Black History Month: The Communist and Internationalist Poetry of Interwar Harlem

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Left to right, Langston Hughes, Louise Thompson Patterson, and Claude McKay

“Not to plunge into the complex jungle of  human relationships and analyze them is to leave the field to fascists and I won’t and can’t do that.” // Richard Wright

“Let us sound the bugle-call for militancy. Let us have strong vital criticism, Marxian criticism. Let us have the poetry of the masses. Let us have an international poetry.” // William Patterson, “Awake Negro-Poets!”

“The voice of the red world / Is our voice, too.” // Langston Hughes, Scottsboro Limited

The Harlem Renaissance was a remarkable movement in black art that rose in resistance to post-World War I racial discrimination, particularly lynching, which killed nearly 5,000 African-Americans predominantly in the south, between the late 19th century and mid-20th century. These numbers are commonly understood to be quite low, as local police departments almost always participated in the events. Historian Eric Foner reports in his book Give Me Liberty, Vol. 2, that during this period, only one lynching occurred in Canada, and it was Americans who went north of the border for the purpose. Thus Harlem Renaissance poets wrote in response to this particularly american form of white supremacy, but their poetic expressions often took on internationalist goals and messages, deeply influenced by the communist movement. Never looking away from the crimes of the American past and present, the poets of the Harlem Renaissance often found the antidote in finding new, international roots, both in reclaiming African identity and celebrating, as Langston Hughes wrote in “Goodbye Christ,” “A real guy named / Marx Communist Lenin Peasant Stalin Worker ME.”

Alaine Locke enshrined this goal in the concept of the “new negro” in his works The New Negro, “Enter the New Negro,” and others. For Locke, as he wrote in his forward to The New Negro, to fight against white supremacy in the US, black poets had to participate in the “nascent movements of folk expression and self-determination” in “India, China, Egypt, Ireland, Russia, Bohemia, Palestine, and Mexico.” This new internationalist view, Locke concludes, was the “dramatic flowering of a new race-spirit tak(ing) place close at home among American Negroes.”

To celebrate Black History Month, we present you a selection of poems from Langston Hughes and Claude McKay that resulted from these developments. At the end of the collection, we’ve included a further reading list, should you want to learn more on these authors, their communist militancy, and their writing. This list also includes a few editions of the poetry of Louise Thompson Patterson, a black woman poet, friend of Langston Hughes, and life-long communist, whose work has not yet been digitized.

Claude McKay:

“If We Must Die”

If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursèd lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

“Enslaved”

Oh when I think of my long-suffering race,
For weary centuries despised, oppressed,
Enslaved and lynched, denied a human place
In the great life line of the Christian West;
And in the Black Land disinherited,
Robbed in the ancient country of its birth,
My heart grows sick with hate, becomes as lead,
For this my race that has no home on earth.
Then from the dark depths of my soul I cry
To the avenging angel to consume
The white man’s world of wonders utterly:
Let it be swallowed up in earth’s vast womb,
Or upward roll as sacrificial smoke
To liberate my people from its yoke!

“Courage”

O lonely heart so timid of approach,
Like the shy tropic flower that shuts its lips
To the faint touch of tender finger tips:
What is your word? What question would you broach?

Your lustrous-warm eyes are too sadly kind
To mask the meaning of your dreamy tale,
Your guarded life too exquisitely frail
Against the daggers of my warring mind.

There is no part of the unyielding earth,
Even bare rocks where the eagles build their nest,
Will give us undisturbed and friendly rest.
No dewfall softens this vast belt of dearth.

But in the socket-chiseled teeth of strife,
That gleam in serried files in all the lands,
We may join hungry, understanding hands,
And drink our share of ardent love and life.

“Birds of Prey”

Their shadow dims the sunshine of our day,
As they go lumbering across the sky,
Squawking in joy of feeling safe on high,
Beating their heavy wings of owlish gray.
They scare the singing birds of earth away
As, greed-impelled, they circle threateningly,
Watching the toilers with malignant eye,
From their exclusive haven–birds of prey.
They swoop down for the spoil in certain might,
And fasten in our bleeding flesh their claws.
They beat us to surrender weak with fright,
And tugging and tearing without let or pause,
They flap their hideous wings in grim delight,
And stuff our gory hearts into their maws.

Langston Hughes:

“Open Letter to the South”

White workers of the South
Miners,
Farmers,
Mechanics,
Mill Hands,
Shop girls,
Railway men,
Servants,
Tobacco workers,
Sharecroppers,
GREETINGS!

I am the black worker,
Listen:
That the land might be ours,
And the mines and the factories and the office towers
At Harlan, Richmond, Gastonia, Atlanta, New Orleans;
That the plants and the roads and the tools of power
Be ours:

Let us forget what Booker T. said,
“Separate as the fingers.”

Let us become instead, you and I,
One single hand
That can united rise
To smash the old dead dogmas of the past-
To kill the lies of color
That keep the rich enthroned
And drive us to the time-clock and the plow
Helpless, stupid, scattered, and alone-as now-
Race against race,
Because one is black,
Another white of face.

Let us new lessons learn,
All workers,
New life-ways make,
One union form:
Until the future burns out
Every past mistake
Let us together, say:
“You are my brother, black or white,
You my sister-now-today!”
For me, no more, the great migration to the North.
Instead: migration into force and power-
Tuskegee with a new flag on the tower!
on every lynching tree, a poster crying FREE
Because, O poor white workers,
You have linked your hands with me.

We did not know that we were brothers.
Now we know!
out of that brotherhood
Let power grow!
We did not know
That we were strong.
Now we see
In union lies our strength.
Let unions be
The force that breaks the time-clock,
Smashes misery,
Takes land,
Takes factories,
Takes office towers,
Takes tools and banks and mines.
Railroads, ships and dams,
Until the forces of the world
Are ours!

White worker,
Here is my hand.

Today,
We’re Man to Man.

“Goodbye Christ”

Listen, Christ,
You did alright in your day, I reckon —
But that day’s gone now.
They ghosted you up a swell story, too,
Called it Bible —
But it’s dead now,
The popes and the preachers’ve
Made too much money from it.
They’ve sold you to too many

Kings, generals, robbers, and killers —
Even to the Tzar and the Cossacks,
Even to Rockefeller’s Church,
Even to THE SATURDAY EVENING POST.
You ain’t no good no more.
They’ve pawned you
Till you’ve done wore out.

Goodbye,
Christ Jesus Lord God Jehova,
Beat it on away from here now.
Make way for a new guy with no religion at all —
A real guy named
Marx Communist Lenin Peasant Stalin Worker ME —

I said, ME!
Go ahead on now,
You’re getting in the way of things, Lord.
And please take Saint Ghandi with you when you go,
And Saint Pope Pius,
And Saint Aimee McPherson,
And big black Saint Becton
Of the Consecrated Dime.
And step on the gas, Christ!
Move!

Don’t be so slow about movin’!
The world is mine from now on —
And nobody’s gonna sell ME
To a king, or a general,
Or a millionaire.

“Lenin”

Lenin walks around the world.
Frontiers cannot bar him.
Neither barracks nor barricades impede.
Nor does barbed wire scar him.
Lenin walks around the world.
Black, brown, and white receive him.
Language is no barrier.
The strangest tongues believe him.
Lenin walks around the world.
The sun sets like a scar.
Between the darkness and the dawn
There rises a red star.

“Merry Christmas”

Merry Christmas, China
From the gun-boats in the river,
Ten-inch shells for Christmas gifts,
And peace on earth forever.
Merry Christmas, India,
To Gandhi in his cell,
From righteous Christian England,
Ring out, bright Christmas bell!
Ring Merry Christmas, Africa,
From Cairo to the Cape!
Ring Hallehuiah! Praise the Lord!
(For murder and rape.)
Ring Merry Christmas, Haiti!
(And drown the voodoo drums –
We’ll rob you to the Christian hymns
Until the next Christ comes.)
Ring Merry Christmas, Cuba!
(While Yankee domination
Keeps a nice fat president
In a little half-starved nation.)
And to you down-and-outers,
(“Due to economic laws”)
Oh, eat, drink, and be merry
With a bread-line Santa Claus –
While all the world hails Christmas,
While all the church bells sway!
While, better still, the Christian guns
Proclaim this joyous day!
While holy steel that makes us strong
Spits forth a mighty Yuletide song:
SHOOT Merry Christmas everywhere!
Let Merry Christmas GAS the air!

“Song for Ourselves”

Czechoslovakia lynched on a swastika cross!
Blow, bitter winds, blow!
Blow, bitter winds, blow!
Nails in her hands and nails in her feet,
Left to die slow!
Left to die slow!
Czechoslovakia! Ethiopia! Spain!
One after another!
One after another!
Where will the long snake of greed strike again?
Will it be here, brother?

“One More S in the USA”

Put one more s in the U.S.A.
To make it Soviet.
One more s in the U.S.A.
Oh, we’ll live to see it yet.
When the land belongs to the farmers
And the factories to the working men —
The U.S.A. when we take control
Will be the U.S.S.A. then.

Now across the water in Russia
They have a big U.S.S.R.
The fatherland of the Soviets —
But that is mighty far
From New York, or Texas, or California, too.
So listen, fellow workers,
This is what we have to do.

Put one more S in the U.S.A.
[Repeat chorus]

But we can’t win by just talking.
So let us take things in our hand.
Then down and away with the bosses’ sway —
Hail Communistic land.
So stand up in battle and wave our flag on high,
And shout out fellow workers
Our new slogan in the sky:

Put one more S in the U.S.A.

But we can’t join hands together
So long as whites are lynching black,
So black and white in one union fight
And get on the right track.
By Texas, or Georgia, or Alabama led
Come together, fellow workers
Black and white can all be red:

Put one more S in the U.S.A.

Oh, the bankers they all are planning
For another great big war.
To make them rich from the worker’s dead,
That’s all the war is for.
So if you don’t want to see bullets holding sway
Then come on, all you workers,
And join our fight today:

Put one more S in the U.S.A.
To make it Soviet.
One more S in the U.S.A.
Oh, we’ll live to see it yet.
When the land belongs to the farmers
And the factories to the working men —
The U.S.A. when we take control
Will be the U.S.S.A. then.

“Beaumont to Detroit: 1943”

Looky here, America
What you done done
Let things drift
Until the riots come.

Now your policemen
Let your mobs run free.
I reckon you don’t care
Nothing about me.

You tell me that Hitler
Is a mighty bad man.
I guess he took lessons
From the ku klux klan.

You tell me mussolini’s
Got an evil heart
Well, it mus-a-been in Beaumont
That he had his start

Cause everything that hitler
And Mussolini do,
Negroes get the same
Treatment from you.

You jim crowed me
Before hitler rose to power
And you’re STILL jim crowing me
Right now, this very hour.

Yet you say we’re fighting
For democracy
Then why don’t democracy
Include me?

I ask you this question
Cause I want to know
How long I got to fight
BOTH HITLER – AND JIM CROW

“Will V-Day Be Me Day Too?”

Over There,
World War II.

Dear Fellow Americans,
I write this letter
Hoping times will be better
When this war
Is through.
I’m a Tan-skinned Yank
Driving a tank.
I ask, WILL V-DAY
BE ME-DAY, TOO?

I wear a U. S. uniform.
I’ve done the enemy much harm,
I’ve driven back
The Germans and the Japs,
From Burma to the Rhine.
On every battle line,
I’ve dropped defeat
Into the Fascists’ laps.

I am a Negro American
Out to defend my land
Army, Navy, Air Corps–
I am there.
I take munitions through,
I fight–or stevedore, too.
I face death the same as you do
Everywhere.

I’ve seen my buddy lying
Where he fell.
I’ve watched him dying
I promised him that I would try
To make our land a land
Where his son could be a man–
And there’d be no Jim Crow birds
Left in our sky.

So this is what I want to know:
When we see Victory’s glow,
Will you still let old Jim Crow
Hold me back?
When all those foreign folks who’ve waited–
Italians, Chinese, Danes–are liberated.
Will I still be ill-fated
Because I’m black?

Here in my own, my native land,
Will the Jim Crow laws still stand?
Will Dixie lynch me still
When I return?
Or will you comrades in arms
From the factories and the farms,
Have learned what this war
Was fought for us to learn?

When I take off my uniform,
Will I be safe from harm–
Or will you do me
As the Germans did the Jews?
When I’ve helped this world to save,
Shall I still be color’s slave?
Or will Victory change
Your antiquated views?

You can’t say I didn’t fight
To smash the Fascists’ might.
You can’t say I wasn’t with you
in each battle.
As a soldier, and a friend.
When this war comes to an end,
Will you herd me in a Jim Crow car
Like cattle?

Or will you stand up like a man
At home and take your stand
For Democracy?
That’s all I ask of you.
When we lay the guns away
To celebrate
Our Victory Day
WILL V-DAY BE ME-DAY, TOO?
That’s what I want to know.

Sincerely,
GI Joe.

Further Reading: 

Dawahare, Anthony. Nationalism, Marxism, and African American Literature between the Wars: a New Pandora’s Box. University Press of Mississippi, 2007.

Gilyard, Keith. Louise Thompson Patterson: a Life of Struggle for Justice. Duke University Press, 2017.

Howard, Walter T. We Shall Be Free!: Black Communist Protests in Seven Voices. Temple Univ. Press, 2013.

Hughes, Langston, and Louise Thompson Patterson. Poetry, Politics, and Friendship in the Spanish Civil War. Center for the Humanities, Graduate Center, The City University of New York, 2012.

Johnson, Howard Eugene., and Wendy Johnson. A Dancer in the Revolution: Stretch Johnson, Harlem Communist at the Cotton Club. Empire State Editions, 2014.

Lewis, David, editor. The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader. Penguin, 2008.

Maxwell, William J. New Negro, Old Left: African-American Writing and Communism between the Wars. Columbia University Press, 1999.

Naison, Mark D. Communists in Harlem during the Depression. University of Illinois Press, 2005.

Ofari, Earl. Blacks and Reds: Race and Class Conflict, 1919-1990. Michigan State University Press, 1995.

Ofari, Earl. Blacks and Reds: Race and Class Conflict, 1919-1990. Michigan State University Press, 1995.

Smethurst, James Edward. The New Red Negro: the Literary Left and African American Poetry, 1930-1946. Oxford Univ. Press, 1999.

Solomon, Mark I. The Cry Was Unity: Communists and African Americans, 1919-36. University Press of Mississippi, 1998.



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