. 

Michael Harriot: That Scottsboro case, uh, uh, uh, blues musician named Huddy “Lead Belly” Ledbetter wrote a song about it called the Scottsboro Boys.

Lead Belly: Woody Alabama and you better watch out. The landlords get you gonna jump and shout. Scottsboro, Scottsboro boys, they can tell you what it’s all about. 

Michael Harriot: And as far as we can tell, uh, that is the case. In that recording is the first time the phrase stay woke was used. 

Lead Belly: I made this little song about down there.

So I advise everybody to be a little careful when they go along through that, best stay woke, keep the eyes open. So 

Michael Harriot: as the song is going off, he, he reminds people that, Hey, if you’re going through Alabama, stay woke. And that’s like the first. real instance that we have of people using that phrase. So, you know, of course, white people think it was invented in 2015.

Alle, one of the things that, you know, you had to do is juxtapose that nuance of like this political ideology in theory, like what communism was and represented as a political ideology in theory, in the theory of Marx and Engels, and In the aspirational views of Black Americans and what it was in reality, right?

Like whether it could actually erase those class structures, um, and whether those by erasing class structures, even if it could, could it erase the racial barriers that Black people face? And how did, what, how did you do that? And, and which. Were the themes that you used to do that actually happening in the material, in the source material that you read, or did you take, uh, you know, some liberties to show those things?

Alle Mims: Um, I mean, all of the events that I write about, Actually happened. The main, the main events of the trip and also this, this incident that happens at the party with Carl Junghans, although it’s not actually Carl Junghans, it’s, uh, Eisenstein and famous Russian, uh, film director at the time is actually the one who tries to make Dorothy West dance at the party, but all the events really happened, although I might change who was in the room when they happened.

Um, and I think, you know, The way that this story really lends itself to that conversation of theory versus practice is that the people, most of the people on this trip did not see themselves as working class, did not see themselves as the people who the Communist Party would necessarily be helping. I mean, Dorothy West especially, Is part of the upper echelon of the black community.

You know, her, her dad is a, is a capitalist and people kind of laughed at the fact that she wanted to go on this trip, they were like, you know, how, why would you ever be interested in this? And I think even Langston Hughes. Tries to distance himself, especially when he’s writing in retrospect about it. Oh, well, we weren’t really communist.

We were just interested in the art of it. And I think it, it, uh, it’s a nice juxtaposition to, um, to a book like hammer and hoe, where these, uh, these black southerners are living the material reality of, of, of oppression in a way that, it’s Northern Black people have sort of distanced themselves from, you know, Langston Hughes is quoted as saying, only one person on this trip was working class.

And I just think that that’s not true. I think that they, they were just saw themselves as being different. And so I think that that leads to a disconnect within themselves. And then there’s also a disconnect with the party, not really being abreast of American racial politics as well. And so I think for a lot of them, it’s only theory.

You know, they, they don’t necessarily see how this is helping them other than the fact that they are getting paid more than they’ve ever been paid in their life. Other than the fact that they might have a chance to star in an internationally released film. That is how they see it. I don’t, I’m not sure.

I think there could definitely be some debate. I think that Louise Thompson obviously is a true believer in the politics and she goes on to join the communist party. And obviously she’s the big organizer of this, but I do think there, there is still debate today about did Langston Hughes really believe in this or was he just doing it for the check?

You know? And so I think that that part of it kind of writes itself because, you know, Especially later in life, especially, especially after McCarthy, he is very much like, Oh no, I was just doing it because I was being paid to do it. And so I think that that, that part of the story was really interesting to me because you see that today as well.

Um, with black artists sort of, and just artists in general, separating themselves from the working class in a way that to me, I don’t think is very helpful. And I hope that, um, we can. We can teach people that we are all stronger together. And it’s not really, it’s not just the people in the factory in the fields that could use these, this kind of politic.

It is all of us. 

Dr. Robin D.G. Kelley: First of all, I appreciate the fact that you read Hammer and Hoe, um, my book on the Communist Party in Alabama. I think it’s important that they made a choice to represent Alabama and the Black Alabama working class in this story. Uh, because, you know, Part of what we have to do is get ourselves out of the 21st century, get ourselves, in other words, there’s no Jay Z in the 1930s.

Okay, let’s just take that off the table. 1930s is a little different, different time and place, and I really appreciate, Ali, the point you were making about, um, about to what extent were these participants working class or not? Um, you know, it’s not as if, you know, The communists didn’t understand the importance of, of, um, black intellectuals.

They didn’t say that black intellectuals are all working class, but they’re also not the bourgeoisie. In other words, they don’t own capital. And so we got to make that distinction because many of the people who were part of the Soviet, the Bolshevik. Uh, uh, uh, part of the Bolshevik Revolution, who are part of the, you know, the majority within the, which became the Soviet Communist Party, they were intellectuals who made a choice.

It’s what Amilcar Cabral called commit class suicide. They made a choice to stand with. And so Langston Hughes is someone who made a choice. He. He was never wealthy. He was always struggling. He actually began, um, you know, he was one of the leaders of the League of Struggle of Negro Workers. He was involved with the American Equal Labor Congress.

These are all organizations founded by the Communist Party. He was technically a member of the Communist Party going back to the 1920s, even if he wasn’t a card carrying member. His commitments were there. And so, Of course, during the, um, the period of McCarthyism, he’s trying to save his job, his livelihood, so he disavowed a lot of that stuff, uh, and, you know, it’s a beautiful book of letters between Langston Hughes, Louise Thompson, um, Louise Thompson Patterson, Matt Crawford, uh, William L.

Patterson, and so, these are all stories told In letters, and those letters tell us a lot about the choices people make. So if we think about the 1930s, the night, not by 1932, the Communist Party is moving toward what would become the popular front. What that means is that they’re not necessarily only trying to reach laborers, industrial laborers and rural workers.

They’re trying to reach that black elite or black intellectual and black artists class. And so for them, making art is a revolutionary, uh, act. Um, and remember, as all of you know, the Harlem Renaissance was split through class, that there were people who were involved with journals like Fire, like Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes.

Wallace Thurman, they were trying to take a class position that was, uh, that associated Black folk culture with Black revolutionary thought. Whereas others were like, you know, we’re trying to prove how successful we are, how smart we are, how articulate we are, and deal with Black middle class anxieties.

So that split, of course, ends up on the trip, right? And so that’s what I think was beautiful about that trip. And I, I don’t, you know, I, I don’t want to give away episodes. No 

Alle Mims: spoilers, no 

Dr. Robin D.G. Kelley: spoilers, but there’s some revelations that come out of that trip that are important. And, and even Dorothy West, uh, is, is so interesting because she’s also struggling with her class position and with their commitments as well.

Michael Harriot: It’s hard to depict economic and a political, you know, desire or a goal in a play, right? Like, you know, without having these, you know, long diatribes or monologues, right? So you make the choice to kind of assign like almost a political position or economic position to the characters to, to show this, this balance.

And do you think? You know, having read like Hammer and Hoe and having read about communism, do you think this has always been an interesting question to me about this entire issue? Do you think the, the affection or the romanticization of like the Soviet Union and communism, do you think it was more a product of like the discrimination that black people face in America?

Or like a real interest in what? Communism could offer even in a vacuum without knowing how black people were treated in America. 

Alle Mims: Yeah, no, I think it’s definitely both. Um, I think that a lot of, uh, the, the Soviet propaganda comes from the fact that the Soviets also saw a desirability. In the, uh, black voting bloc and the, and the, and the, uh, just Black folks in America in general, they recognized that they could have more power and expanding out from that.

The, the real desire was that if Black Americans can start a revolution in America, other countries will follow suit. So I think it’s one that Black Americans were, were essentially targeted by the Soviets and really enticed into coming in, uh, for that reason. Thank you. But I think that a lot of people, not just black people, were just curious.

I think that’s the word that comes up a lot for people, especially when they’re trying to distance themselves from communism in the future is, Oh, well, I was just curious, you know, here’s this country that is touted as being Classless as well, and even raceless, like they, you know, uh, the Soviet Union is a very diverse place and that they would tell you that, well, none of that matters.

We’re all Soviet, you know, and whether or not that happened in practice, uh, is a different conversation, but they’re, even though they might not have had the Black population. To show that they had other, they had, um, you know, like Southeast Asian, or I’m not sure if that’s the correct term, but they had Asian populations, indigenous populations, um, non white people as a part of the Soviet Union.

So they could at the very least show that say, Hey, look at all of us standing together, holding hands Kumbaya. So I think that a lot of people were curious about, well, what is it like? On top of that, I think there’s the money aspect. Um, these Black artists are not being paid their fair dues in America still.

And the Soviets are saying, well, if you can pay your way here, which is a privilege in itself, but once you get here, we’ll not only pay you back, we’ll pay you a stipend, we’ll pay for your food, we’ll pay for your room and board. This was treatment that they were not. offered in America, despite the fact that several of these people had been on Broadway already at this point, but they, they were not given that kind of salary ever before.

So I think that that was a huge part of it as well, especially for the specifically the actors on there, which of course there were only about six people in the group who were professional actors at the time, but that was a huge part of it for them of, um, well, Hollywood isn’t banging down my door. But the Soviets are and Soviet film is revolutionary, not just in the content, but in their, um, their process, the products that they’re producing.

I mean, Soviet film is huge right now, um, with people like Sergei Eisenstein. And so I think that was also very attractive. And, um, Also an excuse that other people use later on of, well, I just wanted the chance to be in a Russian made film. That was, that was the real attraction for me. And so I think it’s, it’s all of those things.

But I do, I will like, not necessarily walk back, but I will say that I think it is, um, naive to think someone like Langston Hughes or even Dorothy West, all of these people did not have some hope that something similar like that could happen in America. I think they wanted to see it for themselves, but to say that, None of them were believers.

All of them were skeptics. I think it’s too simple. I think there were people on the trip that were much more skeptical than others, but I, I think that that’s what also draws me to the story is the hope is that, well, if I can see it in person, if I can see how they did it and how society is without class, without race, I can have a better, um, idea of what America might look like without those things.

Um, and that’s why, No spoilers, but like, that’s why I think some, if you face disappointment in the face of that hope, you know, there are several people who, you know, they, this trip changes their mind, um, in many ways. Um, so I, I think it’s all of those things together, but I’d be lying if I didn’t think that every single person on that trip, even the most skeptical of them, had some sort of hope that there, that revolution or the very least, Social change was possible in America and that they might see some sort of playbook in the Soviet Union.

Michael Harriot: Dr. Kelley, through most of this play, we look at this idea through the eyes of artists and intellectuals of, you know, mostly the Northeast Harlem and your Harlemite, but you also write about and teach and study the You know, the black workers in Alabama and Black farmers and how like this kind of revolution was forming in a different way, you know, in, in these areas, in the areas that, you know, this only one Harlem, right?

Where there’s, there were a million rural places in a Farmers, all black farmers and black workers all over the country. So I wanted, I wanted you to talk about how this idea in this revolutionary, uh, uh, addressing of class structures was taking place in places that weren’t Harlem and that places where, for lack of a better word, the regular Black people live.

Dr. Robin D.G. Kelley: No, it’s a great question. And one of the big myths is that, uh, black people were duped by the communist party. Um, in the case of Alabama, uh, when Black people knew a communist party existed, they were, I mean, from the rural areas, from places like, uh, Tallapoosa County, Alabama, they were writing letters trying to write this, trying to write Moscow saying, send some communists to us because we need to build a movement.

Um, and not only that, but they actually studied, people couldn’t read or write. They would listen, especially to girls who had a little bit more education, they would read, you know, in, you know, under a tree, uh, uh, articles from the Daily Worker, the Communist Party Press, or the Negro Worker, uh, they would sometimes share ideas about Lenin and Marx.

Uh, in fact, there were African American workers who came from the South who went to Moscow and studied there, like Hosea Hudson, you know, and others, and spent some time there. In fact, some of them, again, couldn’t read or write, but left the Soviet Union, learning, having learned how to read and write. I mean, that’s an enormous thing.

And so part of, part of what I write about is the belief in internationalism, that people are actually both drawing on the Bible, right, which is the document of revolution for them and drawing on Lenin, what is to be done, uh, and they’re reading this and they’re talking about it. And then they’re building a movement.

The, the, the sharecroppers union led by the communist party had 15, 000 members. These are Black, Black, um, sharecroppers, you know, and then the steel workers that in fact, in 1931, the Communist Party, uh, in Birmingham was bigger than the NAACP, you know, and they weren’t stupid. They knew exactly what they were doing.

And they were involved in shootouts with the police. You know, like, I’m not making it up. It’s right there. Um, but we don’t actually talk about that as much because the assumption is that it’s the North where, uh, Black, more educated people become communists. And that’s not necessarily the case. The South has always been radical, going back to Reconstruction.

And so part of what, uh, Happened was people remember the reconstruction when they heard that there’s this movement up north coming south to build revolution. They’re like, Oh, yeah, I remember them. They’re the Yankees. They’re coming back, but we’re going to build with them. And so the boldness, the courage was incredible.

And one last thing I should say is that the idea of internationalism meant that they’re not alone. They’re not isolated. And so I talked, I interviewed somebody, Leland Johnson, I’m going to never forget him. I’m sitting in his. In his shack, it’s a shack, the, the, um, the roof is caving in, he’s got a picture of Jesus, Martin Luther King, on his wall, and he’s got a copy of Lenin’s What Is To Be Done, on his dresser, and he says, he’s explaining to me like how they won, how they won the sharecropper’s union strike in 1935, and he says, he pulls out Lenin’s To Be Done, he says, Theory.

And he pulls out a box of shotgun shells and he says, practice theory and practice. That’s how we did it. And so he believed, he told me, he says, look, we weren’t worried because we knew. That if anything happened to us, that Stalin when said, send ships to Mobile, Alabama in those ships, they’d have like trucks and each truck would have seven men.

And of course, seven is a magic number for us, right? You know, that in our culture, seven means a lot. Seven men and each man would go and kill it. kill a landlord if they, if they mess with us. That’s what he believed. And so that sense of solidarity was something that you don’t get in sort of formal black organizations that are just national.

And it was, it was a myth, but it doesn’t matter, myth or not. That was the vision of a world revolution. 

Michael Harriot: Right. And I always think about it, you know, in reading Hammer and Hoe, it made me think that the Southern Movement in the communist party was almost like. they found something to that address their needs rather than vice versa.

Um, and that’s why it was so popular in places like Alabama and among sharecroppers. Well, I want to thank both of you for sitting down and talk to us about this episode. We could go on for hours about, um, not only this episode, but, uh, this, this story, um, this, this time, like I could talk for days about the, the Harlem Renaissance.

and economic theory. Um, so I’d like to thank my guests, Dr. Robin D.G. Kelley and Alle Mims. Check out the audio play Harlem in Moscow, wherever you listen to podcasts and make sure you watch or listen to the companion podcast, Harlem and Moscow red flags, where you hear great guests like Robin and Alle break it all down.

Give us a five star review and tell everyone about this important historical production from the griot black podcast network. We’ll see you next time. And thank you for joining us.