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The Red and the Black: Louise Patterson

The New York Times Magazine, January 2, 2000

Louise Patterson portrait

What a sight they were, the 22 young African-American artists, writers, journalists and scholars who boarded the German steamer Europa on June 14, 1932, for an adventure in the Soviet Union. Still giddy from the gala send-off the night before in Harlem, they milled around the Brooklyn pier waiting for Langston Hughes, who at the last minute ran up the gangplank with a typewriter, Victrola and a boxful of Louis Armstrong records. Most of them had never been abroad, but now they were on their way to Moscow to make ”Black and White,” a film about ”Negro life” in America.

Sponsored by a committee of prominent literary radicals — Malcolm Cowley, Whittaker Chambers and Waldo Frank, among others — the trip was led by Louise Patterson, a fiercely intelligent woman at the center of New York’s African-American intellectual scene during the final days of the Harlem Renaissance. A founder of the Friends of the Soviet Union, Patterson turned her spacious Convent Avenue apartment into a leftist salon, called Vanguard, for discussions of the Russian Revolution and the party’s position on the ”Negro question.”

Like many Depression-era intellectuals — black and white — she was captivated by the promise of a society where racism supposedly dissolved under revolutionary conditions. A cum laude graduate of Berkeley with a degree in economics, Patterson had taught at several colleges before coming to New York, where she assisted Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, who were writing the play ”Mule Bone.” With her literary connections and leftist politics, she was the obvious choice to lead the trip.

Arriving in the U.S.S.R. on the heels of the infamous Scottsboro Boys trial, the members of the group were treated like celebrities. ”Wherever we go we are surrounded by workers, greeted and cheered,” Patterson wrote in an unpublished memoir. In Leningrad, their train was met by a brass band playing the ”Internationale.” In Moscow, a fleet of Lincolns and Buicks whisked them to the luxurious Grand Hotel. Bus seats were emptied for them; they would be ushered to the front of every line. ”For all of us who experienced discrimination based on color in our own land,” she wrote, ”it was strange to find our color a badge of honor.” The trip served as a sort of a turning point for African-American intellectuals, providing concrete evidence of a full-blown international antiracist movement that supported their struggle for dignity and equality in America.

The movie they had come to make was another matter. The German-born director spoke neither Russian nor English; his only previous film had been an anti-imperialist documentary, ”Strange Birds of Africa.” When rehearsals began, he was shocked to learn that his ”actors” had no performance experience to speak of. ”Europeans, as well as Americans, seem to be victims of that old cliche that all Negroes just naturally sing,” wrote Hughes in ”I Wonder as I Wander,” his memoir. ”Other than two or three, the 22 of us who had come to Russia could hardly carry a tune.”

The script was similarly misconceived, depicting an alliance of white Northern proletarians and black Alabama steelworkers who join together in Birmingham to fight capitalism as ”brothers.” Hughes suggested that this scenario was far-fetched. ”But it’s been approved by the Comintern!” a Soviet bureaucrat replied indignantly.

”Black and White” received caustic international coverage (”Negroes adrift in ‘Uncle Tom’s’ Russian Cabin,” read a New York Herald Tribune headline), and with its cancellation the group split into two. One accused the Soviets of sacrificing the film to win diplomatic recognition from the United States, while Patterson’s group insisted that the movie had simply fallen victim to its own best intentions — a sentiment that earned her the sobriquet ”Madame Moscow.”

At summer’s end, the disillusioned faction left in a huff, while the others traveled through Central Asia, where they were impressed by the enlightened treatment the Soviets showed the dark-skinned minorities. Three members of the group settled permanently in the U.S.S.R. and Hughes continued touring for a year longer. (”Good-morning, Revolution:/You’re the very best friend/I ever had. . . . ” he wrote.) Patterson returned to New York that fall to take care of her ailing mother and spent the rest of her life working for progressive, antiracist causes. ”Russia today is the only country in the world that’s really fit to live in,” she told The New York Amsterdam News. ”I’d live there anytime in preference to America.”