African American poetry in Czechoslovakia, viewed through a Cold War prism

Paul Robeson, in 1942, leading California shipyward workers in singing The Star Spangled Banner

Dr Františka Schormová was awarded Charles University’s highest academic accolade this spring for her dissertation titled “African American Poets Abroad: Black and Red Allegiances in Early Cold War Czechoslovakia”. The young literary scholar and translator is now working on turning it into a book, which will trace the circulation of African American leftist poetry on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

In part, Dr Schormová plans to trace that development by following the story of Abraham Chapman, a US communist who fled his homeland and lived under an alias in Prague, where he found work at the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences and edited an anthology of Black Diaspora poetry.

Dr Schormová’s main field is African American literature, especially in the Cold War/ decolonization period of the 1950s and 1960s, but she is also fascinated by the ways culture travels in general, including the issue of translation.

Her award-winning dissertation focuses on artistic contacts between the United States and Czechoslovakia early in the Cold War, what it meant for African American authors to publish east of the Iron Curtain, and what happened to their works in Czech translation.

The mysterious American leftist Abraham Chapman is not so much a central figure to her research as a vehicle to propel the complex narrative forward, she says.

“Abraham Chapman was a US communist who came here in 1951 with his whole family and then left in 1963. He was interesting because of his journey from the Western to the Eastern side of the Iron Curtain and also because he kind of hid here under a different name – Abe Čapek.

“Gradually, he came to work here as an expert on US literature, and he also worked for the [Czechoslovak] Academy of Sciences, for their world literatures department there. And his story allowed me to explore all these different dynamics that it would otherwise be so hard to follow narratively.”

Dr Schormová first came across Chapman’s name – or rather that of his alias – after picking up a book published in Czech whose title translates as Black Poetry: A World Anthology [Černošská poezie: světová antologie].

A decade later, she later discovered, Chapman, by then back in the United States, had edited a similar collection under the title ‘Black Voices – An Anthology of African-American Literature’.

Photo: University of Georgia Press

Chapman worked on two anthologies, one in Czechoslovakia published in 1958, the other in the US ten years later, and [in your dissertation], you have compared and contrasted those two. What were your findings? What differed from what he edited here and there?

“The most obvious difference is that there’s a different name on the cover – the Czech one was written under the name of Abe Čapek and the US one under his real name. It was interesting to see that for his works published in the US and later academic career in the US, it was as if the Prague period of his life never happened.

“I found it [his time in Czechoslovakia] mentioned in one celebratory speech given on some occasion about Chapman, which made it seem like he only went to central or eastern Europe only to get his degree in US literature – which sounded a bit absurd, but that’s how he put it. I guess it was strategically important not to draw attention to his stay on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

“So, at first glance, you wouldn’t know that these [anthologies of African-American literature] were put together by the same person. But more importantly, about the content. It’s kind of the Black Diaspora aspect that disappears in Chapman’s later work – meaning he only focuses on the poets living in the US.

“But it’s also the women, the female poets, who disappear. In his later anthology Black Poets, there aren’t nearly as many female poets as in the Czech one, which I also find interesting. So it’s not just the post-colonial [poets] – the framework that paid attention to these African and Asian countries gaining independence but also the gender aspect.”

Forced to flee

Abraham Chapman and his wife Belle, both members of the American Communist Party, hastily packed their bags one spring night in 1951, left their home in Queens, New York City, and vanished along with their two young daughters, eventually surfacing in Prague.

The family arrived as the two-year-old Communist Government began a campaign of terror and purges, culminating in the infamous trial and execution of Rudolph Slansky and 13 aides, most of them Jews, as was Abraham Chapman.

Photo: Naše Vojsko

It was Slánský himself had promised to find Chapman a suitable job in Prague, his younger daughter Ann Kimmage wrote in a 1996 memoir about the family’s 13-year exile, during which time she was given a new identity – Ana Čapková.

“Chapman’s daughter, Ann Kimmage, wrote a memoir about her time in Prague. It’s called An Un-American Childhood: A Young Woman's Secret Life Behind the Iron Curtain. And she talks about how all of their paperwork was destroyed, and how they had to sever ties with their family and never contacted them.

“But we still don’t know why the Chapmans had to flee the US at that specific time. There were different stories of people who came to the eastern side of the Iron Curtain, different trajectories. But for the Chapmans, it seems that secrecy was of the utmost importance.

“So, I would say that not many people in Czechoslovakia knew that he was ‘Abraham Chapman’ – and then when he was back in the US, not many people knew that he was also ‘Abe Čapek’.

“Which for a Czech speaker – you know ‘Chapman’ and ‘Čapek’ is not such a huge difference. It looks different on paper, but for me it’s not such a great secret identity. But who am I to judge.”

I’m wondering about the cover story – he was obviously not Czech, so how exactly was he introduced? As a second- or third-generation …

“That I don’t know, and Kimmage doesn’t really talk about this. They weren’t the only US family living in Prague at that time, but they would certainly draw attention speaking in English on the tram or on the street. So, how that worked, what he told the others…

“I hope to unravel this more, uncover more, when I get the file that the FBI kept on him. It’s a very thick file – it has about 400 pages. I applied for this but, but there’s an extremely long waiting list, which has been made even longer due to the [coronavirus] pandemic, so I’m still waiting.

“Maybe new information will be revealed. What we know now is that he was supposed to appear before the McCarthy committee [the House Committee on Un-American Activities created in 1938 to investigate alleged disloyalty and subversive activities] but instead fled the country with the whole family, via Mexico, and I think then the Netherlands and then to Prague.

“And Prague – this is interesting, I think – often served as this crossroads of people. Many stayed here before their fate was decided. So, many went on to Moscow, to East Germany or other places, but the Chapmans stayed.”

Why do you think that is – that Prague was a ‘crossroads’? Is it as simple as the country being the most western point of the Eastern Bloc?

“Partly. Actually, this is one of my main theses, that Prague was this international and internationalist centre. It was a place where congresses took place, concerts, international meeting took place that – if they were held in Moscow, that would have seemed much more suspicious.

“In Prague, it would seem much less conspicuous – you could still frame it as this internationalist meeting, you know, world fighters for peace came here, Latin American writers stayed at the Dobříš Chateau south of Prague for years, actually. You had all these people coming here. Some stayed for longer, others were just passing through.

“And it wasn’t just about geography. Prague already had this infrastructure that allowed for this, but also there were these international networks, and making Prague one of the centres was much more strategic than for everything taking place in Moscow. Especially at this point.

“Moscow of the 1930s was maybe more internationalist, but by the 1950s, other places took on that role, so you could have French leftists as well as these Latin American writers, as well as US communists that travelled for these meetings or relocated there.”

Chapman vs. Škvorecký

Chapman was among the US communists who relocated to the Czechoslovak capital. As noted earlier, in he edited a book published in Czech in 1958 whose title translates as Black Poetry: A World Anthology.

In her dissertation, Dr Františka Schormová writes that he clashed with some “Czechoslovak intermediaries of US culture” over competing versions of African-American poetry, including the celebrated dissident writer Josef Škvorecký, who co-founded 68 Publishers in Canada, where he fled to after the Soviet-led invasion. I asked her what was behind the conflict.

“The project of this anthology was originally Josef Škvorecký’s. But then Chapman appeared, and Škvorecký was supposed to collaborate with him, also partly because Chapman was this officially sanctioned US communist guy who was right for such a project from the perspective of official structures.

Richard Wright in 1939 | Photo: Carl Van Vechten,  Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

“Also, he was an expert on African-American literature. Especially in his youth, he spent time in Chicago and New York and was a great friend of Richard Wright, the African-American writer, they corresponded a lot. So, from that perspective, he was an ideal candidate as an editor of such an anthology.

“But Josef Škvorecký had the idea first and had a very specific idea of what to include. And Chapman came with this – from my point of view – amazing concept of including poets from other parts of the Black Diaspora, from Brazil, different African countries, basically all over the world, which Škvorecký didn’t like. Basically, he refused to collaborate with Chapman and backed out of the project completely.”

I understand that Chapman was also at loggerheads with other ‘Czechoslovak intermediaries of US culture’, as you wrote – musicologist Lubomír Dorůžka and the writer Jan Zábrana. What happened there?

“It’s hard to frame this as a conflict – it was more that Chapman represented someone that these culture intermediaries resented. At that point, in the 1950s, I mean this was the generation that was, as Jan Zábrana puts it ‘dying on the vine’.

“They were restricted in their studies and in their publication options. They had all these amazing projects that included things like jazz poetry and US writers, and these projects were frequently crushed.

“There was a jazz anthology by Dorůžka and Škvorecký that was already printed but then something happened and had to be destroyed. So, obviously, they were kind of resentful of this American who was a communist also and had all these official channels open for him, worked as an expert in African-American literature at the Academy of Sciences, had these official posts, was this official representative.

“The conflict, possible conflict, would be also based on Chapman’s idea of what African-American literature should be and how it should be framed was very different from theirs. He was also kind of a danger to them because Chapman was trying to push through these works.

“He would saying maybe they should include these other poets, or focus on the leftist-leaning poets as well. So, then it would be more difficult for Škvorecký and his crew, let’s say, to push through the poets that they were interested in.”

Quite a few African-American artists were invited to visit Czechoslovakia, and one of the earliest invited was not a poet but a singer, Paul Robeson, and when you talking about Škvorecký, I remember that he was particularly –

“Anti-Robeson, yeah.”

– anti-Robeson, and basically Škvorecký said he hoped that he hoped that he honestly believed in communism and hadn’t just sold out.

“Yeah, there’s this famous quote by Škvorecký that Robeson was singing here while the Czech poets were put on gallows, I think that’s the quote, and he repeatedly calls him things like ‘the Black Stalin’ and the ‘Black apostle of Stalin’. Škvorecký could be very venomous when he chose to, and Chapman and Robeson were people who he really hated.”

The 'Black apostle of Stalin'

Paul Robeson, famous for his baritone singing voice, was also a writer and civil rights activist. He wore his sympathies with the communist regimes of the Eastern Bloc on his sleeve, and visited the Czechoslovak capital numerous times. Here is a clip from his adrres at an international left-wing congress in 1959:

“Jak se máte? [How are you?] It is a great privilege and pleasure to be here with you again in Prague, to greet my dear friends, the people of Czechoslovakia and to great you, many friends from many lands.

“My deepest thanks for your concerns over many years, for your help, for your encouragement. And this is true not only of myself, but of many of us in America, who have consistently struggled for peace and friendship with you and with all the peoples of the lands of socialism.”

In that speech, Robeson went on to argue that great art comes from the people, citing a couple of Czech examples: the composer Leoš Janáček, who wove rhythms of natural speech into his music, and then Antonín Dvořák, who famously took inspiration from African American music for his Symphony From the New World.

“Your great Dvořák came to our land and heard the beautiful songs of my folk, and pointed out to us in America that here was the basis of a great musical art, springing from a people who had been torn from Africa and brought in slavery to the lands of America.

Langston Hughes in 1936 | Photo: Carl Van Vechten,  Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

“Your great composer came there and pointed out that this was the base and could be the base of great music, and proved it by a great symphony and by string quartets. His influence still has great importance in America today.”

Under communism, many students from Africa [and post-colonial countries elsewhere] came to study in Czechoslovakia, but apart from Paul Robeson, were many other Black American communists and cultural figures invited?

“They were invited, yes, but none of them stayed permanently. There were several reasons. There were travel restrictions put in place in the early 1950s that aimed to prevent Black intellectuals from travelling all over the world and criticising US policies, US racial policies.

“In 1951 and 1952, there were these legislative changes, the Smith Act and one more, that prevented not just Black intellectuals but communists, other people who were complaining about US racial relations outside of the country, because the story of race was supposed to be only in national terms and presented as a story of progress.

“Because this was a time when you had allow of these countries gaining or fighting for independence, and they were looking at these global superpowers [the USSR and the US], and asking themselves how racial relations worked there – and obviously the US had a horrible history of racial relations, so this is something that the official structures actively wanted to make better, especially in the 1950s.”

“But the Czechoslovak official structures were trying to invited people like Langston Hughes, who was invited several times – also to the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival; I found this invitation in Hughes’ archive at Yale University, which is such a small detail, but it was nice to see.

“Robeson came several times, and was invited for the Prague Spring music festival every year, but his passport was taken away and so he couldn’t come. And [the sociologist W. E. B.] Du Bois was here as well – he got an honorary degree from Charles University, and the lawyer and activist William Patterson came here in the early ‘50s, and he spoke here about the situation of African-Americans – he gave several lectures and had articles published.

“So, there were people coming here, but they didn’t stay.”

The Czech National Revival and the Harlem Renaissance

American writer and philosopher Alain LeRoy Locke in 1946 | Photo: Alfred Eisenstaedt,  Wikimedia Commons,  Fair Use

You mentioned Langston Hughes. I came across an article about the mutual influence of the Czech National Revival and the Harlem Renaissance. Was that something that –

“I know the paper you’re referring to. It’s Charles Sabatos’ ‘A Long Way from Prague [The Harlem Renaissance and Czechoslovakia]’. It’s an amazing piece of research, and I was inspired by that and quoted from that as well.

“I think that this research is really interesting in that it shows the African-American community and Czechoslovakia weren’t just a Cold War phenomenon, but pre-dated that, and in the Harlem Renaissance movement, they were inspired by Czechoslovakia as an example of self-determination that was done through culture, that was done non-violently.

“So, it was this cultural accomplishment that they admired, and Czechoslovakia and Prague are mentioned several times – even in the seminal work of the Harlem Renaissance, which is the anthology put together by Alain Locke, The New Negro – he mentions this in his forward.

[In the forward to The New Negro, published in 1925, Alain Locke wrote that ‘Harlem has the same role to play for the New Negro as Dublin has had for the New Ireland, or Prague for the New Czechoslovakia’.]

“But Langston Hughes also mentions Czechoslovak topics and Prague in his poems… So, these contacts pre-dated the Cold War. But then the Cold War shaped them profoundly.”