Born into a Georgia sharecropper family in 1898, Hosea Hudson moved to Birmingham, Alabama, to work in the steel mills in the turbulent 1930s and 1940s and became a member of the Communist Party as well as president of a CIO union local. It was a hard, dangerous life, to be black and communist and pro-union, and Hudson talked about that life to Nell painter, who brilliantly recreates it in this collaborative oral autobiography.
The god never failed for Hosea Hudson, who joined the Communist Party as an illiterate black Birmingham foundry-worker in 1931; and he's not about to pass from this world - he's now 81 - without claiming a place in black history for the CP and for himself. He first put his life on record in the 1950s and '60s, and that manuscript was published in 1972 - after Party-line doctoring - as Black Worker in the Deep South. This time he's told his story to a sympathetic young historian with a tape recorder, who's transcribed his words colloquially - and to startling effect. The Scottsboro case was on the boil in '31, the CP was leafletting in Birmingham, a black co-worker member said the unheard-of word "organization," Henson went to a meeting - and though some of the talk was over his head, "I understood. . . about how the Scottsboro case is a part of the whole frame-up of the Negro people in the South" and how, in the Depression, "the unemployed people wouldn't be able to buy back what they make." So he joined; and found himself lionized as an "industrial worker," consorting with whites, and primed for leadership. He gave up women and other dissipations, and also his singing group and his church (until the Party, in '38, enjoined activity in mass organizations); talked up demonstrations by the unemployed or, equally, a neighborhood protest "around the [welfare] woman who can't get no coal delivered"; mastered the techniques of clandestine unit meetings and strict Party discipline. When whites and blacks met, the blacks left first - so that the police, who (accurately) regarded interracial meetings as Communist, wouldn't pick up everyone in a raid. But there were few whites among the thousand members that, Hudson estimates, the CP had at its height in Alabama. His chronicle takes him north to the Party's National Training School, where he speaks out in front of the "big top leaders"; to Atlanta, where the workers, who don't live together, have a "petty bourgeois outlook"; and through the common-front days of voter-registration campaigns and CIO organizing. It concludes, in 1948, with the ouster of Hudson - "that God damn Communist!" - from the Steelworkers local he's set up and led; an ouster Hudson attributes to white racism and black timidity rather than to the CIO's Communist purge. The book's great weakness, indeed, is Painter's failure, either in the introduction or the erratic notes, to put these events firmly in context. Her tone is propitiatory, so that, for instance, she offsets the acknowledgment that "the CP unquestionably used Negroes" with the assertion that "blacks like Hudson were able to use the Communist Party in turn" - referring to the "educational advantages" and "self-confidence" he gained. What the book demonstrates, however, is (a) why the CP operated as it did, and (b) the ripple effect of Russian Communist adoption, in 1929, of the American Negro question. But Hudson, unlike those northern CP blacks purged for "Negro nationalism," was able to remain Communist and black; and so he stands today as a relic of a moment when that dual identity made some kind of sense. (Kirkus Reviews)