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Excerpt from Odyssey of a Writers Workshop in the 1950s
By Phillip Bonosky

The loft was on the second floor of a building at 125th Street and 7th Avenue in New York’s Harlem.  At one end of the loft, which extended for half a city block, were people banging on typewriters.  Others were running mimeograph machines, and one was speaking on the telephone.

They were preparing the next issue of Paul Robeson’s monthly newspaper, Freedom.  Among them was a young woman whose talent, as far as anyone knew, was fully expressed in this work.  Her name was Lorraine Hansberry.

It was October 23rd, 1951.

In our corner of the big loft about eight of us had gathered into a half-circle.  It was already 8:30 in the evening.  And without waiting for any more people to appear, I opened the first session of the CNA (Committee for the Negro in the Arts) by asking the eight people there if they had anything to read (It should be noted that the CNA was on the Attorney General’s Subversive Activities List at this time).

They did not.

“Nothing?”

Nothing.

And so it might have ended before it began – this enterprise which continued almost thirty years and through which many of the best young African-American writers of our times have passed, changing both the nature of Black consciousness and American literature in general.

I only knew one of them personally, Rosa Guy.  It was she who had invited me to start the Harlem Writers Workshop, to form a group to which writers could come every week, read their works-in-progress, get good, friendly, but honest criticism, and learn from it.

I spoke desperately for a solid hour – pretending that this was what I had planned to do all along.  I spoke about the necessity of keeping a notebook.  I had with me a book of Chekhov’s notes, and I read from it, pointing out how useful notebooks had been to him in his work – noting a phrase or a work which appeared there first and then in one of his finished works.

When I finished, nobody else had come.

Now I read Gorky’s letter to Stanislavski in which he shows how a play gets born, like magic, right in front of your eyes: you hardly see how it’s done, but there it is – a play.  You bring ten young people in a room and you ask them the right question.

It was a long letter and I read slowly, stopping to see if the ideas were sinking in.  Even so, every letter – like every river – finally reaches the sea.

And just at that moment, two more people came in.  One, a middle-aged woman, said she was a poet, and the other, a young man, with a sensitive face, said he was writing a novel.

I asked the woman to read a poem.  “What kind of poem would you like?” she asked me in return.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “What kind do you have?”

“What mood are you in?”

She had a whole sheaf-full of poems, and I eyed them thoughtfully.  “You choose one,” I said.

She gave me the poem to read.  It was about a mother explaining God to her child.  When I was through I turned to the others.  There was silence.  Finally I asked: “What do you think of it?”

Julia, her face arranged in kind line, said: “It’s…Nice…it’s really nice…” And that was it.

Nobody knew how to improve on that.

I asked for another poem.

“What kind?” she asked, expansively, ready to oblige.

“A nature poem would be nice,” I said.

So she read us a nature poem.

Again everybody agreed that it was “nice.”

I turned then to the young man with some desperation and fading hope. “What do you have to read?”

“Chapters from a novel..”

He introduced himself. His name was John O. Killens. I wondered if he would ask what the group would like to hear.  But no, he went right ahead and began to read.  This novel, it soon developed, was about Joe – an African-American boy of 16 – who was going north by freight from Georgia.  He was escaping – not a crime – just Georgia.  But en route he was yanked off the freight he was illegally riding by the local sheriff’s man, while still in the South, and hauled over to the overseer of a nearby plantation, and he was forthwith “found guilty” of illegal trespass, and sentenced on the spot to work for the plantation boss for thirty days.  That would be his punishment.  His work would be unpaid.  Free to the plantation owner.  The plantation owner was white.  He was Black – free in free America, but a slave nevertheless.  The year was in the early 1930s.  This, I realized, was how many Southern plantation owners got their labor.  They just arrested Black men at random, “convicted” them of vagrancy, or subsisting without any “visible” form of income; they had no income at all, and had them work for no pay at shorter or longer periods in the fields, or until the crop was sown or harvested.  Killen’s chapter read well.  Everyone was engrossed.  The story was obviously autobiographical, and for the African-Americans in the room, it was part of their lives as well.

However, the next chapter would be different.  It dealt with the ‘rape’ of a little ‘Negro’ girl by a white man.  Only, instead of raping her, the degenerate white man urinates on her.  The style was naturalistic, bitter, taunting – it was showing that, not white girls were raped in the South as the legend had it, but Black girls.  And the raping went unpunished.  Nevertheless, I felt a bit unsure.  There was a certain element of the abnormal in the description of the scene which distorted it emotionally.  Instead of the reader feeling empathy for the girl for such a profound humiliation, he felt disgust for the scene.  Or perhaps he felt something else – a morbid interest in it?  In any case, I asked for criticism.  This time it came.  The reactions were varied.  And as they spoke, I could hear the mimeograph machine whirring, and through the outside windows I could hear Harlem’s 125th Street, that fabled street, which ran through every African-American’s consciousness.  Millions of African-Americans were squeezed into a tiny area of one time posh Harlem where the wealthy whites had lived.  Now it was one of the sorriest slums on earth.

The Korean War was on.  Only a few days earlier, Gus Hall, a leader of the U.S. Communist Party, had been kidnapped by FBI men in Mexico where he had fled to escape McCarthyism, and had been spirited, illegally, back to the USA and taken, after what amounted to a kangaroo trial, to prison for eight years (six of which he served at Leavenworth in a solitary cell, and two were spent on parole, during which he was forbidden to engage in politics).

The same day that Gus Hall was kidnapped I had received my first big check for a story I had sold to Collier’s, a weekly mass circulation magazine at the time.  Collier’s would soon publish a notorious issue devoted to the “feature idea” that the USA had conquered the Soviet Union, had now occupied it, and prominent writers and politicians contributed articles explaining in what way they would change life in the USSR more “democratically.”  One, for instance, wrote that he would produce the hit musical “Guys and Dolls” in the Bolshoi Theatre. I had just become a published and well paid writer, and the dilemma this magazine faced me with, as did other magazines where stories could be sold, was: how could I write stories for magazines which stood for everything I opposed? How could I allow myself to be an accomplice of this kind of corruption?  Other writers of the Left had “solved” the problem by cutting their ties with the Left.  Some changed their names.  Some decided to work both sides – one side for the money, the other side for the Left, for conscience sake.  Some would just give up writing altogether.  What would I do?  I needed money desperately.  I had no other income.  And I listened to all the arguments, pro and con.

I chose to come to Harlem to lead a writer’s workshop for African-American would-be writers whose chances of getting published in the white monopoly-controlled press at that time were next to nil.  And yet they wanted to write – had to write – and a number of us in the Left had organized the committee for the Negro in the Arts (CNA) to protest, lobby, and demonstrate for the rights of African-Americans to be published.  We were Communists.  This was our job.

Meanwhile, the criticism of Killens’ chapters went on.  Some felt that such stories of Black oppression should no longer be written.  That side of life had been told too often, they said.  They feared that Negroes (everybody used the word “Negro” then) were being stereotyped into woebegone, forlorn creatures worn down by oppression, defeated, hopeless, whereas Negroes badly needed stories of success in order to improve their self-image and encourage their people to struggle more hopefully.  Others objected to Negroes writing only about Negroes.  Negro writers, they said, should write for the whole population and not just one-tenth of it.  Rosa Guy, from the West Indies, who worked as a seamstress in the garment industry and was trying to raise her son without help, protested heatedly that Negro writers, now more than ever, should tell the truth about the South.  A Negro should face the fact that he is a Negro and write about Negro life.

I, too, raised objections to the “rape” scene, not on moral, but aesthetic grounds, as having misfired.  If the intent of the writer was to arouse sympathy for the oppressed, we should be aware of it.  There is suffering and there is suffering.  One arouses sympathy and the other alienation.  Yet, subjectively, the victim of both kinds of suffering suffers equally.  The Nazis for instance, were past masters of humiliating their victims in such a way that you laughed at them rather than felt pity.  And I recalled a picture from the Nazi era showing a Jewish one-time professor gathering horse manure from the streets of Berlin.  Passers-by laughed at the sight; they did not pity him.  Certainly they were not aroused to anger or protest.

Often, and this would occur later in Killen’s novel, writers described the torture of their characters in such detail, with such convincing reality, that one detected in himself an emotional shift from sympathy and pity for the victim to another emotion altogether.  The writer had aroused, intentionally or not, feelings of sadism, not sympathy.  One did not feel the pain of the victim, but the pathology of the onlooker.

The point I made did not register.  Nor does it register among all kinds of writers today.  The evocation of sadism, masochism, or any other pathological emotion is not only not opposed, but sought.  It is a short cut to achieving impact on the reader.

The two chapters that John O.Killens read to us were from his novel-to-be, Youngblood.

There would be many more weekly sessions of the CNA Writers Workshop (eventually it would take the name of the Harlem Writers Guild), and I would be with it for two more years.

I had become a writer’s workshop leader by accident.  Sometime before, I had been asked to teach a ten-week course on short story writing at the Marxist Jefferson School, in Manhattan.  Dashiell Hammett was also teaching a short course there.  I had asked the ten people – all young, bright, some Marxist-oriented, some not: “What do you want to learn?”

One responded: “How to write stories that make money.”

I said: “I can’t teach you that.  I can only help you to write stories that tell a truth.”

He never came back…

But the students that did come back insisted, after the ten week course had ended, that we continue independently.  They volunteered to pay fifty cents a session.  And so we did, meeting weekly at each other’s homes.  The workshop grew until it had forty or more – too unwieldy.  It was this workshop that Rosa Guy had joined, and it was she who invited me to help set up a similar workshop in Harlem for African-American writers.  We had just concluded our first night.

In the two years that followed, we would also meet in private homes, almost always in Harlem, and in the course of its existence, the workshop was to grow, prosper, and turn into an important link in the struggle of African-American writers for cultural recognition. 

In the 1950s, the CNA had been organized in the almost forlorn hope that somehow the publishers, television executives, theater, Hollywood – or just the local newspaper – would open up a crack in their monolithic white wall of rejection to let at least a few African-American cultural workers in.  The opposition was formidable.  Not only was there massive prejudice again African-Americans on chauvinist grounds, but this was also a period of intense political repression.  The Korean War was at its peak.  With McCarthyism, any agitation by African-Americans or whites with African-Americans was – by that very fact – put down as Communist, and the agitator might find himself literally in jail.  Before that, he most certainly would have lost his job.  The army had published a booklet for guidance to its intelligence officers, called “How to Spot a Communist.” One way to identify a Communist, the booklet pointed out, was by the words he used.  If he used words like “chauvinist,” “book-burning,” “colonialism,” “demagogy,” “reactionary,” or “progressive,” then according to the booklet, he might well be considered a possible Communist.  Another clue that proved beyond anything else that the white suspect was a Communist was if he associated socially with African-Americans.

It was a time of repression and insanity.  And it was considered illegal for a white to consort with Blacks. Such a person was fair game for an attack by some “super patriot” or super hater of Blacks, or just 100 percent American insane.

However, insanity to one side, there was one thing that the anti-Communists were correct about. A white, in that desperate period, who met socially with African-Americans, was very likely to be a Communist.  Communists – Black and white - were deeply involved in the struggle for civil and equal rights of African-Americans in that perilous time, and the pioneering work they did helped create the atmosphere that influenced a change in the situation for African-American writers so dramatically in the next decade.

But in those days we met after dark.  Our workshop would meet at the home of John Henrik Clarke – then engrossed in the affairs of the African countries whose new names we were only beginning to hear, or at the apartment of Julian Mayfield, the future writer and playwright, who had appeared as a child actor on Broadway in the play, “Lost in the Stars,” or we would meet at Rosa Guy’s place or Alice Childress’s, or John O. Killens’ in Brooklyn, or Pauli Marshall’s, or Walter Christmas’.

At one time or another almost every young African-American writer of promise in New York City passed through our workshop.  Lonnie Elder III, for instance, came to it as a raw youth who had no more than notebook entries to show us.  Audre Lorde read her first poems to us.  Alice Childress read her plays and stories. Douglass Turner Ward, then known as Roosevelt Ward, had been a sports writer for the Daily Worker and headed the Young Communist organization. We had published an article of his in Mainstream, about how he had been jailed in Mississippi allegedly on a charge of evading the draft – Later the charge was thrown out of court. Loyle Harrison, later an editor of Freedomways, was a member, and Eugene Gordon, a well-known journalist for the New Masses as well as the Daily Worker, who read us a huge manuscript which was doomed never to be published.

One day I came early to Julian Mayfield's apartment to find him fuming. He was raging: "I've had enough of poverty!" His electricity had been turned off for non-payment and he had had it turned on just minutes before I arrived. Otherwise, we would have had to conduct our workshop (as we once did in another place) by oil or candlelight. Handsome and talented, Mayfield who would manage to set the workshop gossips at odds by having an affair with the wife of one of the members whom he would later marry, published three novels, had some plays produced, and appeared in the movie “Uptight," which he helped co-script.

Another of our early members was a young man, hardly in his 20’s then, whose name was Lonnie Elder III.  He would explain to us how he survived: "I talk jive. I talk a language that ofays don't understand." And he laughed, sure that he could disguise his real thoughts and feelings so effectively that he could sit in the subway, watching the antics of whites and mock them in a language they couldn't understand.  Bitter, sensitive, talented, his future in the early days of the 50’s looked hopeless.  But he would survive to write “Ceremonies in Dark Old Men" which won numerous prizes and was shown on television, and the script for the movie "Sounder", among other things.  Now, he was simply a member of the workshop, who read to us bits and pieces of notes he had taken, and no more.

John Henrik Clarke was reminiscing one evening as we found ourselves for once short of another piece to read. Clarke was a man with gentle manners and disposition. Early on, he had become involved in liberation movements in Africa, and had been conducting a correspondence with certain African personalities, then as unknown as he was. When some (in 1952) referred carelessly to "Africa", as though Africa were one monolithic "darkest Africa" still, he would demur gently, pointing out that Africa was made of many different tribes and peoples, who were as distinct from one another as Irish are from Italians, though both are European. Africa was simmering then. It would soon explode in anti-colonial ferment. But then it was still possible to act as if Africa existed only on the periphery of one’s (white) consciousness.

Most of the workshop members had roots in the South.   And it was that South which had tormented them so that it burned in their memories, whose reality never left them. Clarke told us how, as a boy in Georgia, he had had to struggle against his "handicap" of skin darkness in a world where color shades - from dark to light and nuances in between - meant a graded opportunity to "make it" in a color dominated world. A light skinned African-American was thought to have a better chance of acceptance – of tolerance - than a very dark one - darkness was associated in the white mind with the negative. Very light-skinned African-Americans might "pass" invisibly into the white population and "disappear" without leaving a trace of blackness, except in those instances where it came out in their children, even though the wife or husband was white. Mendel's law continued to operate.

It was Clarke's first grade teacher in a Black school who told him that in the great world merit alone counted, not skin color, and this assurance from her lifted a great moral burden from his soul. He taught himself to read. The little schoolhouse he attended had no books. He used to pick up throwaways and circulars from the street and tear the wrappings off cans and bottles and "spell" them out later at home. In this way he learned forever that salmon came from Washington State.

One day he found a circular and brought it to school, and his teacher cried: "How can you carry this thing with you? Why, it's from the worst enemies of our race!"

He looked at the paper he had picked up to read later - for all writing was a marvel to him. Now he saw: "The KKK Rides Again!"

As a boy, he used to get up early - at the crack of dawn, and in winter, before dawn - and before going to school, would tend his "fire route". That is, he had a number of houses – owned by whites - where he would start a fire in the furnace so that when the white folks woke up they would have a warm house ready for them. "Who fired your house?" I asked him.

Later, half-way North (to which all freedom-yearning youth aspired), he had lived for a time in a boarding house which, with the coming of the Depression, turned into a brothel. The "girls" were so impressed by his love of learning that they pitched in to buy him a new encyclopedia!

As a boy he was stubborn, a non-conformist. It was common in the South at a certain age for an African-American boy to be "converted." He remembered the time a very famous evangelist - who he also knew, was just as famous a philanderer - came to their church to convert new members, and he converted everybody but him. A fourteen year old boy, he sat at the Mourner's Bench (a sign that he refused to be converted.).   It was a great scandal, and the preacher came down from the pulpit, stalked over to where he was sitting, and aiming his long bony finger at him, he cried: "Boy, you're a bad one!"

The evangelist even came later to his home to talk to him and about him with his mother and father. Clarke never answered back or said a word in this situation. We talked too about how polite Black children were to their elders.  And he emphasized the fact, adding that he himself would no more think of contradicting an older person than of yelling in church.

African-American writers had their own stories to tell of the white world in which, a "great white fog," enveloped them from birth.  They told story after story of white barbarism - of how whites boasted that they "couldn't tell one Black from another," citing cases of where innocent Blacks were convicted of crimes they had never committed because to the white witnesses one Black was just like another, and how what difference did it make who was blamed, they were all guilty of something.

Often, when they were children, whites would rub their heads "for luck," as though they were some kind of primitive talisman, like a rabbit's foot. They told of an African-American conductor on the New York City subway whom whites would spit at every day just because they resented African-Americans having such good jobs! (Blacks had just begun to get jobs on the subways and buses of New York City after years of agitation by the Transit Workers Union, which was then led by Communists, notably Mike Quill).  Discrimination and hostility existed in the North as well as in the South they had fled.

Alice Childress told of working as a housemaid for whites and how the madame of the house would get every ounce of labor out of them, and how she would set traps for them - leaving money lying around, for instance - and paying them off in left-overs and old clothes. One day Alice said, she put her own dollar beside the dollar that the madame had left "carelessly" around.

"Why!" cried Rosa Guy one evening when the question of what was feminine came up, "in the South there are many colored girls more beautiful than white girls!" The cry -Black is beautiful! throughout the country in the middle 60’s, was already struggling to be born.

"Negro!" John Henrik Clarke exploded, "Why, the word doesn't mean anything! It's not even known in Africa. They are Nubians, Kenyans, Ghanaians, whatever - according to the area they came from. Why, there were great civilizations of colored people long before the white!"

And then: "Let's talk about some of the accomplishments of the Negro people. Don't always look to the Willie McGee and Irving cases."

At the time, as a matter of fact, the whole world had been aroused over the case of Willie McGee (defended by future Congresswoman Bella Abzug), who had been sentenced to the electric chair on the accusation of a white woman that he had raped her.  There was evidence to support the charge that, on the contrary, McGee had resisted her sexual advances, and this accusation was her revenge.  No white jury in the South at that time would ever fail to convict a Black man accused of raping a white woman - the accusation itself was considered proof of guilt for the opposite notion - that a white woman could voluntarily choose sexual relations with a Black man - was not admissible in Southern mythology.

Before he died, McGee wrote to the Communist Party giving thanks for its world-wide efforts to save him. When he was electrocuted in a makeshift chair, its electricity supplied by a generator outside the jail, the Mississippian white barbarians waiting outside for a signal that the deed had been  done, cheered and  raised the Rebel yell. They had been violating Black women for two centuries with impunity, and they themselves could not always swear for certain that they had no Black blood in them. But to lay a hand on their "white womanhood" even with her consent, or to harbor the very thought of it, could mean death to a Black man.

All the problems, or most of them, the questions, fears and hopes that would burst on the nation in such violent form only ten years later were voiced by these young African-American writers. They were bitter and cynical. Every day they saw movies, or read books, sometimes about Blacks, written by whites, and ignorantly. Even many of the approved white writers they felt had only half their talent.

Here are some of the accomplishments of the workshop members:

Douglas Turner Ward became head of the Negro Ensemble Theater (NET) and with money donated by the Ford Foundation (half a million dollars) among others, launched an African-American theater which, in its first ten years, made a significant mark on Black theater and on the American theater in general.  Unlike the Harlem-based New Lafayette Theater, under the influence of the ultra-nationalist writer, Ed Bullins, the NET steered clear of bitter nationalism and survived while the other did not.

Alice Childress wrote many plays including the one mentioned above that was shown on television.   She also wrote five novels, one of which was made into a movie,"A Hero Ain't Nothing But a Sandwich". She was the first African-American woman to have a play produced professionally, "Florence", and the first woman to win an OBIE award for her play "Trouble in Mind".

John O.Killens was a founding member of the Harlem Writers Guild. He wrote several novels including Youngblood, and And Then We Heard the Thunder.  He wrote An Anthology of Black Southern Voices. He also founded the Black Writers Conference.

Julian Mayfield wrote several novels including The Hit.  Besides writing, he produced and directed in theaters in Harlem and Off Broadway. He worked for President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana from 1961-66.  He was writer in residence at Howard University from the late 1970s to the early 1980s.
Lonnie Elder III wrote for television. in  the 1950’s and later, episodes for NYPD Blue and McCloud. He also acted, directed or wrote in movies like Bustin Loose.

Rosa Guy was the author of fifteen novels including My Love, My Love, Bird at My Window, and Mirror of Her Own.

Audre Lorde wrote many books of poetry including The First Cities and Cables to Rage. She also wrote her autobiography, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name.

 

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