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  • Cited by 1
  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: May 2011

15 - Weaving jagged words: the black Left, 1930s–1940s

from PART II - AFRICAN AMERICAN LITERATURE IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY

Summary

“The story of the depression as it affected American Negroes, has not yet been adequately attempted,” wrote W. E. B. Du Bois more than three decades later. Arguably this story must engage labor, social, and legal histories of race and gender discrimination, and the effects of migration and urbanization on black Americans, and consider African Americans' increasing turn to a leftist politics invested in the black working class. Such a full narrative as this is quintessential for understanding black literary responses to the Depression. The US Unemployment Census revealed that 58 percent of black women and 43 percent of black men eligible for work were unemployed in 1931. For Du Bois, “the economic change” wrought by the Depression on the black middle class was nothing short of “revolutionary.” He calculated that “more than a third” of African Americans in US cities were driven to “public charity.” An even greater economic challenge, he argued, was presented by “the loss of thousands of farms and homes, the disappearance of savings among the rising Negro middle class, the collapse of Negro business.” According to Robert Bone, the 1930s witnessed a “new social consciousness” marked by organized protests, unionism, and a Left-leaning political culture. Seeking approaches to documenting black life during the 1930s and 1940s, many African American writers turned to the social sciences and Marxist ideology. These artists transformed a tradition of African American expressive culture (literature, painting, sculpture, dance, theater, and music) and reformulated a black aesthetic, and some, like Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and Frank Marshall Davis, participated in larger global movements against fascism, imperialism, and colonialism.

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