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The Black Cultural Front

The Black Cultural Front: Black Writers and Artists of the Depression Generation

Brian Dolinar
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    The Black Cultural Front
    Book Description:

    The Black Cultural Front describes how the social and political movements that grew out of the Depression facilitated the left turn of several African American artists and writers. The Communist-led John Reed Clubs brought together black and white writers in writing collectives. The Congress of Industrial Organizations's effort to recruit black workers inspired growing interest in the labor movement. One of the most concerted efforts was made by the National Negro Congress (NNC), a coalition of civil rights and labor organizations, which held cultural panels at its national conferences, fought segregation in the culture industries, promoted cultural education, and involved writers and artists in staging mass rallies during World War II.

    The formation of a black cultural front is examined by looking at the works of poet Langston Hughes, novelist Chester Himes, and cartoonist Ollie Harrington. While none of them were card-carrying members of the Communist Party, they all participated in the Left at one point in their careers. Interestingly, they all turned to creating popular culture in order to reach the black masses who were captivated by the movies, radio, newspapers, and detective novels. There are chapters on the Hughes' "Simple" stories, Himes' detective fiction, and Harrington's "Bootsie" cartoons.

    Collectively, the experience of these three figures contributes to the story of a "long" movement for African American freedom that flourised during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. Yet this book also stresses the impact that McCarthyism had on dismantling the Black Left and how it affected each individual involved. Each was radicalized at a different moment and for different reasons. Each suffered for their past allegiances, whether fleeing to the haven of the "Black Bank" in Paris, or staying home and facing the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Yet the lasting influence of the Depression in their work was evident for the rest of their lives.

    eISBN: 978-1-61703-270-7
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-2)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 3-20)

    In a cultural session at the 1940 conference of the National Negro Congress (NNC), several people talked of the need to build a “cultural front.” On the panel was Gwendolyn Bennett, African American poet and educator, who proposed that the NNC spend “more time, space, and effort on the cultural front.” A woman in the audience listed only as “Mrs. Lynch” spoke up to insist that the work of the cultural group was essential because “it is the cultural things that keep us from going stark crazy.”¹The Black Cultural Frontwill explain how African American writers and artists were...

  5. CHAPTER 1 The National Negro Congress and the Radical Roots of the Black Cultural Front
    (pp. 21-70)

    When the Negro Community Theatre was opened in December 1937 in Richmond, Virginia, it was touted as the first of its kind in the South. Within the first four months of its existence the group had performed before three thousand people in Richmond. They also organized troops of actors that traveled throughout Virginia putting on a skit about the problems facing black and white sharecroppers in the South in front of an additional five thousand black tobacco workers in newly formed CIO unions. The Southern Negro Youth Congress, the youth-oriented wing of the National Negro Congress, sponsored the theater. As...

  6. CHAPTER 2 When a Man Sees Red Langston Hughes and the Simple Stories
    (pp. 71-124)

    For members of the Harlem Renaissance, the 1929 crash meant the eclipse of the “Jazz Age” and the passing of a fad for black art and entertainment. No longer could the “talented tenth” convincingly argue that art alone would uplift the race. The sources of money from white patronage quickly dried up and artists had to find their own way to survive. In his second autobiography,I Wonder as I Wander(1956), Langston Hughes looked back on these years as the time when he began to “turn poetry into bread” (3). After breaking off the relationship with his patron Charlotte...

  7. CHAPTER 3 A Writer of Revolutionary Potential Chester Himes and Black Noir
    (pp. 125-170)

    When Chester Himes was released from prison in 1936, like many others, he faced the hard times of the Depression. He had started publishing short stories while in prison, but they were not enough to make a living after he got out. He worked low-paying jobs in Cleveland, yet they were often temporary and he soon found himself on relief. He applied for jobs with the WPA, was hired doing manual labor, and because of his writing skills was given a job at the public library, and eventually with the Federal Writers’ Project. Here he encountered activists trying to unionize...

  8. CHAPTER 4 Battling Fascism for Years with the Might of His Pen Ollie Harrington and the Bootsie Cartoons
    (pp. 171-224)

    Although his cartoons were once prominently featured in the black press, today few remember Ollie Harrington or his most famous character, Brother Bootsie. Becoming famous in thePittsburgh Courier, and reprinted in black weeklies across the country, Harrington’s Bootsie cartoons were a mainstay of African American popular culture for more than three decades. In his bookNew World A-Coming, Roi Ottley said that Bootsie was the “most distinguished, certainly the most original” cartoon in the black newspapers, and that the cartoon was both “well-executed and widely syndicated” (282). In her 1955 autobiography, Ellen Tarry, who collaborated with Harrington on two...

  9. Conclusion Keeping the Memory of Survival Alive
    (pp. 225-234)

    Langston Hughes, Ollie Harrington, and Chester Himes produced some of the most original and well-loved creations of the black cultural front. Published in black newspapers and sold in inexpensive paperbacks, their works reached a wide audience. They were not produced in a vacuum, but were part of a left-wing political movement that nurtured several black writers and artists. In their works, they advanced an unrelenting race and class critique. By revisiting their creations we can see evidence of an enduring radicalism that extended beyond the dates of the Depression. Today’s African American artists have looked back to this generation for...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 235-256)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 257-266)
  12. Index
    (pp. 267-277)