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'The Other Blacklist': A Very Personal Book Review

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I'm reading The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s, by Mary Helen Washington with special interest because of the work I did back in the early 1980s on a study of the artist, Charles White, who gets a significant chapter in the book. Mine was a two-year project, supported by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, and it whirled me right out of my comfort zone into a world about which I had known absolutely nothing until that time. I had always thought of myself as a nice, left-leaning, transplanted Englishman, entirely without racial prejudice. I made two important discoveries in the course of that work: first, that the art world, as I knew it, was fraught with systemic prejudice against African-American artists and the work they produced; and second, that I unknowingly -- and shamefully -- shared that prejudice.

My work, then, was not only to research my subject, but to develop a whole new mind-set about values, traditions and aesthetic conventions I had never previously questioned. And not only that, I very soon came to realize that I'd need a new approach to the work I had set myself. As a well-schooled academic, I had learned that the first place to go, when embarking on a research project, is the library. Not much use there, in Charles White's case. The published material was surprisingly scant. I discovered that there were only two ways to get the information that I needed. One was to go to the ultimate source himself. I did this in a series of extended interviews with both Charlie and his wife. And the second was to go directly to every other living source I could find, which meant a great deal of travel, from New York to Seattle, Washington, from Chicago to Jackson, Mississippi.

It was quite a journey. To be embarrassingly honest, it was often a difficult, even a scary one. Laugh at me if you will, but such was my prejudice and ignorance that the prospect of a trip north of Central Park into the depths of Harlem or down to the South Side of Chicago left this nice white guy fearful for life and limb! Until I ventured forth, that is, and encountered nothing but goodwill, generosity and warm welcome. I met with artists and scholars, writers and curators, and began to tap into a vital, genuinely American culture virtually unknown -- except for its music and perhaps, by that time, a handful of writers -- to the vast majority of American intelligentsia.

Mary Helen Washington's book offers a similar enlightenment. She argues, cogently and persuasively, that the socialist thinking embraced in the 1930s not only by African-American cultural leaders, but also by a significant number (most?) of their white counterparts, led to a kind of impasse in the 1950s. The famous Hollywood blacklist of that era was but the tip of an iceberg of communist phobia that gripped America at the time; it was paralleled, Washington argues, by that "other blacklist" -- the black blacklist -- that resulted in the suppression or mis-hearing of many African American voices, Charles White's among them. In the rush to avoid tarring with the brush of Communism, some leading black writers and critics were overly eager to pronounce the demise of racism and the need for a new, post-racial, assimilated culture, devoid of the passionate socialist commitment that had vitalized much African American art and literature until that time. As a result, many of those who chose the route of commitment to avowedly black values, black themes and social protest were marginalized.

Washington's task is to bring them back center stage. Her thesis fits right in with voices that I hear today, more than a half century later -- voices that seek to remind America that social injustice and, yes, racism, continue to spread their toxins in our social and political infrastructures. We need look no further, in my opinion, than the irrational, fanatical obstructionism that greets every initiative by our first African-American President to know that racism remains a powerful, if poorly fig-leafed force in our country's life. Quite aside from her introduction to forgotten or sidelined cultural heroes, Washington's book reminds us that we still have work to do if we are to achieve the American ideal that "all men are created equal."

And finally, in the spirit of disclosure, I'm more than gratified to note that The Other Blacklist makes liberal citations from, and references to the work I did so many years ago on Charles White. The book I wrote was never released to the public. The manuscript came back from publishers with properly favorable comments, but regrets: they could see "no market" for a book on an African-American artist at the time. Rightly or wrongly, I read their comments as a thinly veiled code. In retrospect, I can only say that it's a huge satisfaction to see the results of my efforts put to the service of a worthy cause. For which, my thanks go out to the author of this well-thought, highly readable and timely book.