[Marxism] Red and Black

Gulf Mann gulfmann at gmail.com
Mon Sep 23 12:14:33 MDT 2013

A good review, which we'd expect from Nelson George--but a book about
women authored by a woman "written in workmanlike prose"--OUCH!

On 9/22/13, Louis Proyect <lnp3 at panix.com> wrote:
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> NY Sunday Times Book Review September 20, 2013
> Red and Black
> Women Artists and Progressive Politics During World War II
> By Farah Jasmine Griffin
> Illustrated. 242 pp. Basic Civitas. $26.99.
> In the national consciousness, Harlem has usually been defined by two
> eras: the artistic and cultural explosion of the 1920s, known as the
> Harlem Renaissance, and the drug-fueled devastation that began in the
> 1950s and peaked in the late ’80s. The Harlem Renaissance has been well
> documented by its poets, novelists and essayists, as well as by a legion
> of scholars in the decades since. The long, depressing ghetto years were
> recounted most eloquently by James Baldwin, and by lesser mortals like
> sociologists, memoirists, politicians, Hollywood screenwriters and
> rappers. Today’s whiter Harlem of multimillion-­dollar brownstones and
> flashy eateries is already the subject of books, blogs and innumerable
> magazine travel articles.
> In her book “Harlem Nocturne: Women Artists and Progressive Politics
> During World War II,” Farah Jasmine Griffin, a professor at Columbia
> University, delves into a largely underexplored aspect of Harlem’s rich
> history: the years just before, during and immediately after World War
> II, a period of optimism, creativity and turmoil. Moreover, Griffin uses
> the lives of three female artists — the choreographer and dancer Pearl
> Primus, the writer Ann Petry and the composer and pianist Mary Lou
> Williams — as signposts through an era, in a work that paints the
> “greatest generation” in a much less flattering light than do the usual
> jingoistic accounts.
> Griffin’s narrative encompasses the war and the second great migration
> of blacks to the North from the South. She also highlights two movements
> that will be less familiar to contemporary readers: the Double V, or
> Double Victory, campaign, in which “black Americans fought . . .
> overseas for their country but also to be recognized as citizens at
> home”; and the Popular Front initiative, conceived by the Communist
> Party in response to “the economic crisis of the Great Depression and
> the rise of fascism.”
> “For black people,” Griffin writes of Double V, “the war provided an
> opportunity to accelerate their demands for equality. . . . Black
> Americans highlighted the distance between this ideal of America and the
> reality of ongoing racial inequality, often through the black press and
> civil rights organizations.”
> The Popular Front, meanwhile, “focused on culture as an especially
> important forum for educating and mobilizing audiences in support of an
> antifascist agenda.” Although by 1939 its official end had come, the
> idea of it “would continue throughout the war years. Without Popular
> Front venues like Café Society, or publications such as PM, a leftist
> newspaper, it is doubtful that Petry, Primus and Williams could have met
> with such success.”
> Griffin argues that her three main subjects “consistently confronted the
> darkness of our nation’s soul. They were critical of white supremacy and
> the excess of American capitalism. Yet, their art and their activism
> also denoted a firm belief in the transformative nature of social change.”
> None of these women were native New Yorkers. Primus was born in Trinidad
> and, as a child, relocated with her family to the city, where she was
> exposed to Afro-Caribbean dance, the innovations of Martha Graham and
> the sweaty swing style popular at the Savoy Ballroom.
> As an adult, Primus fused these movements with her own impressive
> physicality. Her ability to leap majestically high made her popular, and
> John Martin, the New York Times dance critic, praised her “tremendous
> inward power,” “fine dramatic sense” and “superb technique.” Of the
> three women in Griffin’s narrative, Primus was the most progressive
> politically, joining the Communist Party when it was still one of the
> few organized white movements to challenge Jim Crow and the violence
> that fed it. The F.B.I. opened a file on her in 1944.
> Petry was never a Communist but was published in Popular Front
> periodicals and served as “women’s editor,” columnist and features
> editor at the Harlem newspaper The People’s Voice, a left-leaning
> enterprise published by Adam Clayton Powell, the pastor and New York
> City councilman. Born and raised in Connecticut by an established
> middle-class New England family, the bookish Petry moved to Harlem with
> her husband, George, in 1938. With George inducted into the Army in
> 1943, Petry spent most of the war years on her own, writing, organizing,
> walking through Harlem and contemplating the constrained world of
> working-class black women. This reflection resulted in the 1946 novel
> “The Street,” about a single woman’s struggle to raise her son in
> Harlem. It sold more than 1.5 million copies, a first for a black woman.
> (Petry went on to publish two additional novels.)
> The most complex of Griffin’s subjects is Mary Lou Williams, whose life
> was filled with music, mentoring, lovers, gambling, politics and
> religious questing. A prodigy born in the Jim Crow South, Williams was a
> seasoned musician when she moved to Harlem’s Sugar Hill section in 1943,
> an area home to W. E. B. Du Bois, Duke Ellington and other luminaries.
> Her apartment quickly became a salon where integrated groups gathered to
> talk politics, listen to music and gamble (her taste for cards dented
> her bank account).
> Williams became one of the rare older jazz musicians to embrace the
> emerging bebop generation, counting Dizzy Gillespie, Tadd Dameron, Hank
> Jones and Bud Powell among her friends. She was a regular at Minton’s
> Playhouse, Harlem’s late-night bebop laboratory. And she both nurtured
> bebop’s young players and was inspired by their ambition. Her extended
> composition “The Zodiac Suite,” an answer to Ellington’s “Black, Brown
> and Beige,” merging classical and jazz idioms, debuted at Town Hall on
> Dec. 31, 1945.
> Both Williams and Primus performed regularly at Café Society, and its
> owner, Barney Josephson, is an important supporting character in “Harlem
> Nocturne” — his club was a place of both political agitation and
> employment. Another figure who factors prominently is Benjamin J. Davis
> Jr., the Communist activist who succeeded Powell as Harlem’s city
> council­man, in 1943, only to be convicted, six years later, of
> conspiring to overthrow the United States government (under the Smith
> Act, a dubious tool of those determined to cleanse the country of “red
> infiltration”).
> Though solidly researched and full of fascinating information, “Harlem
> Nocturne” is written in workmanlike prose that serves the narrative but
> doesn’t elevate the material. Griffin sometimes strains to connect her
> three subjects to larger historical forces. Yet the book is a valuable
> study of a neighborhood whose evolution still offers a window into the
> black experience in America. It is also a heartfelt tribute to three
> remarkable artists who “were not willing to forget or wholly forgive
> America’s historical transgressions,” but who were devoted, Griffin
> writes, paraphrasing James Baldwin, “to helping this nation ‘achieve’
> itself.”
> Nelson George’s latest book, a history of television’s “Soul Train,”
> will be published next year.
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