Writing to the beat of your inner Miles Davis

Legendary jazz musician Miles Davis, who brought introspection to the more frenetic bebop style, was known for turning his back to the audience while playing, as if pulling into his own world to work out his musical ideas.

Jesse McCarthy noted a similar inward turn in Black writing during this same period. It was an observation that gave the associate professor of English and African and African American Studies a “logical touchstone” for his new book, “The Blue Period: Black Writing in the Early Cold War” — its title inspired by Davis, whose records include “Blue Period” (1953), “Blue Moods” (1955), and “Kind of Blue” (1959).

“There is a long tradition of binding Black literary expression to its musical counterpart,” he wrote.

McCarthy saw in the writing from 1945 to 1965 a marked shift as Black authors battled contradicting political ideologies — American liberalism versus Soviet communism — neither of which represented or served their needs.

This is particularly evident in Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks’ 1953 novel “Maud Martha,” according to McCarthy. The tale traces the coming of age of its titular heroine, a Black working-class girl growing up in Depression-era Chicago with its day-to-day racial, class, and gender prejudices and limitations.

“Yet Maud is principally characterized by the qualities of her imagination and the independence of her intellectual life,” McCarthy explained. “That doesn’t mean that Brooks is inattentive to the social realist elements that condition her existence. She is, but Brooks does not allow those aspects to upstage our interest in the avowed autonomy of Maud’s interior life, her imagination, and her intellectual ambition.”

“There is a long tradition of binding Black literary expression to its musical counterpart.”

Jesse McCarthy

He said, “The emphasis that novel places on Maud’s subjectivity, the intensity with which it’s committed to it, but also in which it seems to believe in it as a source of resistance, is a characteristic quality of Black writing in this era, which is reimagining a form of political resistance, and trying to capture certain kinds of consciousness, affects, and attitudes, that have emerged precisely from those elements of lived experience that the political ideologies on offer could not account for.”

“The Blue Period” emerged from McCarthy’s dissertation work as a graduate student at Princeton University. While there, he noticed that accounts of African American literary history — including the Harlem Renaissance, Popular Front, and Black Arts Movement — fail to account for what was going on during a crucial period following the end of World War II.

“When we turn to this era and look for representative Black writers, we always turn to the same one or two figures,” McCarthy said, noting that Ralph Ellison’s writing dominates the area of study. “I really wanted the book to allow us to see how rich and varied this period is with your lesser-known writers, who nonetheless produced really interesting and, in many cases, unjustly neglected work.”

The 1930s saw a surge of global interest in communism, including among Black writers. Many of them, such as Édouard Glissant, Vincent O. Carter, and Paule Marshall, were nurtured or at least inspired by the organized left and by the ideals of the Communist Revolution, he noted.

“Many people saw it as the only alternative to fascism, which was on the rise in Europe. That meant that you had an entire generation of Black writers who were cultivated on the left socially,” McCarthy said. “They also were drawn to the ideology of the left because it offered a way to think about racism, primarily through the lens of class.”

The popularity of communism in the United States crumbled following World War II amid the rise of communist states across Eastern Europe, China, and Cuba. During the Cold War, Americans on the left felt obliged to either align themselves with the nation’s brand of liberalism or Soviet communism, a choice many Black writers found impossible.

Writer Richard Wright became deeply disillusioned with the Stalinist drift of the Communist Party. However, the “Native Son” author felt he couldn’t fall back on the American liberal position, “especially as a Black writer with a social and militant consciousness, from his point of view, America doesn’t represent freedom any more than the tyrannical Soviet Union,” according to McCarthy.

Increasingly, Black writers found themselves “interested in trying to think about what it would mean to write from a position that sees both of these alternatives as radically insufficient,” McCarthy noted.

This led them to experimentation with tropes of “retreat, themes of alienation, and an emphasis on the exploration of states of interiority and dissident consciousness” as they sought to reimagine what a relationship to radical politics might look like.

McCarthy concludes “The Blue Period” by asking what it means to write for a future world, a question McCarthy suggested could find echoes in aspects of the current political atmosphere in the U.S.

“One of the structuring principles at play here for these writers is what it means to write in a time that feels like a historical impasse,” he said. “When none of the politics that are available to you match your aspirations and don’t fit into your conceptions of who you are, to live and write from a position without any horizon of hope — something of that is with us again.”

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