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Regards croisés sur les Afro-Américains

Claude Julien

Links across the waters

African American intellectuals and Europe between the Two World Wars1

Werner Sollors

Texte intégral

  • 1 An earlier version of this paper was first presented at St. Louis in March 1999. I am grateful to t (...)

1Black American intellectuals’ European adventure stories can be traced as far back as Phillis Wheatley, and perhaps even to Olaudah Equiano. Vincent Caretta has recently written of

the tantalizing possibility that Equiano’s African identity may have been a rhetorical invention.,.. In the documentary evidence of his baptism and naval records while serving with Pascal, Equiano had no control over the name recorded or the baptismal location of his nativity “in Carolina.” But on the [1773] voyage to the North Pole, he was a free man and presumably the only source of the information in the muster book of the Racehorse identifying him as “Gustavus Weston” (non-English names were often misspelled), an able seaman, aged 28, who had been born in South Carolina. (Caretta, 1998. [The muster book is reproduced in the Norton Critical Edition of the Interesting Life of Olaudah Equiano. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000, xxx.])

2If this hypothesis were to be verified, Equiano would turn out to be among the very first black American expatriates, and one with a very unusual cover story. Another rarely mentioned eighteenth-century African American who spent significant time in Paris was Sally Hemings, whose relationship with her travel companion, lover, and uncle Thomas Jefferson may be the reason why she is not typically included in discussions of blacks in Europe. William Wells Brown, Frederick Douglass, and James Weldon Johnson spent significant time in Europe and wrote about it (see Fabre, 1991), and Douglass’s German companion Ottilie Assing has recently been made the subject of a biography, and her essays have been republished. (See Diedrich, 1999; Lohmann, 1999.)

3There has been a “European theme” in black American writing, in which Europe was typically stylized as the haven for black and mixed-race Americans, where there were whites who did not share white American prejudices, and where interracial couples and their descendants could live happily ever after. Jessie Fauset’s novel Plum Bun offers this typical possibility for Angela Murray:

[S]he asked for nothing better than to put all the problems of colour and their attendant difficulties behind her. She could not meet those problems in their present form in Europe; literally in every sense she would begin life all over. In France or Italy she would speak of her strain of Negro blood and abide by whatever consequences such exposition would entail. But the consequences could not engender the pain and difficulties attendant upon them here. (Fauset, 1990, 340.)

4In other texts, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, England, the Scandinavian countries, or Russia were offered as alternatives to America, articulating what one could call the “European dream.” I would here like to focus on African American Intellectuals and Europe between the two World Wars.

5The interstitial moment between World Wars I and II was a cease-fire during the Great European Civil War, a war that started with shots on the Balkans and ended thirty-one years later, leaving sixty-five million casualties and a degraded, bombed-out continent behind. This second thirty years’ war also took a severe toll among oppositional intellectuals.

6The “interwar period” saw the rise of communism and its transformation into Stalinism, the emergence of fascism, and two momentous “interwar wars,” the Italian war against Ethiopia and the Spanish Civil War, in which Italian and German forces as well as African colonials helped Franco’s fascists to defeat the elected republican government.

7It was uncertain which American response to fascism would prevail. One only has to remember that in 1928 Benito Mussolini’s autobiography was ghostwritten by the anti-immigration and pro-deportation writer Richard Washburn Child, who had been US ambassador to Italy during the march on Rome, and it was serialized prominently in the Saturday Evening Post. (Mussolini, 1928.)

8By the mid-1930s, the American decision had been made; and it affected race relations in the US. When Joe Louis defeated Max Schmeling on June 22, 1938, in Yankee Stadium, this marked the victory, not of a black boxer over a white man, but of a hero of American democracy over a foreign fascist. (Early, 1990, 24.) Similarly, Jesse Owens was sometimes seen as an American national representative at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. In the interwar period, then, black American men could, for the first time, serve as symbols of the United States. I shall here relate a few Afro-European encounters (with an aside on fascist and Stalinist aesthetics) and leave it up to the reader to draw conclusions.

  • 1 See, for example, Richard Wright, “Long Black Song”; or his comments about war in the introduction (...)
  • 2 Lewis also calls attention to the American “War Department’s insistence that Afro-American soldiers (...)

9Black American soldiers went to Europe in World War I and brought back not only the expressions “boo coos” (from the word «beau coup») and “toot sweets,” but also a new militancy against injustice at home after having helped to make the world safe for democracy. Black American writers represented World War I with the plotline that Frantz Fanon was later to consider the typical Third World story: the veteran who has fought and been ready to die for a country that, upon his return, denies him his right to live.1 W. Ε. B. Du Bois expressed the mood in the formula: “We return./We return from fighting./We return fighting.” (Lewis, 1982, 15.)2

1. Countée Cullen and Claire Goll

10Many individual and civilian European encounters that followed raise issues of transnational intimacy, colonialist practices, and human misunderstandings. There is, for example, the case of the prototypical Harlem Renaissance poet Countée Cullen who wrote chain letters during his European year in 1928/29. These letters, published in the Crisis, conform to the chatty genre that has accompanied the European tour and that Anita Loos parodied in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925):

  • 3 Cullen continues: “Then off to Algiers by way of Marseilles to rest there for a day or two in the h (...)

Then Paris en route to Algiers. It was July 13th; tomorrow Paris would celebrate her Independence Day and the Fall of the Bastille. We must stay over for the parade. We ... hankered for a sight of the strapping black French colonial who, we had been told, led the parade with twirling baton, glistening face, and the gayest of martial strides. But, alas, though in Paris, we fell asleep as New Yorkers; consequently we arose at eleven to view a parade that had already passed at nine. (Crisis 26, 119.)3

11Cullen may have been particularly curious about, and proud of, the presence of black French colonials in Europe, but otherwise he sounds like any American traveler. After passing through Oberammergau for the passion play (Ferguson, 1966, 108), he reports on the German capital:

Berlin, an orderly, clean, regimented city, as if on dress parade; the Germans shaped for joviality but in the main serious-miened. Remembered incidents: Crab-soup at Kempinsky’s; a chance encounter on the street with the Marcus Garveys.... Drinking coffee in a Berlin cafe and suddenly hearing the strains of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” being softly wafted to us from a distant corner of the room; looking up gratefully to see the pianist watching us, his expression conveying the wish to make a stranger welcome with some remembrance of his own people. (Early, 1990, 553.)

12Social and political issues do not pass him by. Cullen empathizes with prostitutes in Le Havre (see “The Street Called Crooked,” ibid., 205), has friends in the socialist city government of Vienna and there visits a cooperative apartment house for impoverished people: “a one-room, kitchenette and bathroom arrangement for which the occupant pays less than one dollar per week.” (Ibid., 554.) The socialist Arbeiter-Zeitung also published some Cullen poems in German (Ferguson, 1966, 109). Yet his oppositional passions get aroused most by American issues.

  • 4 Claire Goll made headlines when, after her husband’s death, she accused Paul Celan of having plagia (...)
  • 5 According to Rogers (1967-1, 261), the title character of the novel Der Neger Jupiter raubt Europa (...)
  • 6 Goll also praised Vachel Lindsay for his opposition to war, and she included Fenton Johnson’s “Tire (...)

13After an encounter with the writer Claire Goll, Cullen describes her as “slight, blond, and pretty; born of French parents and educated in Germany, she can write her books in either language and translate them herself for publication in the other.” (Early, 1990, 565.) Born in Nürnberg, Goll had fled Germany in protest against World War I, had married and divorced young, and lived in a radical circle in Switzerland that included Romain Rolland and V. I. Lenin. (Goldberg, 1996.)4 There she met and married the French pacifist and avant-garde poet Yvan Goll. She wrote feminist essays, published a sharp critique of the genocide of the Armenians, and was the author of the odd interracial novel Der Neger Jupiter raubt Europa (1926).5 She translated American poetry (including Fenton Johnson and other Negro poets as well as Native American poems) for her anthology Die neue Welt (1921) and praised Carl Sandburg for protesting both against “the civilized bestiality of war” and against “the enslavement and dehumanization of the Negro.” (Goll, 1921, 9.)6 In 1939 Goll fled to the United States; her last French home was ransacked by German troops when they occupied Paris. (Goll, 1989, 335, “Nachwort”.)

14Cullen calls this firebrand radical “Madame” and faults her for what one could call Negrophilia. “When Madame speaks of the Negro’s artistic endeavors today,” Cullen comments, “she is well nigh irresistible if one does not hold himself in check against the enormity of her enthusiasm.” (Early, 1990, 568.) Cullen defends white American writers like Millay, Cather, and O’Neill against Golfs view that “little of artistic merit is now being produced in America except that which is being done by Negroes.” He claims a universalist aesthetic against the radical European’s preference for black art: “Must we,” Cullen asks after the encounter,

willy-nilly, be forced into writing of nothing but the old atavistic urges, the more savage and none too beautiful aspects of our lives? May we not... create a bit of phantasy in which not a spiritual or blues appears, write a tract defending Christianity though its practitioners aid us so little in our argument....? (Early, 1990, 568.)

15Cullen demanded freedom for black artists from the well-intentioned expectation that they produce black writing. He did not see a connection between the socialists he had visited in Vienna and Goll’s enthusiasm for revolution, pacifism, and the Negro.

2. Claude McKay, Alain Locke, and George Grosz

  • 7 McKay (1970, 312) thought that Cullen was the “most outstanding” of the black writers in Paris.

16Unlike Cullen, the Jamaican-born and-trained poet and novelist Claude McKay was in search of a political aesthetic.7 McKay had submitted poetry to the radical Masses, a journal banned in November 1917 for its critique of America’s entry into the war. McKay took interest in the fates of prostitutes, in Irish independence, in working-class movements, and in the effects of the inflation in 1920s Germany. He engaged in dialogues with the likes of Trotsky and Mayakovsky.

17One such confrontation took place between McKay and the New Negro philosopher Alain Locke when they met for the first time in Berlin in 1923. McKay triangulates his encounter with Locke by using the German political radical and post-Dadaist George Grosz as a touchstone. For McKay, George Grosz’s Ecce Homo (1923) rendered “perfectly the atmosphere, temper and tempo of the Berlin of that period.” McKay added: “For me that book of drawings is a rare and iconoclastic monument of this closing era even as Rabelais is of the Renaissance.”

18Grosz attacked and unmasked the hypocrisy of the “pillars” of German society, ranging from military officers and bribed politicians to pimps, prostitutes, academics, and industrialists. (In the preceding year, George Grosz had also produced an image of a student for a play by Yvan Goll). As fellow radical spirits, McKay and Grosz had met in Moscow after both had appeared in a special pictorial section of Pravda. “It was the first time I had seen any of Grosz’s drawings. They gripped me,” McKay writes. And Grosz continued to fascinate McKay. McKay reports:

When I returned to Berlin I hunted him up to ask him to sign a copy of Ecce Homo, which I had bought privately. The book was banned by the government of the Social Democracy. Grosz’s remarkable personality gave not the slightest hint of the artistic type. And in his little apartment, his pretty and pleasant frau had surrounded him with the neatest of bourgeois comforts. He fitted respectably into the frame, and if you did not know he was an artist, you might have taken him for a responsible bank clerk. Yet there was a charming felicity and harmony in the ménage. It gave the impression that Grosz needed just that kind of domestic background from which he could swing up and out with his powerful artistic punches. (McKay, 1970, 240.)

19It is against his rapport with Grosz (who fled to America in the 1930s) that McKay describes his encounter with Locke.

When we met for the first time in Berlin in 1923, he [Locke] took me for a promenade in the Tiergarten. And walking down the row, with the statues of the Prussian kings supported by the famous philosophers and poets and composers on either side, he remarked to me that he thought those statues the finest ideal and expression of the plastic arts in the world. (Ibid, 312.)

20Locke had been a student in Berlin from 1910-1911, so that this walk may have had nostalgic meaning for him. But now McKay contrasts Locke with Grosz:

[Locke’s] remark was amusing, for it was just a short while before that I had walked through the same row with George Grosz, who had described the statues as “the sugar-candy art of Germany.” When I showed Dr. Locke George Grosz’s book of drawings, Ecce Homo, he recoiled from their brutal realism. (Dr. Locke is a Philadelphia blue-black blood, a Rhodes scholar and a graduate of Oxford University, and I have heard him described as the most refined Negro in America).
So it was interesting now to discover that Dr. Locke had become the leading authority on African Negro sculpture. I felt that there was so much more affinity between the art of George Grosz and African sculpture than between the Tiergarten insipid idealization of Nordic kings and artists and the transcending realism of the African artists. (
Ibid., 312-313.)

  • 8 McKay had sent his poem “Mulatto” to Alain Locke for inclusion in the special issue of the Survey G (...)

21In McKay’s eyes, “Dr. Locke seemed a perfect symbol for Aframerican rococo in his personality as much as in his prose style,” and McKay deplored the “effete European academic quality” of “Dr. Locke’s artistic outlook.” (McKay, 1970, 312-3 13.)8 When Locke reviewed McKay’s autobiography he took revenge and called McKay a “spiritual truant” who lacked “common loyalty” and was nothing but the “enfant terrible of the Negro Renaissance.” (Cooper, 1970, 319-320.)

3. McKay, Vladimir Mayakovsky, and Leon Trotsky

22In an encounter between McKay and the second-generation Jewish-American proletarian writer Mike Gold (born Ivan Granich) — a World War I pacifist who had dodged the draft and left the US for Mexico during the war, but also a spit-on-the-bourgeois-Persian-rug-style proletarian — McKay insisted on the importance of aesthetic standards: “I preferred to think that there were bad and mediocre, and good and great, literature and art, and that the class labels were incidental.... I believe that whenever literature and art are good and great they leap over narrow group barriers and periods to make a universal appeal.” (McKay, 1970, 139-140.) His Russian encounter with Vladimir Mayakovsky similarly made McKay defend his poetry against the Russian proletarian poet: “He recited one of his poems for me. It sounded like the prolonged bellow of a bull. He very kindly presented me with a signed copy of his latest book. Also he presented me to his wife, and said that she desired to dance a jazz (sic) with me.” McKay did dance with her but feared the he did not “live up to the standard of Aframerican choreography.” (Ibid., 186-187.)

23Another encounter took place between McKay and Leon Trotsky. Trotsky sounded like Booker T. Washington and spoke of Negroes as a “backward” people who needed to “lift themselves up as a group to a level of equality with the whites.” McKay specifically remembered that Trotsky “used the word ‘lift’ or ‘uplift’. And he urged that Negroes should be educated about the labor movement.” (Ibid., 208.) Trotsky also worried about France’s use of colonial troops (in the German Rhineland, for example) as a wedge between working-class interests in different countries and colonies: “It is necessary to set the blacks themselves against this. It is necessary to open their eyes to the fact that, by aiding French imperialism to enslave Europe, the blacks are enslaving themselves by supporting the dominion of French capital in Africa and other colonies.” (McLeod, 1979, 7.) Trotsky told McKay that “he would like to set a practical example in his own department and proposed the training of a group of Negroes as officers in the Red army.” (McKay, 1970, 208.) In his response, published in Pravda and Isvestija and as the separate pamphlet Negri ν Amerike (1923), McKay referred “Comrade Trotsky” to the growing Pan-Africanist movement as a sign of hope; but he shared Trotsky’s worries about the use of colonial troops. The effect was absurd: “progressive Negro radicals found themselves in the same camp with American officers,... and the capitalist newspaper [s]... in defending the morality of the Negro race and the presence of black troops in Germany before German nationalists and the leaders of the Second International.” (McLeod, 1979, 10.)

4. Horace Cayton and Nancy Cunard

24In Long Old Road the sociologist Horace Cayton offered a retrospective account of a trip he took to Europe in 1933 in the company of a Swedish student whom he simply calls Torstein (perhaps with a nod to Veblen). At the time Cayton was what personal ads would now describe as an “interracially divorced black male,” and he was looking for a sense of “at-homeness in Sweden or France.” (Cayton, 1970, 208.) In Paris, then threatened by a coup of the fascist Croix de Feu, Cayton sees Mike Gold at a left-wing meeting “In Defense of Culture.”

I sent Gold a note stating that we had many friends in common and that I would like to meet him.... Hastily Gold scribbled a reply on the bottom of the note I had sent him, which the usher brought back to me. It read, “Come on up to the stage. We need a Negro badly.” (Ibid., 212.)

25Cayton, though he had “published but one short article in The Nation,” was introduced to the audience as “the celebrated American Negro author” and met Aldous Huxley, André Gide, John Dos Passos, André Malraux, and perhaps more fatefully, the Anglo-American shipping line owner’s daughter, modernist, and risk-taking femme fatale Nancy Cunard, who without much ado took Cayton to a “circus,” “a sexual performance involving men, women, and animals.” There Cunard said to Cayton, “This is a bore. Let’s go where we can drink and talk.” (Ibid., 214.) Starting on a serious absinthe drinking binge, she abruptly began railing against America, “I hate your country for what it is doing to your people.” As Cullen had responded to Claire Goll, Cayton finds himself defending America. Cayton adds an attack on Cunard’s England for having “abused and repressed more black people than America ever has.” (Ibid., 214.) Though he was initially “attracted to this woman intellectually and physically” (as he puts it), Cayton is turned off by her maudlin conduct and takes her home to get the evening over with. In her apartment, however, he is truly impressed by her library: “there was more material about the Negro than I had ever before seen assembled in one place.” Cunard returns with coffee, is dressed in “an attractive dressing gown” and acts completely sober now.

She handed me an enormous binder across the front of which was printed “NEGRO/BY NANCY CUNARD.” It was an anthology of Negro writing and writings about Negroes from contributors throughout the world. I hastily skimmed the table of contents, and saw that every prominent Negro scholar I knew or had ever heard of in the United States was represented as were a number of foreign writers I was not familiar with. Altogether, it was the most complete collection of its kind that I had ever encountered. I was more impressed than I cared to admit, for I had fancied myself an expert in the field to which this exiled, alcoholic English noblewoman had devoted her life. (Ibid., 216-217.)

26Yet just as his opinion of her has risen, she proclaims that she “loves Negroes,” tells him to move to Paris and offers him her support. Cayton is again completely taken aback.

There was such superiority about her manner, as if she were dealing with a child. Underneath this preoccupation with Negroes, she was still the haughty upper-class English woman telling an inferior what he should do. (Ibid., 217.)

27When he prepares to leave, she looks up at him “lazily”: “Don’t go, I feel so comfortable and relaxed.” But Cayton’s mind has been made up, and he is tough:

“Do you usually get what you want from Negroes, Lady Nancy?” I asked.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, do all Negro men oblige?” (
Ibid., 217.)

  • 9 This encounter, or non-encounter, was not mentioned in Chisholm (1979), in which chapters 18 to 21 (...)

28Before he manages to leave her, she still accuses him: “You are afraid,... afraid of white women. I should have realized that.” Cayton fumes as he walks home, thinking that he would never understand people like her.9

29World politics reenters Cayton’s narrative when he goes to Germany, then “filled with men in storm trooper uniforms,” and with arms always snapping “into the air with the cry, ‘Heil Hitler!’” (Ibid., 228.) When Cayton sits on a park bench in Hamburg, he is approached by an officer who asks him whether he is a Jew. His answer is unambiguous: “No, I am an American.” Cayton is told: “If you are not a Jew you don’t have to sit on this bench. It is for Jews only.” He replies: “I like it here.... Is there any law that says I can’t sit here?” This potentially quite dangerous encounter makes Cayton reflect:

I had, of course, heard of the persecution of Jews, but this was the first time I had actually encountered it. It seemed to me even sillier than Mississippi, where discrimination was at least based on color difference. Here they couldn’t even be sure what a Jew looked like. (Ibid., 230.)

30Cayton interprets his action as a “broad gesture of protest against prejudice in any form.” Torstein realizes the danger, tells Cayton that the “Nazis are as much against Negroes as they are against Jews,” and mentions the terrible treatment of the mixed-race children that had been fathered by French colonial soldiers in the Rhineland.

5. Alain Locke and “The Black Watch on the Rhine”

31African American responses to the French African troops on the Rhine have emerged as a theme. Alain Locke was commissioned to write a report on German complaints about French-African soldiers. In 1924 he published the article “The Black Watch on the Rhine,” (Locke, 1924, 6; Marks, 1983), illustrated with photographs of African soldiers in the Rhineland. Locke marvels at the variety of human types: “Among colored audiences of America I have seen many varieties of color and feature, but I have never seen a group of its size with more varieties of human countenance or figure.” He finds that French comradeship of arms really welds a brotherhood of soldiers. “Not only do black and white, straight national and colonial fraternize successfully, but black Christians with black Mohammedans, full-blood with half-caste and hybrid, men from Africa with men of the Indies, races that in Africa speak very different tongues and have traditional feuds; and more significant still, men of very diverse grades of culture.” (Locke, 1924, 8.) Specifically addressing rape charges, Locke reports that in Königstein, for example, “respectable women” were “walking unescorted as far as two kilometers from the town, through the wooded lanes, as late as ten o’clock... obviously safe in mind and body.” His conclusion about the rape reports was to defend the African soldiers and blame German women by returning to “the fundamental equation”: “the attitude and bearing of the women themselves.” (Ibid., 7.)

  • 10 René Maran, Letter to Opportunity (Sep. 1924): 261-262; see also Locke’s response, pp. 262-263. Mar (...)

32The francophone Martinique-born writer and Goncourt prize winner René Maran criticized Locke sharply for his rosy view of France’s use of colonial troops. Maran told Locke that he had “been the victim of a conjurer’s mirage,” for “the benevolence of France toward subject races is a matter of theory and official pretense.” He reminded Locke of French colonial coercion, and told him “that the black, brown and yellow soldiers did not come to the French colors as the little children came to Jesus.” Locke, who had just been elected Foreign Corresponding Member of the French Colonial Academy defended himself by saying that he had been “primarily concerned with contrasting [the] treatment of the man of color in the armies of France with that of our own American army, and with reporting... facts that would help to vindicate black soldiers in Europe from libelous reports as to their conduct.”10 (One is reminded of Trotsky’s and McKay’s worries.) The German right wing exploited France’s use of African soldiers in propaganda; in 1920 the official Bavarian mint went so far as to represent a black phallus as threat to white womanhood, following a design by Karl Götz. (Oguntoye, 1992, 50.) This was probably the only time that the Bavarian mint focused on this detail of the male anatomy.

6. Excursus on Fascist and Stalinist Aesthetics

33The vulgar theme of a black threat was inter-woven into the anti-Semitic propaganda of the Nazi movement, culminating in a racially sanctioned ban of jazz and of modernist art and literature as the defining act of the official Nazi aesthetic. The “Degenerate Art” show in Munich 1937 used a reproduction of the African-inspired sculpture The New Man by Otto Freundlich as cover art. The “Degenerate Music” show in Dlisseldorf 1938 had a specially designed cover on which a stereotyped saxophone-playing black appears wearing a star of David. “Niggerjazz” (this was the official term) was not permitted to be broadcast, for it was a music enjoyable only to “snobs aloof from the people,” and it was characterized by the “prominence of the saxophone, which alone carries the tune while all other instruments only hasten to emphasize the rhythm.” (Zwerin, 1985.)

34An installation view of the “Degenerate Art” exhibition shows men in uniforms inspecting paintings such as Emil Nolde’s Mulattin (“The Mulatto,” 1913) and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff’s Portrait of B. R. under a banner that reads: “The niggerizing of music and theater as well as the niggerizing of the visual arts was intended to uproot the racial instinct of the people and to tear down blood barriers.” All Jews were considered inherently to be producers of degenerate art; but non-Jews and even Nazis could do the same. Thus Emil Nolde, who had joined the Nazi party as early as 1920 was exhibited as “degenerate” nonetheless. Nolde’s painting Mulattin (now at Harvard University; see Urban, 1990) was considered “entartet” for its modernist style as well as for its tabooed theme of racial mingling. Nolde was in good company at the Nazi art show, for among many other artists, George Grosz, too, (who had effectively caricatured Hitler and who had produced a portrait entitled “Black Lady”) was exhibited as an example of “degenerate loathsomeness.”

35At the same time, the official aesthetic of the Soviet Union turned from the avant-garde orientation of the post-revolutionary period that McKay had witnessed to the official propagation of socialist realism and the banning of jazz — both inspired by Maxim Gorky, whose essay “O muzyke tol’ stych” (“On the Music of the Gross” [or perhaps, “fat” or, “degenerate” as the official English translator put it]), was published in 1928 in Pravda, and soon became the backbone of Stalinist repression of black music as exploitative, vulgar, sexualized, animalistic, threatening, and degenerate. Gorky also particularly loathed the saxophone which, he thought, emitted a “quacking nasal sound.” He heard the music, a foxtrot really, as follows:

One, two, three, ten, twenty strokes, and after them, like a mud ball splashing into clear water, a wild whistle screeches; and then there are rumblings, wails and howls like the smarting of a metal pig, the shriek of a donkey, or the amorous croaking of a monstrous frog. This insulting chaos of insanity pulses to a throbbing rhythm. Listening for a few minutes to these wails, one involuntarily imagines an orchestra of sexually driven madmen conducted by a man-stallion brandishing a huge genital member. (Starr, 1983, 89-90.)

  • 11 It had a direct impact on Paul Robeson’s career whose singing repertoire now had to focus on seriou (...)

36Gorky believed that oppressed Negroes had turned away from jazz and were only laughing at the twin effects that such music radio broadcasts were having on white middle-class listeners — obesity (or “gross”-ness) and epidemic homosexuality. Somewhat surprisingly, Gorky’s essay became the theoretical backbone of Soviet bans of jazz and black musical entertainment11

7. Langston Hughes, James Yates, and the Spanish Civil War

37Langston Hughes, who spent some time in the Stalinist Soviet Union where he also witnessed show trials, reports that his friend Sylvia Chen had to sing American spirituals and hymns on the Russian radio without any reference to God (replacing the word “God” actually by “dog” — as in “Rise and shine, and give dog glory”, [Hughes, 1964, 81-82]), but he seems unaware of Gorky’s role in cultural politics. Hughes writes cheerily how he participated during his train travels through Kazakhstan in a 1932 celebration honoring the fortieth anniversary of Gorky’s literary career, giving a speech, hearing it translated into Russian and the Kazakh tongue, and sending “a telegram to Comrade Gorky.” (Berry, 1973, 255.) Hughes may simply not have known Gorky’s position on jazz, though Gorky’s diatribe was published in English in the December 1928 issue of Dial, a few pages after a contribution by Jean Toomer and in the same volume with reviews of Cullen and Locke. (Gorky, 1928.)

38Hughes also was among leftist African Americans who went to Spain during the Civil War, and in his reports for the Afro-American, even war-torn Spain became a meeting ground for black people. In Spain, Hughes felt, “there is no color prejudice.” After the battle of Brunete in July 1937, he visits wounded prisoners in a Madrid hospital, but he writes: “I was most interested in the Moors, who are my own color.” (Hughes, 1973, 103; Rampersad, 1986, 349.) Talking with a thirteen-year-old Moroccan boy whose mother had been killed, Hughes learns that Franco had brought Moorish women and men in to support the troops. “Thus the Moors die in Spain, men, women, and children, victims of Fascism, fighting not only for freedom but against freedom — under a banner that holds only terror and segregation for all the darker people of the earth.” (Hughes, 1973, 104.)

39After the battle at Brunete, Hughes met James Yates who later published his own memoir of the black members of the Lincoln Brigade. (Yates, 1989, 176-177.) Incidentally, Yates mentions that when he left for Spain, he took along three paperbacks, by McKay, Gorky, and Hughes — but found them too heavy and ended up holding on only Hughes. (Ibid., 112.) One of Yates’s encounters is with the black World War I veteran and strike organizer Oliver Law, who died in the Spanish Civil War. And here Yates draws a circle that unites the interwar period as a struggle against racism:

  • 12 Yates, 1989, 137. Also cited in Lindberg, Kathryne V. “W. E. B. Du Bois’s Dusk of Dawn and James Ya (...)

“Hey, Oliver is dead. They killed Oliver Law.”.... I was very quiet. My thoughts were with Oliver Law.... He had made history on the battlefields of Spain and now he was dead. He was the first Black man in US history to become commander of a mostly white unit.12

  • 13 In his Autobiography, the exiled Trotsky reports the annoying habit of Americans to ask him casuall (...)

40For James Yates, Oliver Law’s death still held the hope of a double victory over fascism abroad and racism at home. At the time of the Spanish Civil War, McKay had adopted an anti-Stalinist leftist position and attacked, in print, “Russia’s role, along with the Nazis and Fascists, in helping to destroy Democracy in Spain.” (Cooper, 1973, 231) By then McKay’s conversation partner Mayakovsky was dead, and Trotsky exiled in Mexico, where he would soon be murdered.13

8. W.E.B. Du Bois in Nazi Germany 1936

41My account ends with only a brief mention of W. Ε. B. Du Bois’s five-month trip to Nazi Germany in 1936, a trip I have recently described at greater detail. (Sollors, 1999.) On a grant by the right-wing Oberlaender Foundation to study German industrial education as a model for Negro industrial colleges, Du Bois was in Germany at the time of the Olympics and covered his trip in a series of opinion pieces for the Pittsburgh Courier. Among the many topics he wrote about were the Olympics, the role of black athletes, opera, and the Deutsches Museum in Munich. He perceptively noticed the power of propaganda, the “greatest single invention” of World War I, which actually made the mass of people believe in what it said; and stressed that an integral part of Nazi policy “just as prominent now as earlier and perhaps growing in prominence, is world war on Jews. The proof of this is incontrovertible, and must comfort all those in any part of the world who depend on race hate as the salvation of men.” Du Bois highlighted the anti-Semitic racism of the National Socialists while also reminding readers of the anti-black racism at home. He stressed that he, a colored man, had been “treated with uniform courtesy and consideration” in Nazi Germany and added: “It would have been impossible for me to have spent a similarly long time in any part of the United States, without some, if not frequent cases of personal insult or discrimination. I cannot record a single instance here.”

  • 14 The recent publication of two books based on new archival researches suggests that the internationa (...)

42As I stated at the beginning, I wanted to present a series of black intellectuals’ European encounters and an aside on totalitarian aesthetics without offering a conclusion. I hope, however, that this brief foray will only be a beginning of more internationally oriented research at the crossroads of African American Studies and European Studies, spanning the black-and-white Atlantic.14


Works cited

Berry, Faith. See Hughes, Langston, 1973.

Caretta, Vincent, 1998. “Three West Indian Writers of the 1780s Revisited and Revised.” Research in African Literatures, 29.4: 73-86.

Cayton, Horace, 1970 (-c 1964). Long Old Road. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press.

Child, Richard Washburn. See Mussolini, Benito, 1928.

Chisholm, Ann, 1979. Nancy Cunard: A Biography. New York: Knopf.

Cooper, Wayne F., ed., 1973. The Passion of Claude McKay: Selected Prose and Poetry, 1912-1948. New York: Schocken.

----, 1987. Claude McKay: Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem Renaissance. Baton Rouge, La. : Louisiane State University Press.

Diedrich, Maria, 1999. Love Across Color Lines: Ottilie Assing and Frederick Douglass. New York: Hill and Wang.

Duberman, Martin B., 1988. Paul Robeson. New York: Knopf.

Early, Gerald, 1990. My Soul’s High Song: The Collected Writings of Countee Cullen. New York: Anchor Books.

Fabre, Michel, 1991. From Harlem to Paris: Black American Writers in Paris, 1840-1980. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Fauset, Jessie, 1990 (-1929). Plum Bun: A Novel Without a Moral. Boston: Beacon Press.

Ferguson, Blanche E., 1966. Countee Cullen and the Negro Renaissance. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co.

Folsom, Mike, ed., 1972. Mike Gold: A Literary Anthology. New York: International Publishers.

Goldberg, Nancy Sloan, 1996. “From Whitman to Mussolini: Modernism in the life and works of a French intellectual.” Journal of European Studies 26 (June).

Goll, Claire, 1921. Die neue Welt. Berlin: S. Fischer.

----, 1928. Der Neger Jupiter raubt Europa. (Tr. Goll, Claire): Le Nègre Jupiter enlève Europe. Paris: Crès et Cie.

Goll, Yvan, 1989. Der gläserne Garten: Prosa von 1917-1939. Berlin: Argon.

Gorky, Maxim, 1928. “The Music of the Degenerate.” [Tr. Marie Budberg] Dial 85.

Hughes, Langton, 1964 (-1956). I Wonder as I Wander: An Autobiographical Journey. New York: Hill and Wang.

----, 1973 (-1934). [Berry, Faith, ed.] “Going South in Russia.” Good Morning, Revolution: Uncollected Writings of Social Protest. New York and Westport: Lawrence Hill & Co.

Lewis, David Levering, 1982 (-1979). When Harlem Was in Vogue. New York: Vintage Books.

Locke, Alain, 1924. “The Black Watch on the Rhine.” Opportunity 2, 6-9.

Lohmann, Christoph, 1999. Radical Passion: Ottilie Assing’s Reports from America and Letters to Frederick Douglass. New York: Peter Lang.

Marks, Sally, 1983. “Black Watch on the Rhine: A Study in Propaganda, Prejudice and Prurience.” European Studies Review 13: 297-334.

McKay, Claude, 1970 (-1937). A Long Way from Home. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Mc Leod, Alain L., ed. (1979). Claude McKay, Negroes in America. (Tr. Robert J. Winter.) Port Washington: Kennikat Press.

Mussolini, Benito, 1928. [Richard Washburn Child.] My Autobiography. New York, Scribner’s Sons.

Oguntoye, Katharina, May Opitz, & Dagmar Schultz, 1992 (-1986). Farbe bekennen: Afro-deutsche Frauen auf den Spuren ihrer Geschichte. Frankfurt: Fischer Taschenbuch.

Rampersad, Arnold, 1986. The Life of Langston Hughes, vol. 1: 1902-1941 I, Too, Sing America. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rogers, J. Α., 1967 (-1944). Sex and Race: Negro-Caucasian Mixing in All Ages and All Lands. 3 vols. St. Petersburg, Florida.

Sollors, Werner, 1999. “W. Ε. B. Du Bois in Nazi Germany, 1936.” Amerikastudien/American Studies. 44.2.

Starr, S. Frederick, 1983. Red and Hot: The Fate of Jazz in the Soviet Union, 1917-1980. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Urban, Martin, 1990. Emil Nolde: Catalogue Raisonné of the Oil Paintings, 2 vols. London: Sotheby’s, cat. 569.

Zwerin, Mike, 1985. “Was ist Niggerjazz?” La Tristesse de Saint Louis: Swing under the Nazis. London: Quartet Books.

Yates, James, 1989. From Mississippi to Madrid: Memoir of a Black American in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Seattle: Open Hand Publishing Inc.


1 See, for example, Richard Wright, “Long Black Song”; or his comments about war in the introduction to Black Metropolis, xxi. Hurston’s Mules and Men, 16, has a footnote explaining “bookooing,” which also appears later in Le Roi Jones/Amiri Baraka’s Tales (New York: Grove Press, 1967), dedicated to “Lanie who heard boo coos.” “Toot sweet” appears in Rudolph Fisher’s short story “City of Refuge.” Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, transi. Constance Farrington (New York: Grove Press, 1968), 231-232.

2 Lewis also calls attention to the American “War Department’s insistence that Afro-American soldiers not be depicted in the heroic frieze displayed in France’s Panthéon de la Guerre.”

3 Cullen continues: “Then off to Algiers by way of Marseilles to rest there for a day or two in the hope of meeting and exchanging a word with Claude McKay, but he was too deep in the beauties of Seville to get to Marseilles before we sailed for Algiers.” Actually, we learn from Wayne Cooper’s biography that McKay was in Barcelona at the time, accompanying a West Indian boxer who had a bout there, and finishing the novel Banjo. (Cooper, 1987, 238.)

4 Claire Goll made headlines when, after her husband’s death, she accused Paul Celan of having plagiarized Yvan Goll’s poetry, including even the famous phrase “schwarze Milch.”

5 According to Rogers (1967-1, 261), the title character of the novel Der Neger Jupiter raubt Europa was based on Prince Benhanzin of Dahomey. The novel appeared in French, translated by Claire Goll herself, under the title Le Nègre Jupiter enlève Europe (1928). A Spanish translation was published in Chile in 1935.

6 Goll also praised Vachel Lindsay for his opposition to war, and she included Fenton Johnson’s “Tired,” four anonymous African-American songs, and eleven Indian poems.

7 McKay (1970, 312) thought that Cullen was the “most outstanding” of the black writers in Paris.

8 McKay had sent his poem “Mulatto” to Alain Locke for inclusion in the special issue of the Survey Graphic which became The New Negro; but Locke had declined it “for its bitterly radical tone” (Cooper paraphrase). McKay wrote an angry letter to Locke (October 7, 1924): “You know of course that I am suicidally frank. Your letter has angered me. Your attitude is that of Booker T. Washington in social reform.... It’s a playing safe attitude—the ultimate reward of which are dry husks and ashes!.... There are many white people who are longing and hoping for Negroes to show they have guts. I will show you by getting a white journal to take Mulatto.... No wonder the Negro movement is in such a bad way. When Negro intellectuals like you take such a weak line.... Send me back all the things—and I do not care to be mentioned at all—don’t want to—in the special Negro number of the Survey. I am not seeking mere notoriety and publicity. Principles mean something to my life.” (Cooper, 1987, 225.)
Should Locke publish only the other poems and not “Mulatto,” McKay warned him “you may count upon me as an intellectual enemy for life!” He ended by saying that he was not too much surprise by Locke’s action since “you are a dyed-in-the-wool pussy-footing professor.” Locke ignored his request, and further angered McKay by printing the sonnet “The White House” under the title “White Houses.”

9 This encounter, or non-encounter, was not mentioned in Chisholm (1979), in which chapters 18 to 21 cover the period around the publication of Negro.

10 René Maran, Letter to Opportunity (Sep. 1924): 261-262; see also Locke’s response, pp. 262-263. Maran was the author of the Goncourt-Prize-winning novel Batouala (1921) that Jessie Fauset was offered but refused to translate into English. Michel Fabre (1991, 148-149) writes that Maran “exposed forced participation of African ‘volunteers’ as well as the sellout of African deputies condoning colonial exploitation.”

11 It had a direct impact on Paul Robeson’s career whose singing repertoire now had to focus on serious and political songs and who could not sing numbers like the “St. Louis Blues” in Russia, even though some audiences requested it. Robeson also witnessed the change brought about by the rise of National Socialism in Berlin, which he visited twice in the period. In 1930, Robeson starred for two performances of The Emperor Jones at the Berlin Deutsches Künstlertheater, in which Oskar Homolka otherwise had the leading part. Robeson and his wife Essie then loved Berlin and were enchanted by the aesthetic vitality of Weimar culture. They heard Sam Woodings Negro Band at the zoo roof garden. Robeson commented that “Germany is the gateway now of all of Europe” and that “on the Continent the colour bar does not exist” — the European dream. He seemed to be so little worried about fascism, that in 1932 he was quoted by a reporter from Jamaica as having said: “If the real great man of the Negro race will be born, he will spring from North America. The Negro Gandhi or Mussolini cannot be begotten but in the land of ancient oppression and revolutionary emancipation.”
During a second visit to Berlin in 1934, however, Robeson saw a different Berlin. Martin Duberman (184) reports: “On the walk from Friedrichstrasse Station to the hotel, his dark skin drew instant attention— surreptitious glances from passers-by, contemptuous stares from storm troopers.” A Jewish friend they called came “by the hotel, furtive and frightened, and told them of the horrors of the mounting persecution. He looked like ‘a living corpse, skeleton head, haggard eyes,’ Essie wrote in her diary; he was ‘terrified.’” At the station (they were leaving for Moscow), an “older woman stared in angry disbelief at the sight of a black man and a white woman together.” She reported them to three uniformed men who had “hatred in their eyes.” The Robesons managed to board the train and get out of this threatening situation.

12 Yates, 1989, 137. Also cited in Lindberg, Kathryne V. “W. E. B. Du Bois’s Dusk of Dawn and James Yates’s Mississippi to Madrid or ‘What goes around comes around and around’ in autobiography,” The Massachusetts Review 35.2 (Summer 1994): 283-308.

13 In his Autobiography, the exiled Trotsky reports the annoying habit of Americans to ask him casually at cocktail parties how he lost power. Mike Gold, who had hailed Trotsky when he was still in power, commented upon the assassination: “I... can shed no tears for him; I care for something greater that Trotsky’s fate; the proletarian revolution.” (Folsom, 1972, 194.)

14 The recent publication of two books based on new archival researches suggests that the internationalization of African American Studies is well underway. Kate A. Baldwin, Beyond the Color Line and the Iron Curtain: Reading Encounters between Black and Red, 1922-1963 (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2002) examines the Soviet travels of Hughes, Du Bois, McKay, and Robeson; and Brent Hayes Edwards, The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2003) analyzes René Maran, Alain Locke, Jessie Fauset, the Nardal sisters, Claude McKay, W. Ε. B. Du Bois, and Nancy Cunard’s Negro through a meticulous focus on interactions in and outside the francophone world.

Notes de fin

1 An earlier version of this paper was first presented at St. Louis in March 1999. I am grateful to the conference participants, and especially to Michel Fabre, for comments and suggestions, to Claude Julien for queries and editorial corrections, and to Erica Michelstein for research assistance.


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