The life of Howard Johnson, nicknamed “Stretch” because of his height (6'5"), epitomizes the cultural and political odyssey of a generation of African Americans who transformed the United States from a closed society to a multiracial democracy. Johnson’s long-awaited memoir traces his path from firstborn of a multiclass/multiethnic” family in New Jersey to dancer in Harlem’s Cotton Club to communist youth leader and, later, professor of Black studies. A Dancer in the Revolution is a powerful statement about Black resilience and triumph amid subtle and explicit racism in the United States.
Johnson’s engaging, beautifully written memoir provides a window into everyday life in Harlem—neighborhood life, arts and culture, and politics—from the 1930s to the 1970s, when the contemporary Black community was being formed. A Dancer in the Revolution explores Johnson’s twenty-plus years in the Communist Party and illuminates in compelling detail how the Harlem branch functioned and flourished in the 1930s and ’40s. Johnson thrived as a charismatic leader, using the connections he built up as an athlete and dancer to create alliances between communist organizations and a cross-section of the Black community. In his memoir, Johnson also exposes the homoerotic tourism that was a feature of Harlem’s nightlife in the 1930s. Some of America’s leading white literary, musical, and artistic figures were attracted to Harlem not only for the community’s artistic creativity but to engage in illicit sex—gay and straight—with their Black counterparts.
A Dancer in the Revolution is an invaluable contribution to the literature on Black political thought and pragmatism. It reveals the unique place that Black dancers and artists hold in civil rights pursuits and anti-racism campaigns in the United States and beyond. Moreover, the life of “Stretch” Johnson illustrates how political activism engenders not only social change but also personal fulfillment, a realization of dreams not deferred but rather pursued and achieved. Johnson’s journey bears witness to critical periods and events that shaped the Black condition and American society in the process.