Jun 29, 2022
In this episode we interview Dr. Mary Helen Washington. Mary Helen Washington is an accomplished African-American literary scholar and the editor and author of many books including Midnight Birds and Black-eyed Susans: Stories by and about Black Women, Invented Lives: Narratives of Black Women 1860-1960, Memories of Kin, and the book we focus on in this discussion on The Other Blacklist: The African-American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s.
Mary Helen Washington is also a Distinguished Professor in the English Department at the University of Maryland, College Park. She previously served as the president of the American Studies Association. Washington worked for many years developing Black Studies programs, including in Detroit where she has stated she was “part of the ground troops helping in the activities of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM), an offshoot of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers.”
In this conversation we specifically focus on the work of Gwendolyn Brooks prior to her joining the Black Arts Movement in the late 1960’s, within the Black cultural and literary left that Washington analyzes in The Other Blacklist.
Mary Helen Washington situates Brooks within this Black cultural milieu as a member of the South Side Community Art Center in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood and as someone who was connected and had relationships to Black communists, and other communists and progressives as well as to cultural institutions and magazines of the Popular Front.
Washington highlights Brooks' attentiveness to working class concerns and critiques of racism both interpersonally and institutionally in her writing as far back as the 1940’s. She also highlights Brooks’ work in dialogue with critiques reflected by other communist and progressive Black women of her era, including Claudia Jones, Lorraine Hansberry and Alice Childress. In doing so, Washington argues that Brooks’ work offers early blueprints for Black Left Feminism operating within her poetry, essays and her novel Maud Martha.
The discussion is also firmly attentive to the racial politics and the anticommunism of the 1950’s, in which racially radical or progressive analyses were automatically cause for suspicion, surveillance, and potentially repression.
Additionally, Mary Helen Washington talks about other important figures from her book The Other Blacklist including other communist and leftwing Black figures of the 1950’s including visual artist Charles White, and authors Lloyd Brown, Alice Childress, and Frank London Brown.
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