This article appeared in the New Yorker Magazine
This is a 1952 letter that Langston Hughes wrote to the playwright Elmer Rice, responding to a questionnaire that Hughes had received as part of an investigation, carried out by Rice and the Authors League of America, into the blacklisting of writers in the radio and TV industries.
Rice, who had worked with Hughes on the musical “Street Scene,” spearheaded the investigation after resigning from a group of playwrights whose commercial sponsor had begun scrutinizing the political affiliations of its actors. The questionnaire, reproduced below courtesy of the Authors Guild, was sent to Hughes and fifty other authors who had been identified as suspected Communists in the pamphlet Red Channels. In 1953, Hughes would testify before Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Subcommittee on Un-American Activities. But in his letter to Rice he focused on a unique set of challenges that writers like him faced—“not due to being red but due to being colored.”
- Has the publication of your name in Red Channels adversely affected your employment or the use of your material in the radio and television fields?
- If so how? Be as specific as possible, giving all relevant facts, such as denial of employment, termination of contracts, diminution of income and the like. Give dates, names and figures.
- Have you any other evidence as to the existence of a general policy on the part of the radio and television industries (including networks and stations and licensees), to blacklist writers and others, because of their alleged political affiliations or beliefs. If so, state it fully and specifically.
- State any other relevant information or comments.
- If called upon would you be willing to testify before the FCC?
February 6, 1952
Mr. Elmer Rice, Chairman,
Committee on Blacklisting,
Authors League of America,
6 East 39th Street,
New York 16, New York.
Here are my answers to the questionnaire re the FCC and blacklisting in TV and radio:
- The publication of my name in RED CHANNELS has not affected my employment in TV or radio. Being colored I received no offers of employment in these before RED CHANNELS appeared, and have had none since—so it hasn’t affected me at all.
Negro writers, being black, have always been blacklisted in radio and TV. Only once in a blue moon are any colored writers given an opportunity to do a script and then, usually, with no regularity, and no credits. Like Hollywood, Negroes just simply are not employed in the writing fields in the American entertainment industry.
My personal experience has been that in my 25 years of writing, I have not been asked to do more than four or five commercial one-shot scripts. These were performed on major national hook-ups, but produced for me no immediate additional jobs or requests. One script for BBC was done around the world with an all-star cast. No American stations offered me work. My agents stated flatly, “It is just about impossible to sell a Negro writer to Hollywood or radio, and they use Negro subject matter very rarely.” Even the “Negro” shows like “Amos and Andy” and “Beulah” are written largely by white writers—the better to preserve the stereotypes, I imagine.
During the war I did a number of requested scripts for the Writers War Board, used throughout the country. Most of the white writers serving this committee also got any number of paying jobs to do patriotic scripts. Not one chance to do a commercial script was offered me.
My one period of work in radio covering several weeks was a few summers ago scripting the NBC show, “Swing Time at The Savoy”, a Negro variety revue. This was achieved at the insistence of the N.A.A.C.P. that objected to the stereotypes in the audition scripts written by white writers. NBC had at that time had not one Negro writer on its staff—which would have saved them making the mistakes the N.A.A.C.P. objected to and which were offensive to the general Negro public. As far as I know, Negro writers are, however, “blacklisted” at NBC. I know of none working there regularly.
Richard Durham in Chicago and Bob Lucas and Woody Bovell in New York are excellent radio writers but, being Negroes, they work with great irregularity—not due to being red but due to being colored.
- No point in my appearing—the color bars everyone knows have been with us since radio began, before TV was born, and long ere that.
I’d like to add, however, my personal gratitude to you and the committee for your very fine stand in relation to the freedom to work—for those writers who are white enough to work (when not red-baited) and I hope as well for those writers who have been blacklisted from birth.
And to you for your personal stand, Elmer, my very great admiration.
Excerpted from “Selected Letters of Langston Hughes” (Knopf), edited by Arnold Rampersad and David Roessel with Christa Fratantoro. Copyright © 2014 the estate of Langston Hughes.
No surprise, but a such a gentle response to what had to feel like cruel insanity.
I thought it was so telling especially for the time period. So many people were accused of being a communist when in fact all they wanted was equal rights.