Years before he worked alongside Thurgood Marshall on Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the attorney Loren Miller spent the summer of 1932 in Moscow helping edit a Soviet anthology of “Negro poetry.” Miller had arrived that June with a group of twenty-two African Americans (including his good friend Langston Hughes) to shoot a Soviet agitprop film about racial tensions and labor disputes in the American South. When the project fell through, Miller and many of his compatriots stayed in Moscow to pursue creative opportunities that would have been largely foreclosed to black artists in the United States: the aspiring actor Wayland Rudd found work with the avant-garde theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold; the painter Mildred Jones apprenticed with the Soviet artist and graphic designer Aleksandr Deineka. For others, the backdrop of Moscow provided fresh creative inspiration: Dorothy West, a voracious reader of Dostoyevsky, rushed at the chance to visit Russia and write about life there, eventually penning short stories like “A Room in Red Square”; Langston Hughes, fascinated with the nearby socialist republics Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, which he referred to as the “Soviet South” for their burgeoning cotton industries, published travel essays and reportage out of Samarkand and Tashkent.
But for Miller, life among Moscow’s creative class offered first and foremost an opportunity to engage in the day-to-day work of building communism by doing what he knew best: writing, editing, and getting his radical poet friends paid. In August 1932, a dispatch from a Moscow correspondent of the Associated Negro Press appeared in the Pittsburgh Courier (at that time one of the country’s most widely circulated black newspapers) announcing the publication of an anthology of “Negro poetry.” “The Russians,” it read, “take the widest interest in anything pertaining to Negroes” and were “anxious to read and hear anything concerning Negro life.” According to the article, the Soviets hoped the anthology would teach their own authors “to write social poetry.”
By 1932, Soviet artists were in the earliest stages of adjusting to what would become the official creative policy of the Party: socialist realism, the doctrine under which experimental art was deemed bourgeois, confusing, and treasonous. Conversely, the Soviets saw black writers as inherently “social,” too oppressed to busy themselves with apolitical questions of style, form, and artistry, a narrowing that resonates with contemporary frustrations over what Vinson Cunningham describes as “broader culture’s hunger for ‘identity writers’ instead of whole humans.”
The Soviet anthology, as reported by the Associated Negro Press, was to include poems by Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay (who had spent time in Moscow in 1922 as a delegate of the Communist International) and others. The anthology was eventually published in 1933 under the title “Africa in America.” In a copy held by the New York Public Library, the inside jacket reveals a bright yellow background and in the corner, a shackled black hand reaching upwards, perhaps towards communism. The poems were translated by the Russian writer Julian Anisimov whose own poem, “Kinship,” was translated by Hughes into English that same year. “Kinship” argued that the Russian and “the Negro” shared an innate, even biological solidarity, a belief crystallized for Anisimov in fact that Russia’s most celebrated poet, Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), was of African descent. “The blood of Pushkin,” it read, “Unites/The Russian and the Negro In art./Tomorrow/We will be united anew/In the Internationale.”
Appearing in the early 1930s, “Africa in America” arrived somewhat late to what scholar Brent Hayes Edwards describes as early twentieth-century Europe’s “obsession with anthologizing the Negro.” In his book, The Practices of Diaspora, Edwards writes: “in a rush that with hindsight is astonishing . . . there was great interest in researching, notating, transcribing, assembling, and packing almost anything having to do with populations of African descent.” Edwards notes that anthologies often served to either frame black people as backwards and inferior or conversely as modern, cultured, equal to whites. Anthologies were never merely archival, he insists, but meant to demonstrate something essential about blackness. For the Soviets, the anthology was part and parcel of their plan to situate “the Negro” (particularly the American Negro) as a natural political ally during the Cold War. But that framing required, as framing tends to do, a certain degree of distortion, one aided in this case by the process of translation.
The first section of the anthology, titled “Folk Poetry,” begins with a poem called “After the Lynching.” The author is unknown (like most folk songs, it was passed down orally), and the poem opens with the following four lines: “Brothers and Sisters/no need to pray/God will turn his head/once those black faces are raised.” These lines immediately aroused suspicion in me. An atheist anti-lynching poem borne out of black folk music (a deeply Christian tradition) felt…a little too perfect for a Soviet anthology. After playing endlessly with the translation, I was unable to find any original English referent that this “folk poem” could be based on, leading me to wonder—is it possible the poem was entirely made up?
In fact, according to scholar and translator Harriet Murav, such fabrications were actually common practice among Russian translators during the early Soviet period. According to Murav, the Soviet Union used translation to build ties between Moscow and oppressed peoples across the world, including groups within its own borders who experienced colonization under the tsars. She explains that in the rush to build an international coalition of budding proletariats, the hurried pace of solidarity often involved shortcuts and even whole scale inventions. As Murav puts it, there was an “actual phenomenon of translators ghostwriting, coauthoring, and even authoring their own work in the guise of translations from the national minority literatures of the Soviet Union.”
While the authorless “Folk Poetry” section may have more easily facilitated such ghostwriting, distortions can be found in other parts of the anthology where the writers are clearly indicated, particularly when African-American spirituality became an inconvenient truth for writers in the atheist USSR. For instance, in Langston Hughes’s poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” the Russian translation that appears in the anthology takes care to swap words like “soul” with the less religious and more clinical “heart.” Likewise, in Claude McKay’s “The Lynching,” the line “his spirit is smoke sent to high heaven” is transformed into “Like smoke, his death groan floated into the vast expanse,” taking care to excise any reference to a Christian afterlife.
In a letter to Hughes, Miller wrote that he had heard from Anisimov’s protégée that the translations were not very well rendered, but that when he confronted him, Anisimov protested and claimed the other translators were just jealous. Fittingly, Miller concluded to Hughes “What the truth is, God alone can tell and he has been banished from Russia.”
In the case of “Africa in America,” the need to build an ideologically correct black proletariat came before the need to understand black literature and black people as diverse unto themselves, as artists who could write “social literature,” but could also indulge in “bourgeois” pleasures like whimsy, romance, and faith. Indeed, in 1933, Hughes, who was still living in Moscow, wrote to Miller to congratulate him on his wedding to Juanita Miller. “Getting married to someone you love,” Hughes mused to his comrade, “ought to be a much better thing than writing novels or seeing the world—or making revolutions.”
Jennifer Wilson is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.