When Black Americans Migrated to the Soviet Union
What if Black Americans decided that fighting institutionalized racism in America was a lost case, and migrated abroad? This might seem like a totally outlandish proposal, but it has happened before.
We live in days when chants of “Black lives matter!” have spread across the United States and solidarity rallies are being held in places large and small. And yet, despite the rising crescendo, the attacks on Black, Brown and poor people, continue. Is this the new “normal?” Are parents and older loved ones going to have to continue to have “the talk” with their children for fear they might not see them again? Trayvon, Michael, Eric, Tamir, Jordan are some of the names burned into our memories, not because of our personal relationships with them, but because of the trauma of their senseless deaths. Some people wring their hands in despair that things could have gotten so bad; others rise up in anger that things have gotten so bad.
But what if people decided to leave? What if Black Americans decided that fighting institutionalized racism in America was a lost cause, and migrated abroad? We’re so used to hearing the stories of South Americans crossing the border to seek work and financial opportunities in North America, or people from the Global South migrating north and west. But what about the other way around? Is this the only “Greener Pasture,” or is possible that people might look to another place as their land of opportunity?
This might seem like a totally outlandish proposal, but the truth is that we have been here before. There was a time in the early 20th Century when Black people, targets of hatred and indifference, sought refuge outside of the US. Some did this simply to survive, while others left temporarily to learn the tools needed to continue fighting the fight back home later. The poet Claude McKay so aptly spoke for this new attitude, when he wrote in 1919, “If we must die, let it not be like hogs / Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot / While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs / ...Though far outnumbered let us show us brave / And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow! /...Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack / Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!” Talking back to the rabid headlines, this was, indeed, the “Red Summer of 1919,” and that “red” invoked not only the red of the flames devouring the ghettos, or the bloodshed, but also the growing heart of those bold enough to question the status quo.
Some people, including McKay, were determined to test out other waters. World War had brought the first epiphany: that living among white people could be quite pleasant. Ironically, it was at the Front in France that Black soldiers found people treating them with civility. How could it be otherwise for the French whose culture was under threat of annihilation by the Kaiser’s armies? The American military leadership tried to discourage the French from having the most basic of contact with the American Blacks in their midst (this is where the phrase “fraternization with the enemy” became color-coded), as this might undermine the American-style authority. But, the French people and the French military leaders were so impressed and thankful, they brushed this attempt at American-style discrimination aside. Many Black Americans received the “Croix de Guerre,” the highest honor, for their valiant work in saving the French people. And the French people showered them with flowers when they marched in the streets. Is it any wonder then, that when it came time to return to the US, a number of them opted to stay in France? Even those returning to US had a different opinion of themselves and many were among those in front lines of the fight against racism as the riots spread across the country.
But, leave the US? The US has always enjoyed the mythic image of “the city on the hill,” a place where all was possible. A place that has historically drawn people, from the early settlers escaping from their restrictive homelands – who arrogantly claimed that they ‘discovered’ lands that had already been inhabited for millennia – to today’s waves of immigrants. Despite the exorbitant prices and the dangers en route, we see images of families and individuals hidden in rickety boats and under truck floors, or crossing deserts and rivers, trying their best to get here. At the same time, a “beleaguered” US has been very stingy in offering that helping hand to these new destitute people, unless there seemed to be some political advantage to be had. Yet, as much as the authorities have bemoaned the pressures of waves of aspirants for a life in the US of A, people have continued to come.
Black Americans, whose ancestors have been a part of this country for centuries and whose labor built this country, did begin to question how much of a ‘sanctuary’ the US was for Black people. Despite the long and troubled history of Black life in the US, there have been periods of relative calm and a sense of possibility. But, for McKay and many others, this was not one of them. And, within a year, in the early 1920s, McKay would strike out on what he termed his “magical pilgrimage.” He wanted to see this new Soviet “Russia,” a country where the ordinary people were shaping a new, nonracial society. This was not the Russia of today, where xenophobia and racism run rife and where Black visitors stand out as targets for discontented and alienated thugs. No, this was an early “Soviet” Russia with aspirations to be a humane society. No more would the government to be their adversary, it was their ally. And, anyone of good will, no matter his race or color, was welcomed to contribute his/her skills to help build it. Under Communism, too, everyone not only had the guarantee of a good job, but also health benefits, housing and education through university.
McKay was, in fact, the first of many Black intellectuals and leaders who found the Soviet Experiment fascinating. Shortly afterward, Pan-Africanist and intellectual luminary W.E.B. Du Bois made the first of his four visits to the country. Du Bois returned every decade up until his death in the early 1969s. Also, in the 1930s, the poet Langston Hughes went, and activist Paul Robeson, the latter returning time and time again for the next 20 years. And there were many others, including groups of Black Americans whose names may not be well-known, but who wanted to contribute to what they believed could be a better society than that which they left back home.
These were people acting strategically. They understood that the examples of their being welcomed in the Soviet Union would be part of the propaganda offensive against capitalism. Like the Soviets, they understood that dialogue about Communism had always been about more than a struggle between white people, but had to be played out with an eye cast to the hearts and minds of peoples of color. It was on their backs as slaves in the US and as colonial subjects in Africa that the US and Europe became strong. As proved true, when the African people freed themselves from their colonial overlords after World War II, the Soviets, with the help of these early Black visitors from the US, were in a strong position as an alternative to the former exploitative relationships.
There were two types of Black sojourners: those with strong political leanings; and those willing to stay on. They were tired of Jim Crow and other forms of US terrorism designed to keep Black people in line. Even those who had escaped the South in hopes of a better life in the North, lived under the constant weight of denigration. Not only were they the “last hired,” but the jobs were hard to find, dangerous, and the pay low. Furthermore, tentacles of fear of lynchings and other vigilante abuses still troubled them even in Northern cities. One Black Technical Specialist commented, “America is in the grip of a serious depression and I could be laid off any day at Ford... White Americans are lining up for this chance. Why not me too?” And, further encouragement came from the fear of being Black in the US, “I was trying to advance within institutionalized racism in America [and recalling] that a cousin of a friend of mine had been lynched three months earlier – I made up my mind on the spot.”
Thousands of white Americans were also signing Soviet contracts in the 1930s, because these were well-paying jobs with benefits during uncertain times in the US. Russia had not been part of the global banking system. So, while the US and Western European nations were closing plants in the US, the Soviets were opening them. Even Ford Motor Company, General Electric and DuPont were actively engaged in building the Soviet infrastructure.
Not only were Blacks being offered the same chances, they also had the extra inducement to leave racism behind. For Du Bois, this was a revelation, “I saw a new people, re-born and filled with determination and hope; and with sympathy for me and my people.” He had originally been skeptical as to whether white people were capable of freeing themselves from their “racial animosities,” but the warmth and enthusiasm of that first visit in 1926 expelled much of this. He felt “welcomed as any other human being, despite being a Negro and a minority.”
No one leaves home unless the conditions are so draconic that one feels that there are few other choices. Then, having left, as in the case of going to Russia, people faced dramatic differences in language and culture, food, and in many cases, once outside the major cities, often encountered a lifestyle of times past. The high-level visitors, like McKay, Du Bois, Hughes and Robeson, were given interpreter/escorts to make sure they could bridge the divide. They were housed in the finest hotels and transportation coordinated by their Soviet hosts. Many of the political leadership they encountered within the Comintern in the 1920s and early 1930s were from Europe and spoke German, French or English.
But, for those going to work in the factories, like Robinson in 1930, or on agricultural projects, like Oliver Golden and the Black Agricultural Specialist group in 1931, the pressure was to learn Russian, and accommodations were less commodious. Nonetheless, they knew that the Russians appreciated the fact that they had come to help. Noted Lily Golden, whose father led the team, “The Soviet authorities were determined to provide them with the type of lifestyle they believed scientists enjoyed in the United States....In addition, housing, food, childcare and medical care were all free; plus Roane received a salary equivalent to six hundred dollars per month.” Still, the Black Agricultural Specialists, who were posted to Uzbekistan in Soviet Central Asia, did find themselves stepping back in time. The Soviet Union was at the time a ‘developing’ country. This was why the country was welcoming people with special technical, industrial, and agricultural skills to help build the country. And, provincial regions, like Uzbekistan, were even more seriously underdeveloped . One of the Agricultural Specialists got lost in a snowstorm and was almost run over by a camel. Tashkent streets had cars and trucks, but also camels, donkeys, horses and open-air carts.
Lily’s birth, like that of other children born to these Black visitors of the 1930s, brought these Black Americans to another crossroads. In some cases, they had traveled over with their wives and had their first children in the USSR, in other cases, they had married Russian and other women they had met there and started their families. But, in all cases, they worried about whether they should subject their children to racism back in the US. Noted Yelena Khanga, Golden’s granddaughter, of her mother’s birth, “On July 19, 1934, my mother Lily, was born in Tashkent. This was a decisive event in my family’s history ....they did not want to raise a racially-mixed child in America.”
Many in Golden’s group renewed their contracts several times, rather than return to the Depression and racism in the US. But, by the last quarter of the 1930s when Stalin decreed that all expatriates take up Soviet citizenship, all but three returned to the US. It was not any easy return. Not only were they still Black, they were now also “Red”. And, none of them could find work anywhere near their level of expertise. No more six hundred dollar salaries, free housing, healthcare, or education. One regretful person complained, “In a few years, you can forget what racism was like.” Those that remained in the USSR became fully integrated into Russian life. Today, their children and grandchildren work in a range of areas, on TV, at university, in the Arts.
Langston Hughes and Paul Robeson had the strongest impact on the impressions of people back home, as well as building Soviet solidarity for the Black struggle. Hughes went as part of a 22-person team to work on the “Black and White” film in 1932 and stayed a full year. Robeson went for a visit in 1934 and returned as often as he could until he fell ill at the end of the 1950s. These men were determined to use the Soviet example as a foil against the racists who contended that Black people should forever be held in thralldom. They understood, as did the Soviets, that this global internationalism was not just for personal gain or self-satisfaction, but also a tool in the larger Cold War battle for the hearts and minds of Black people. By extolling the virtues of the Soviet Experiment over capitalism, and by gaining the international scrutiny of the Soviets and their allies, they hoped to force the US to change. They also wanted to encourage people of color to look to the Soviet’s model as an alternative to the West with its history of colonization and exploitation. The 1950s and 1960s presented a perfect test case. The US was actively currying favor with the newly independent African nations, representing itself as the mythic “city on the hill” for development of their societies. But, the images of Little Rock and stories of racist attacks on visiting African dignitaries did nothing to help the US image. US-style racism did not distinguish between a home-grown Black person, or a visiting African dignitary. After repeated attacks, embarrassed government officials even complained that the Africans should fly from Washington, DC to New York city, so as to avoid the racists along the way in Maryland and Delaware. But, ultimately, the government was compelled to resolving some much-neglected domestic issues with new Civil Rights legislation being established.
Sometimes, it is not just a question of searching for “Greener Pastures.” But, it is to draw whatever strength one can from the successes of others. Few people today can do something so dramatic as those intrepid Blacks did in the 1920s and 1930s. Even in their day, most people stayed home, but, they also benefited from the fact that McKay, Du Bois, Hughes and Robeson took the struggle into the international arena. Black people gained new allies and tools to wage the battles back home. The “Black Lives Matter” campaign has gone global, too, and like previous campaigns, has gained much-needed strength with the addition of international scrutiny and solidarity.