This is an essay I am working on for an essay-writing contest about the Spanish Civil War:
Hughes used the African American press to link American racism with international Fascism. During the Spanish Civil War when he served as correspondent for the Baltimore Afro-American and contributed to the International Brigades battlefield newsletter, The Volunteers for Liberty, Hughes utilized the media at his disposal to elicit sympathy for the citizens of Spain. By showing the similarity among blacks in the International Brigade and their counterparts in Franco’s army, he links the Spanish republic’s fate with the fate of blacks in the United States. 1 Hughes did this at a time when the African American press’ view of black equality was scrutinized as “left politics.” In Spain Hughes gravitates toward the left and writes about the war in terms of race and class in America. By humanizing the Spanish, Hughes and the black press’ primary aim was to evoke sympathy for the people of Spain through their recognition of similar lifestyles and values. The Spanish Civil War also allowed Hughes and the black press the opportunity to get away from the divisive domestic debates and participate in the pressing international politics.2 Hughes and the press focus on the human and ethical issue, though at the center of their coverage is a subtle criticism of the American government’s neutrality and noninterventionist position in the face of Fascism.
In the article “Madrid Getting Used to Bombs; It’s Food Shortages that Hurt” for the Baltimore Afro American, Hughes wrote that “time, and moral consciousness of the world” are with Spain.3 By the time he had written this piece in November of 1937, he had spent a few months in the war-torn country. Throughout his early essays Hughes points to the loyalist general gaiety in the face of daily bombardment. Hughes said that “inspite of the difficulties of living in Madrid at present, and those are many: war, and death at one’s door….the people of Madrid are calm, serene, even gay at times…”4 Hughes wrote this to show the strength and fortitude of a people who understand that weight of war is bearing down on them but who recognize that human consciousness and justice is on their side. Hughes juxtaposes that concept with the American blacks who though treated as second class citizens retained the spirit of dance, music and gaiety. The Baltimore Afro American displayed this same juxtaposition in its layout the day Hughes “Madrid Getting Used to Bombs” was published. The text of Hughes’ Spain piece surrounds a photograph of a shell-riddled Madrid apartment, but the paper used a poised headline to accompany the article. According to Michael Thurston, Hughes depicts the Madrilenos as gay to draw a contrast with the visage of Franco and his Fascist.5 This was a subtle attempt by the Afro American to appeal for empathy with the citizens of the Spanish Republic. Hughes and the black press succeed in what Raymond Williams explains, “to address an account to another is, explicitly or potentially,… to evoke or propose an active relationship to the experience being expressed.”6 In other words, by writing about the war as he experienced it, Hughes was creating a bridge of understanding and compassion between Harlem, Scottsboro, Alabama, and the people of loyalist Spain. The deliberate outcome was black consciousness and establishing network of sympathy to encourage the African Americans to become more vocal about the world-wide battle against Fascism.
The issues that dominated the news pages of the Baltimore Afro-American while Hughes was in Spain were Scottsboro case and the government’s unwillingness to pass Federal anti-Lynching laws, which were both divisive issues in America at the time. Hughes’ articles were mixed in with these stories in the general lay-out of the paper.8 Hughes was able to intertwine the experience with domestic fascism with the global forces distressing people of color. He points to how “in America they tell the whites that Negroes are dangerous brutes and rapists, so in Germany they lie about Jews, and in Italy they cast their verbal spit upon Ethiopians.”9 But Hughes is very clever in his coverage of the war in Spain because he focuses on the bravery of black men and women fighting side by side with whites. In one article, “St. Louis Man’s Spanish Helped Him Cheat Death, “written for the Afro-American, Hughes focuses on Walter Cobb, an African American from St. Louis serving with an all-French Battalion. Cobb’s story of bravery refutes the Fascist idea that people of color are intellectually inferior. Cobb, Hughes discovers anecdotally is very capable of speaking many languages so he asks him how a guy from St, Louis learned to speak Spanish and French. “I have to keep in practice with my languages,’ Cobbs explains, “ Why if I hadn’t known Spanish a week or so ago here, they would have taken me for a Moor, and me a prisoner, sure.” Cobb was driving a capture Fascist truck that he captured at Belchite and was bringing it back behind Republic lines for repairs. It was still painted the Fascist color; consequently he was stopped at night. The International soldiers forced him out of the car and interrogated him. When he communicated with them and showed them his papers, “They almost hugged me!”10 Hughes also used Cobb to show the sincerity and acceptance of the Spanish by re-telling Cobb’s pleasant reception in small villages in Spain. Hughes writes that in the smaller villages in Spain Cobbs “often the center of attention of an interested and friendly crowd…Their curiosity is always friendly and village families vie with one another in offers of hospitality.”11 Hughes does this repeatedly in his time in Spain to unite the two subjugated and exploited groups: one in Spain, the other in the American South and beyond.
To further illustrate his own stance on racial equality (which the newspaper shared), Hughes wrote about meeting Thaddeus Battle, a Howard University student fighting as a Spanish Loyalist. Hughes sympathized with Battle because the college student was active in the National Negro Congress. “Our students must take a more active interest in labor problems, in the efforts of colored workers to better their conditions.”12 Here Hughes uses Battle to echo the same testimony that propels the author to write about the plight of blacks in America under the lens of fighting Fascism on all fronts. “At home in America the forces of reaction can easily use colored workers as a decoy to keep labor from achieving unity. That makes it easier for them to bring about a regime of repression in real Fascist style at home.”13 Hughes used Cobb’s and Battle’s story to prove that the American Negro had a vested interest in uniting against Fascism. In doing so, Hughes and the Afro-American bring to light the valor and bravery that remained dormant while the United States lingered in isolationism.
The Afro-American published many of Hughes’ articles throughout his time in Spain, but his work also appeared in the Volunteer for Liberty. The most poignant of his contributions included lines about the Ethiopian soldiers he met in country. Hughes persistently discussed the use of Ethiopians or “Moors” by Franco and Mussolini. In “Hughes finds Moors being used as Pawns by Fascist Spain,” he describes the Spanish country side and the road to Valencia. Here, too, Hughes attempts to elicit sympathy for the colored people in the war. He seeks to find out the effect that the bringing of dark troops to Europe had had on the Spanish people in regard to racial feelings. He asks “had prejudice and hatred been created in a land that did not know it before?”14 In this article Hughes describes many of his colored comrades who accompany him as he explores the Spanish country. He very skillfully discusses the “large and representative group of colored people,” in order to maintain the underlying argument that black Americans are ready to stand up to fascism, and that their country should join in the fight. In this article in particular Hughes more daringly concludes that the African Americans and the internationals are in Spain “to help this People’s Army, and to fight Fascism before it makes any further gains in the world….”15But he goes deeper into his coverage of the African American reaction to fighting Moors in his poem “Letter from Spain Addressed to Alabama.” Hughes described how a black man feels stunned when fighting against someone who looks like himself? “We captured a wounded Moor Today. He was just as dark as me.” Hughes compares the Moors to the origins of the African American experience during slavery when he writes “They nabbed him in his land…and the Moor knew he’d never get back home again.”16 But the “author” of the letter, “Johnny,” knows as he watches the Moor die that when Spain wins the fight and becomes free, “then something wonderful would happen to the Moors as dark as me.” At the end Hughes brings home his entire argument of why the United States and other Western countries choose to remain neutral for as long as they did, and he also brings home the notion of unity. “Cause they got slaves in Africa- and they don’t want them to be free./ Listen, Moorish prisoner, Hell!—Here, shake hands with me!”
Hughes captures the African American’s anti-Fascist feelings using his gift of storytelling and simple language that engages the high values he writes to defend. Throughout his months in Spain Hughes and the black press fuse the fight against Fascism with the struggle for liberty for African-Americans and the poor by aligning them with the forces of good in the world. He defends the people of color fighting in the war; both the Moors used as “pawns” in Franco’s army, and the brave Americans who volunteered in favor of the Spanish Republic. In doing so Hughes draws a bridge, a connection between people, but he does it not based on color or country but on the belief that all people have the right to be free and independent. Hughes consistently uses the subtle undertones, and sometimes the obvious overtones, to challenge Americans of color to ask themselves, “Why hasn’t my country stepped in?” Hughes articles and poetry during the Spanish Civil War were a call for action.