During the interwar period – the 1930’s in particular – several Black intellectuals and artists were both attracted to the USSR and courted by the USSR. For all Black Americans experiencing everpresent racism and violence in this country, the Soviet Union looked intriguing as an alternative society that espoused racial equality. The Soviet Union, in turn, welcomed the opportunity to highlight racial inequality in the United States and to demonstrate the multiculturalism of the Soviet republics.
A number of Harlem residents traveled to the USSR and returned with a wide range of experiences and impressions. Here are a few that took that journey:
The Jamaican-born American writer and poet Claude McKay (1890-1948) was involved in left-wing politics from a young age, seeing socialism as a pathway to liberation for Black Americans. In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and the Bolshevik’s rise to power, McKay traveled to the Soviet Union for the Fourth Congress of the Comintern in 1922, where he delivered his speech “Report on the Negro Question.” In the speech McKay outlines the struggle of Black workers in the U.S. and their role in the labor movement. McKay would later become disillusioned with communism after the Soviet Union failed to sanction Italy for Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia.
Louise Thompson Patterson (1901-1999) was a civil rights activist and college professor who helped found the Harlem Branch of the Friends of the Soviet Union in 1932. She was instrumental in the resistance to injustices faced by Black women due to their gender, class, and race that she called “triple exploitation.” Patterson founded the left-wing Vanguard group and hosted its concerts, readings, and Marxists discussions from her Harlem apartment. She traveled to the Soviet Union in 1932 aboard the same ship as her close friend Langston Hughes, and wrote about the conditions of minority communities and women in the Soviet republics of Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Ukraine. Patterson later said that Russia was the only place where she could forget she was Black.
Langston Hughes (1901-1967) is one of the most famous figures from the Harlem Renaissance and beyond. Like many of his contemporaries in the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes was drawn to communism as an alternative to the United States’ government and society. In the early 1930s, Hughes was invited to the Soviet Union with other Black Americans to make a film about racial discrimination in the United States. While the film was never made, it allowed Hughes to explore parts of the Soviet Union largely closed off to other Americans at the time, namely throughout Central Asia. Langston reflected on these travels in poetry and prose, like in his 1934 book “A Negro Looks at Soviet Central Asia.”
The multi-talented Paul Robeson (1898-1976) is remembered as a singer, actor, two-time all-American football player, academic, staunch political activist, and 20th-century civil rights figure. While working in London in the 1920s, Robeson became involved with striking miners and came to identify strongly with the communist cause. Robeson first traveled to the Soviet Union in the 1930s. When asked by Soviet reporters about his experience, Robeson said: “Here I am not a Negro but a human being for the first time in my life … I walk in full human dignity.” During the McCarthy era, Robeson was blacklisted for his Black nationalist and anti-colonialist advocacy. Robeson’s U.S. passport was revoked in 1950, leaving him unable to travel or perform abroad for the following eight years.