Allen Willis, Filmmaker and Marxist-Humanist

Allen Willis, pioneering African-American filmmaker and Marxist-Humanist, passed away in February. He led a long and extremely productive life and was involved in radical politics since his youth in Washington, D.C. He lived in Chicago for a time in the 1930s (where he was active in the Revolutionary Workers League) before moving to San Francisco, where he studied photography. Among his teachers was Ansel Adams.

Willis was a prolific maker of documentary films and worked with many notable artists in the 1950s, including a young Melvin Van Peebles and the poet and proprietor of City Lights Bookstore, Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

In addition to his filmmaking, Willis wrote a column in News & Letters which had its origin in a meeting convened in Detroit in January of 1969 to bring together Marxist-Humanists and Black radicals. Willis used the pen name “John Alan” for the column and two books he authored, Frantz Fanon, Soweto and  American Black Thought (with Lou Turner) and Dialectics of Black Freedom Struggles.

Below is a short piece written by Alan Willis at the time of Raya Dunayevskaya’s death in 1987, which imparts a strong sense of his deep roots in the anti-Stalinist American left. While directly about Dunayevskaya, you learn much about Willis in reading it.  It appeared in the Dunayevskaya memorial issue of News & Letters, dated July 25, 1987.


I first met Raya Dunayevskaya a half century ago when I attended a series of lectures sponsored by the Socialist Party on “The New Deal and the Negro.” This may not be the exact title of those lectures, but it was essentially what those lectues were all about—held in a hall on 14th St. in the Northwest section of Washington, D.C. At that time, I considered myself to be part of a “new generation of radicalized Black youth” and came to those lectures both because of the subject matter and the fact that they were featuring a speaker from Howard University.

I can still remember the experience of climbing the steep stairs from the lobby of that hall through a set of double doors that openend into the main auditorum, and just to the right was Raya Dunayevskaya standing in front of a table piled with radical literature, engaged in an animated discussion with several people. On the wall behind the table was colorful display of large Spanish Civil War posters, mostly of CNT (National Confederation of Workers) origin.

Eventually Henry Payne, a Black friend and a former “walking delegate” for the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) in the South, introduced me to Raya. My first impression was mildy skeptical. I thought that she was a small, friendly, white radical literature agent selling Marxist pamphlets. I had encountered many of these people before in Roosevelt’s “New Deal.”

But I began to learn, as I continued to attend the forums, that Raya Dunayevskaya was no mere “literature agent,” but was a veteran, for a decade or more, of the historic, ongoing battle against racism in the United States. We were soon engaged in a number of conversations on the current Black political situation such as Roosevelt’s refusal to support an anti-lynching bill, the vile racist speeches of Southern “New Deal” white Congressmen, Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia and the Civil War in Spain. There were no limits to the range of subjects. Raya even brought up Joe Louis as an important symbolic expression of Black liberation as well as Countee Cullen’s poem “Heritage” that opens with the line, “What is Africa to me.”

I don’t want to give the impression that Raya spent a great amount of her time in 1936 discussing current events with a fledgling young Black radical who was at that time a member of the National Negro Labor Congress and the Workers Aliance. Far from it. She was an activist and agitator par excellence. Indeed, she had come directly to Washington in 1936 from her West Coast activity in the San Francisco General Strike. And at the very moment I met her, she was hard at work building a support organizaion for striking Black sharecroppers in Arkansas, in cooperation with Professors Ralph Buche and Dorsey, both then at Howard University. At the same time, she was the most energetic personality among the small group of Trotskyists of which I became a member.

Raya’s activity in Washington was only the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, of her previous decade-long activity in the labor and Balck movemnts. It was to take Raya several decades to develop her original, sensitive concept of the Black movement into understanding it it as the “touchstone of American civilization” and Black masses in motion as crucial at every turning point in American history. Thus, she established in her philosophy of Marxist-Humanism that the Black struggle for freedom is deeply grounded in “Absolute Negativity” because it seeks a new beginning, a totally new dimension in the concept and practice of human freedom.

—John Alan

Black/Red columnist

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