Vagabonds of the Cold War

Against the Current, No. 206, May/June 2020

John Woodford

Of Vagabonds and Fellow Travelers:
African Diaspora Literary Culture and the Cultural Cold War
By Cedric R. Tolliver
University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 183 pages plus notes, 2019,
$24.95 paper.

THE FOCUS OF Cedric R. Tolliver’s Of Vagabonds and Fellow Travelers is the bond between Anglophone and Francophone African-diaspora intellectuals, primarily the leading producers of radical literature. He observes that during the period after World War I and through the post-World War II “Cold War” between the USA-led capitalist countries and the Soviet-led pro-socialist/communist countries and movements, a group of critical intellectuals experienced “blacklisting, red-baiting, congressional subpoenas, passport revocations and deportations.” Thus he labels them “vagabonds.”

Such assaults on their careers and their persons, he notes, were “fundamentally extensions of the violence deployed to discipline labor into adapting to the needs of capitalist production” that began in Early-Modern Western Europe and then expanded to every continent.

Although Tolliver’s book begins in the Cold War era, some background history is required to assess its strengths and weaknesses. As early 20th century movements of workers, intellectuals, peasants and humanists resisted and organized against both domestic and international (initially, colonialist) forms of capitalist exploitation, the struggles in Russia resulted in first overturning capitalist rule, forming a state in 1922 after the epochal revolution of 1917.

The fledgling state, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), was presumably to be guided by Marxist-Leninist principles with the aim of building a worker-led democratic state that would end class exploitation, champion anti-colonialism and national liberation, and end imperialist warfare around the globe.

Soon the fight for independence by colonies, later known as the “Third World Liberation Movement,” heated up after World War I.  African-diaspora writers and intellectuals in the U.S.-West European bloc — like their counterparts in Asia, Latin America and in Africa, itself — developed multiform alliances described by Tolliver as being “with the Euro-American left, and in many cases with the various national communist parties.”

Due to varying levels of risks and punishments imposed by their home governments, the involvement of African-diaspora figures ranged from open-to-covert membership in communist movements to strong-to-weak alliances with such movements. A few anti-communist cases rose to spying, often bringing career success and elite status as rewards for defending their adopted governments against “sedition,” “revolution,” “anarchic instability” or what have you.

Some key figures embroiled in this East-West, US-Soviet, capitalist-communist nexus are Tolliver’s “fellow travelers.” He traces the term to Leon Trotsky and assigns it to “writers and intellectuals who had an ambivalent relationship to the Bolshevik Revolution.”

Surprisingly, he cites Richard Wright, officially a Communist Party member from 1933 to 1942 as a leading example of a fellow traveler; he explains that, although Wright was later a “high-profile” defector from the pro-Soviet Communist movement, he, like many other defectors, “continued to find value in Marxist analysis.” Wright and others who shared his political flexibility regularly proclaimed their “distance from the institutions and sectarian positions of the communist left.”


As Tolliver relates in his first chapter, by 1956 Cold War rivalry was intense, a fact uppermost in the minds of those who, on September 19, attended Présence Africaine’s First Congress of Black Writers and Artists. Joining the luminaries such as Alione Diop of Senegal and Aimé Césaire of Martinique were Léopold Senghor of Senegal and Jacques-Stephen Alexis of Haiti.  From the United States, although as reporters rather than official representatives, were Richard Wright and James Baldwin.

But it’s who wasn’t there that is most noteworthy — W.E.B. DuBois, “without parallel in intellectual accomplishments in the Black world,” as Tolliver describes him.

His homeland barred DuBois from foreign travel, just as the “Land of the Free” had blocked him the previous year from attending the Bandung Conference in Indonesia, where 29 countries planted the seeds for formation of the Non-Aligned Movement in the “Third World.”

Wright, on the other hand, had dutifully checked in at the U.S. embassy in Paris before attending the Congress of Black Writers. He assured authorities that he would not support Communist goals, a U.S. stance that flew in the face of the fact that nearly every anti-colonial and national liberation movement in the world at that time was either led by Communists or leaders who shared Marxist-Leninist and related Trotskyist viewpoints.

Wright aligned himself at the Congress with the five official Black American representatives, all of whom, it was later discovered, were covertly approved and funded by the CIA: Prof. John A. Davis of the City College of New York; Horace Mann Bond, president of Lincoln University in Pennsylvania; Prof. William Fontaine of the University of Pennsylvania; Prof. Mercer Cook of Howard University, and James Ivy, editor of the NAACP’s Crisis magazine.

But the maneuvers of the USA’s McCarthyism-gripped political, judicial, police and spy agencies could not stop DuBois from exposing the U.S.-approved delegation’s objective. In a telegram to the meeting DuBois revealed why he was absent and accused the five Afro-Americans in attendance of “either not car[ing] about Negroes or say[ing] what the State Department wishes him to say.”

They were to convince the world — especially those regions where Africans lived or whither their forebears had been taken in chains — that the presence of the cohort of educated and elite Afro-Americans at the meeting was a false signal to the world that the United States was successfully overcoming its racism problem.

Tolliver reports how Wright, in contrast, “distanc[ed] himself from the organizers’ supposed communism,” and then goes on, to my astonishment, to maintain that Wright’s maneuvering “should be seen as a shrewd attempt to appease the irrational powers of anticommunism, an attempt to preserve his hard-fought but far from secure freedom.”

The Afro-Caribbean Arena

Moving from the Francophile scene, as it was ripening into West African national liberation movements, Pan Africanism and state-building, Tolliver highlights three brilliant Afro-Caribbean authors, Jean Price-Mars of Haiti, George Lamming of Barbados and Jacques Stephen Alexis of Haiti.

Most U.S. citizens do not know that their country invaded and occupied Haiti in 1915 and stayed there until 1934, when Washington devised the FDR-liberal-sanctioned Good Neighbor Policy as a sugarcoating to conceal the bitterness of its racist brutalization and exploitation. Price-Mars’ novel, So Spoke the Uncle (1928), depicts the atrocities, massacres, assaults on women and jailings and executions of Haitian freedom fighters during this period and I’m indebted to Tolliver to pointing me to this work.

Moreover, most U.S.-Americans also do not know that their country occupied Trinidad during World War II.

George Lamming, from nearby Barbados, was well aware of that and other measures by which the Caribbean was turned into an “American lake” in the 20th century. When the Panama Canal Zone project was launched in 1904, the US devised many means to impel or encourage Barbadians to work on canal construction crews.

Lamming’s In the Castle of My Skin (1953) is an autobiographical tale that expresses the unity between U.S. imperialism and racism. After imposing economic conditions that damaged village life and uprooted youths who could then survive only by joining work gangs in Panama, Washington turned thousands of Barbadians into “vagabonds,” Tolliver says. The transformation followed the same coercive process that had uprooted the peasantry of the British Isles centuries earlier.

Once the workers were under its thumb, Washington imposed a two-tier race-based pay system on the canal work crews, with the Black workers getting bottom pay.

The devastation wrought on Barbados mirrors that of many other countries around the world, now designated as “shitholes” by the U.S. president: 25% of all working-age Barbadian men had to leave their homes to work in Panama over the course of the 10-year project.

The resistance leader, politician and writer Jacques Stephen Alexis (another revelation for me from Tolliver) portrays the last five years of the U.S.-occupation of Haiti in his General Sun, My Brother (1955).

In 1929 the Marines massacred Haitian peasant freedom fighters, then left in 1934 after installing one of a line of U.S.-flunky dictators. The novel closes after the Dominican Republic’s Good Neighbor-approved tyrant conducted a pogrom of Haitian workers in the Dominican part of the island the countries share.

Hughes and Childress

Progressing along to representative “fellow travelers,” Tolliver recapitulates the careers of Langston Hughes and Alice Childress, chiefly in their newspaper columns in which regular-folks Black characters like Hughes’s Jesse B. Simple and Childress’s domestic worker, Mildred, expose all manner of rightwing and racist hypocrisy, intrigue and threats on the struggle for Black freedom, justice and equality.

Using humor, the adroit Hughes set Simple loose in ways that the infuriated red-baiters could not figure out how to suppress.

Writing in mass-audience Black newspapers, Hughes knew that what a character may say cannot be pinned on its creator. Thus the attacks that, say, Shakespearean fools, or Krazy Kat, Pogo or Bugs Bunny may make against orthodox opinions are hard to censor and its authors hard to punish.

Like Simple, Childress’ Mildred could violate any and every rule of propriety governing Cold War utterances.

Childress also enjoyed the protection of her involvement in progressive collectives such as the Negro Theater Youth League within the New Deal’s Federal Theater Project and the Committee for the Negro in Arts. No sooner did the Attorney General or FBI or CIA, or another police state entity crack down on such organizations than they reconstituted with other names.

True, many Afro-American organizations also had to resist pressures from doctrinaire Communist officialdom increasingly undergoing warping by Stalinist autocracy and its minions.

But as Childress, who wrote for Paul Robeson’s Black leftist newspaper Freedom, put it, she and the other Black radicals “never took a position ‘We’re anti-C.P.’ They simply said, ‘We’re going to do it our way. We’re not going to have other people saying, you know, what they’re going to … you know, the party line’. … But they were not going to have a separation from the Black struggle. That’s what Freedom was about.”

Tolliver then takes up the career of Paul Robeson, which he presents as an “ordeal” endured by a “Black Radical Vagabond.”

He sees Robeson’s career ending in an Othello-scale personal tragedy accompanied by estrangement from the international celebrity’s Black roots. As Tolliver demonstrates, the racist/imperialist/capitalist establishment brought every gun at its disposal against Robeson: financial sabotage, legal restrictions on his freedom of movement and ongoing slander by Black stooges.

The latter individuals took the increasingly modish, seemingly radical but in practice reactionary-nationalist accusation that Robeson was, according to some mystical metric, “not Black enough.”

Murder in Congo

Tolliver ends his study with a recounting of the rowdy protest by radical Black and Pan African groups that erupted at the United Nations in February 1961 at the announcement of the assassination of the Republic of the Congo’s prime minister Patrice Lumumba.

After the Congo won formal independence from Belgium in 1960, the game changed as to what relationship the Congo might assume with its former colonial “owner.”

Rich in uranium, gold, zinc, copper, petroleum, timber, magnesium and more, the Congo was a prize the West was determined to hold onto.

Lumumba sought to use his ties with the other emerging African former colonies to ensure real independence, but representatives of mineral monopolies and Western spy agencies, including several of the same African American CIA operators who had gone to Paris for the cultural conference two years earlier, were determined to prevent that.

Their goal was to convince Lumumba to accept independence in name only. Belgian and various other Western corporations would continue, under the guise of promoting “stability” and of nurturing the young republic into the ways of “democracy,” to run the economy, finance, military and diplomacy.

Lumumba said his party and his nation preferred true independence, declaring to King Baudoin face to face: “We are no long­er your monkeys!”

Oh, how shocked, shocked were U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower and the Afro-American UN representative Ralph Bunche to hear such frank language, and from a person regarded as a savage by the West. Sensing he could not “turn” Lumumba and might wind up being exposed as an agent of neocolonialism, Bunche took off for home.

Next came the West’s attempt to break resource-wealthy Katanga province away from the Congo as a new nation to be headed by the imperialist-backed stooge Moishe Tshombe. In the fallout, the UN sent troops — ostensibly to preserve Congo unity — but they refused to resist Tshombe’s move.

When Lumumba then said he would seek military assistance from the Soviet Union, the imperial powers trotted out future dictator Joseph Mobutu to oversee Lumumba’s assassination and head up a regime-change.

The Lumumba chapter, the book’s final, closes twice in a sense, first with a summation of what the book has shown: that the United States government, and certain Black elites, used “racial liberalism” as a way to conceal the structural underpinnings of racism. Under racial liberalism, the spotlight narrows on the individual accomplishments of Black Americans and on prejudiced attitudes of whites that require correction.

In true-American propagandist, cultural, journalistic and legal narratives, those are the two elements constituting the country’s “race problem.”

The un-American alternative to this approach, Tolliver says, focuses on the “structural elements effectively barring African Americans from inclusion in U.S. society.” The Lumumba incident laid bare the contradictions between these two approaches on the international scale:

 “By obscuring the racism that structured Western governments’ relationship to the Congo and its leader, racial liberalism provided the framework for dismissing Lumumba’s claim to control his country’s resources as the maniacal ravings of a meddlesome politician” (emphasis added).

Why Vagabonds?

“Bravo to you,” I wanted to message Tolliver. But I was still a bit confused by some aspects of this rich piece of scholarship until I got to the end of his 10-page coda titled “A Riotous Mood: Ideological Rupture in African America.”

In truth, my copy Of Vagabonds and Fellow Travelers is littered with chicken-scratched notes hurling, on almost every page, all manner of objections to some of the terms and viewpoints that are offered up. I winced every time I encountered his central rhetorical device: his labeling of giants of African-diaspora writers as “vagabonds” and/or “fellow travelers.” Why call them “vagabonds”?

Tolliver derives his terminology from Marx’s description of people “dragged from their accustomed [i.e. peasant and small craftwork — JW] mode of life” at the dawn of the capitalist mode of production in 16th-century England. Those who could or would not “immediately adapt themselves to the discipline of their condition,” that is, to being driven into cities to work at the primitive accumulation of capital, became “beggars, robbers and vagabonds.”

This qualitative change in the ownership, modes, means and relationship of human beings producing goods involved “bloody legislation and enclosure acts” (laws that turned previously common or public lands into private property for the elite).

The process then and now has entailed a “violence [that] extends to all levels of capitalist society, including in the realm of the ‘superstructure’ or the institutions of the state and social consciousness of a given society” — a violence that fosters, in increasingly hard-to-detect ways, thinking patterns that emanate from the society’s economic base.

Yet none of the outstanding persons Tolliver brings onstage declared himself or herself either a vagabond or a fellow traveler. To give just one example of why “vagabond” doesn’t work for me as a category, Jacques-Stephen Alexis was hardly a “vagabond.”

He was a committed partisan of the left, an out-and-out Communist hardly of a mind to equate imperialism with socialism. Alexis shows that the heart of the Haitian liberation struggle lies with workers and peasants.

The central force against them is the Haitian American Sugar Company, which had installed the client government under which drunken Marines, in a gripping scene from his novel (and real life) wave dollar bills above a match and then force a bony woman carrying her infant to crawl on all fours before them and “meow, bark and whinny before they would give her one of the bills they were about to burn.”

Yet, to my surprise, I ultimately wound up overcoming my early indignation at Tolliver’s approach. What helped is the way Tolliver ends by bringing it all home, as he talks about the University of Houston where he teaches.

His office site in the English Department is in the Roy G. Cullen Building, named in honor of the son of oil oligarch Hugh Roy Cullen and his wife Lillian.

Hugh Cullen greatly admired Sen. Joe McCarthy for his red-baiting fervor and was the single largest contributor to McCarthy’s 1952 Senate re-election campaign. The buildings bearing Cullen’s name “serve as a constant reminder that the right has not neglected the importance of culture in shaping the political direction of this country,” Tolliver says. To emphasize the point, he adds:

“The present moment provides us with ample evidence that the radical right continues to invest in the cultural realm as a primary front in the battle against any vestige of “communism,” by which it means pretty much any public good, including education.”

With money flowing into Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics and drying up for the liberal arts and social sciences, Tolliver writes, “agents of the contemporary radical right can quickly ascend to positions of power and act as sentinels over the production of knowledge. Here they are able to cause problems, when left unchecked, for those scholars who dare take a critical look at the consequences of American freedom for marginalized populations around the globe.”

Tolliver endorses the call by cultural critic Hortense Spillers of Vanderbilt University for Black creative intellectuals in mainstream academies to produce a “scandalous criticism,” that is, criticism that “refuses to disconnect literature and criticism from their grounding in the economy.”

To that end, he says, progressive Black cultural figures should establish “endowments to support our scandalous work”:

“The blooming of such spaces across the contemporary academic landscape would well serve as sites of refuge and sustenance for vagabonds and fellow travelers on the weary road of intellectual struggle against present and future enclosures.”

May-June 2020, ATC 206

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