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Communist at the Cotton Club
There’s a quote from Emma Goldman that reads, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be in your revolution.” I have always assumed this statement to be a rebuke of puritanical party ideologues afraid of anything that might wreak of capitalist depravity or, to put it more mildly, petit-bourgeois tendencies. As a person accused of these tendencies many times during my brief tenure with Stalinist/Maoist formations, I chose dancing over dogma. I don’t regret the choice, although I learned a lot of good things during my organizing with the Maoists.
Given the Stalinist reputation for a militaristic approach and a demand for monkish asceticism from its adherents, the recently published autobiography of Howard “Stretch” Johnson was a pleasant surprise. The book, titled A Dancer in the Revolution, begins with Johnson’s description of his childhood in New Jersey of the early twentieth century. There is the stress and struggle that is part and parcel of the African-American story no matter what century; there is also the hope and love that transcends the oppression of history, economics and culture. Accompanying all these facets of US black life is Johnson’s growing awareness of the nature of racism, poverty and the personal nature of these phenomena on his family and community.
Johnson and a couple of his siblings eventually found work as dancers at the famous Cotton Club in Harlem. Featuring bands made up of predominantly black musicians and dancers, this mob-owned club catered to an exclusively white-skinned audience. It was here that Johnson came into his own, meeting and hanging out with musicians, dishwashers, other dancers and just party people. The names he mentions include many stars of the day. His escapades are the stuff of many young people then and now. The primary difference was his growing frustration with racism and a decision to do something about it. The growing influence of the Communist Party (CPUSA) in the United States and the party’s decision to actively organize in the African American community pulled Johnson in its direction.
Eventually, Johnson became a leading organizer in the party and a sought after speaker. His eloquence and commitment, plus the notoriety he had received as a dancer gave him a special place among his peers. Then came Hitler, Mussolini and the fascists. The party followed Moscow’s line on the conflict these men thrust on the world—first the Non-Aggression Pact with Hitler and then all-out war. Once war against Hitler became the party line, Johnson joined the Army. He describes his enlistment and subsequent time in a very racist US military. His observations regarding the reception of Black troops by Europeans and discussion of the role of Party members in the service point to some vivid contrasts between the Americans and the Italian and French people the US troops were liberating. When the war was over, and the crusade against Communism began, Johnson was sent underground by the party. He began drinking heavily and his personal life suffered. He remained a believer though until Stalin died and his name became associated with a number of crimes. As people left the party in droves, Johnson watched as the white members found comfy jobs in the world of post-World War Two America and the Black members ended up once again struggling to survive.
A Dancer in the Revolution is much more than Howard Eugene Johnson’s story of his personal experience in the Communist Party and the United States. It is also the story of a Black American in an extremely racist nation. In the course of his tale, Johnson describes the growing influence of the civil rights and Black liberation movements on his politics and that of the US Left. He also explores his growing realization that racism is deeply engrained in the US character and that even his fellow party members were affected by it, often in a negative way not very different than the white ruling elites they opposed. Although this book touches on issues of race and class endlessly discussed by the US left for decades, it is primarily the story of one man’s experience living in a nation whose history is defined by those issues. That life explains more than a thousand debates.
Ron Jacobs is the author of the just released novel All the Sinners, Saints. He is also the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His third novel All the Sinners Saints is a companion to the previous two and is due out in April 2013. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.