Mildly surprised to see Robert Merry plug The American Spectator’s Frank Marshall Davis piece, at least so uncritically. It’s a review of Paul Kengor’s biography of Davis, the American communist who was some sort of mentor to Obama in his teenage Hawaii years. Merry wonders why the mainstream press hasn’t made more of the Davis story–and what it says about Obama. I think that most people have decided it doesn’t say much of anything about Obama, in that probably half the people in politics today had some kind of extremist associations during their late teens and early twenties–whether the League of the South or SDS radicals. There are well-worn cliches about this.
But the Davis phenomenon points to an interesting wrinkle about American history. In one of his interviews, Kengor breathes a bit heavily about finding that the father-in-law of Obama’s associate Valerie Jarrett was also a communist. We’re being ruled by the Chicago Reds! But you know what? If you were a black American in the 1930s and ’40s, educated, politically active–and (this is the important thing) wanted to be involved in integrated politics, and work cooperatively with white people, the CPUSA was, if not the only game in town, pretty close to it.
I haven’t worked my way through Mark Naison’s scholarship on the subject, but I do recall being taken aside long ago by my late friend, historian and democratic socialist Jim Chapin long ago and had it explained that many blacks involved in mainstream Democratic politics had some sort of old CP roots, exactly for that reason. It was no surprise that one finds pretty bright traces of pink in the backgrounds of Jesse Jackson’s or MLK’s old advisors, because that was where the openings were for ambitious black Americans. Once America began integrating more seriously (which coincided with the Soviets coming to terms with the crimes of Stalinism) this particular niche of black radicalism dried up.
Communism was flawed in theory and evil in practice, but a lot of people saw it differently in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. To get some sense of the relatively normal, upstanding white people in the communist orbit, it might help to pick up Mary McCarthy’s highly readable The Group or Lionel Trilling’s sublime The Middle of the Journey. And they didn’t even have the excuse of segregation.