Scandalize my Name: Stories from the Blacklist
So I'm sitting in the third row at the Brecht Forum last Thursday night waiting for Michael Yates to begin his talk on his new book "Why Unions Matter" and guess who I run into? None other than Red Jackman, the barfly and Shachtmanite I haven't seen since 1975 from Club 55 down on Christopher Street in the Village. The Club 55 was where Red held court. It was a hangout for beatniks and 1950s radicals, especially those with connections to the Trotskyist movement. I used to drink there with my friend Nelson, who was editor of the Trotskyist newspaper The Militant, whose offices were 5 blocks away on the Hudson.
Red was a raconteur and a ne'er-do-well charmer, who was either being thrown out of his apartment by a girlfriend or wife, or out of the Club 55 by the bartender. After Michael's talk, Red went up to him and told him how much he appreciated it. He told a funny story about some Shachtmanites he knew who had ended up in the International Department of the AFL-CIO reporting to Jay Lovestone. When the Bolivian revolution broke out in 1953, these two ended up down there like Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern trying to promote AFL-CIO influence, even though they were still left-wingers.
They ended up getting kidnapped by the miners, who took them back to their clandestine headquarters. They plead their case with the miners, in fear of their lives. Who could blame them for being scared, since the miners were fierce-looking Quechuans who carried around dynamite sticks to throw at the army. When the miners learned that the two Americans were Shachtmanites, the mood changed completely. Drinks were served and a convivial debate opened up which lasted through the night about the class nature of the Soviet Union, with half the miners insisting in orthodox Trotskyist fashion that it was a degenerated workers state and the other half defending Shachtman's "third camp" position. It turned out that the miners union was a Trotskyist stronghold.
I was so surprised to see that Red was still alive after a lifetime of drinking that when I got home that evening I called Nelson to tell him the news. He was a big fan of Red's. The conversation soon turned to "Odds Against Tomorrow," as Nelson mentioned a New Yorker article by Skip Gates which claimed that Belafonte named names. This was supposedly what got him accepted as a guest on the Ed Sullivan show. I found this accusation disturbing.
So when I returned to Lincoln Center last Saturday night for a showing of "Scandalize my Name: Stories from the Blacklist," a documentary about blacklisted African-Americans, I was gratified to discover that Belafonte--one of the featured interviewees--had an answer for Gates, and for Paul Robeson Jr., who had fed Gates this accusation. Here is Belafonte's defense.
It was standard procedure for winners of Broadway's Tony Award to appear as a guest on Ed Sullivan's show. Since Belafonte had won in 1958, he expected to be called into Sullivan's office. What he didn't expect was that Sullivan would greet him with a dossier put together by Red Channels, a freelance blacklist outfit run by ex-FBI agents. Sullivan handed Belafonte the folder and asked him to explain himself. Belafonte browsed through it and told Sullivan, "Well, some things are true and some are false, but I am not going to tell you which is which. The only thing I am interested in defending is my record as an artist. If that's something you want to discuss, I'll be happy to return." Later that week Belafonte got the news that he was to be featured on the Sullivan show. According to Alexandra Isles, the director of "Scandalize My Name" who spoke after the filming, Paul Robeson Jr. surmised that Belafonte MUST have named names because that would be the only explanation for the invite. I'll take Belafonte's word that his talent is what chinched it.
The film also paid close attention to the career of Paul Robeson who was the number one target of the witch-hunters. As another interviewee Ossie Davis put it, it was a fight and in a fight one side often goes after the biggest and most courageous person on the other side in order to break the spirit of the whole group. That certainly defined Robeson.
Some of the other African-American actors were not so well-known as Robeson, but their loss was just as calamitous in some ways. Canada Lee was a major film star of the 1940s, who was one of the first African-American actors to transcend roles like railway porters, chauffeurs or tramps. He co-starred with Sidney Poitier in "Cry, the Beloved Country", a 1951 film made in South Africa about the struggle against apartheid. Lee's experience in South Africa was so galvanizing that when he was invited to speak at an NAACP convention in the early 1950s, he practically had to be dragged off the stage since his speech about South Africa went way beyond the allotted time. As fellow blacklistee Richard O'Neal put it, Lee just wanted to rouse everybody into action against apartheid. After being blacklisted, Lee went into a deep depression. He told friends that if no acting jobs would open up to him, he'd take a shoe-shine box and go down to the Broadway district and make his living that way. A death from a heart-attack brought his misery to a sad conclusion.
The film spent a considerable amount of time explaining how the witch-hunt undercut not only the radical movement in general, but the emerging civil rights movement as well. Television was born during the McCarthyite period and many of the most aggressive desegregationists--radical blacks--found themselves cut off from struggles to increase their numbers in a white-controlled media. Cultural blandness and political reaction went hand-in-hand.
"A Season of Change" was co-featured with "Scandalize My Name." This documentary focuses on Jackie Robinson's struggle to join the major leagues, and his initial experiment with integrated baseball in Montreal, Canada, where the film-makers are based. Unfortunately the film depicts Robinson's success as a combination of his own perseverance and Brooklyn Dodger owner Branch Rickey's mercenary desire to fill seats with black bodies. What is left out is the decade-long agitation of the Communist Party and the sports page of their newspaper The Daily Worker to desegregate baseball.