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KCSE 2018 Biology Paper 1 with Marking Scheme

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Next Topic » KCSE 2018 Biology Paper 2 with Marking Scheme

  • Name the cell organelle found in abundance in the white blood cells.(1 mark)
  • Give a reason for your answer in (a) above.(1 mark)
  • State two observable features that place a millipede into its Class.(2 marks)
  • Which sets of teeth would be used in chewing sugarcane for maximum extraction of sap?(2 marks)
  • What biological process were they investigating?(1 mark)
  • Name the structures from which the air bubbles were coming from.(1 mark)
  • Explain the distribution of the structures named in (b) above on the leaf surfaces of a land plant.(2 marks)
  • State why it is important for plants to lose water to the atmosphere.(3 marks)


  • Name fluid G.(1 mark)
  • Give two ways by which fluid G is different from tissue fluid.(2 marks)
  • Define respiration(1 mark)
  • State three activities in the human digestive system that depend on respiration.(3 marks)
  • State three ways in which blood capillaries are structurally adapted to their functions(3 marks)


  • Name the organ.(1 mark)
  • Describe how air in water reach the capillaries inside structure L.(3 marks)
  • Name two products of respiration in plants.(2 marks)
  • State one homeostatic role of the human skin.(1 mark)
  • Name three structures of the skin essential for its homeostatic function.(3 marks)
  • Explain why the nephron is long and convoluted.(3 marks)
  • State two limitations of us.ng a quadrat to estimate the population of organisms.(2 marks)


  • Name the type of germination illustrated in the diagram.(1 mark)
  • Describe how the type of germination named in (a) abave is brought about.(3 marks)
  • Explain why a bony fish dies shortly after being removed from water.(4 marks)
  • Name the bones that articulate to form a ball and socket joint at the hip.(2 marks)
  • Explain the role of carbonic anhydrase in red blood cells.(3 marks)
  • List two features which the lady has that are due to inheritance.(2 marks)
  • Explain why most recessive genes arc cxpressed prenotypically in male offspring of humans.(3 marks)


  • Which diagram represents the beak from which the others are likely to have evolved?(1 mark)
  • Explain your answer in (a) above.(3 marks)
  • Define the term analogous structures.(1 mark)
  • Give two illustrations of analogous structures in mammals.(2 marks)
  • State two ways in which plants with weak stems obtain mechanical support(2 marks)
  • What does the term evolution mean?(1 mark)


  • Explain why a camel has a longer nephron than a whale.(3 marks)


  • Lysosomes/golgi apparatus; 
  • White blood cells fight pathogens to protect the body, the lysosomes contain lytic enzymes which destroy pathogens;/golgi apparatus synthesize lysosomes which contain lytic enzymes that destroy parthogens;
  • Cylindrical body;
  • 9--100 segments;
  • Each segment has two pairs of legs;
  • Pair of short antennae; 
  • Has two clumps of many simple eyes; 
  • Has anterior genital pore/apparatus;
  • Has three body parts (head, thorax and trunk); Any 2
  • Premolars; molars;
  • Photosynthesis;/gaseous exchange in plants,
  • Stoma/somata; 
  • Are more on the lower surface of terrestrial plants/fewer on the upper surface; to reduce transpiration;
  • Cools the plant;
  • For uptake of water up the xylem vessels;
  • Mechanism through which mineral elements are transported in the plant; 
  • Removal excess water;
  • Maintains turgor pressure;
  • (Blood) plasma;(1 mark)
  • Has (more large) proteins/blood platelets; High (hydrostatic) pressure/low pressure of tissue fluid; Has red blood cells;
  • Process by which living organisms/cells break down loxidize (organic) food materials into simpler compounds to release energy:
  • -Peristalsis; -Absorption of materials; -Chewing (movement of jaw muscles); -Churning; -Secretion of digestive enzymes Any 3       (3 marks)
  • Numerous to increase surface area through which materials diffuse;
  • Thin/one-cell thick/single cell epithelium'endothelium for faster diffusion;
  • • Lined with a single cell epithelium for faster diffusion; 
  • Are selectively permeable for passage of materials, 
  • Narrow lumen to maintain preesure; Any 3
  • Fish mouth opens lowering pressure in buccal cavity and water rushes in; mouth closes increasing pressure that forces water into the gill cavity/opercular cavity; O2 rich water flows over the gills in a counter current direction to capillary blood flow, causing O2 to diffuse into the gill capillaries; Any 3 
  • Carbon (IV)oxide;
  • Energy/Adenosine Triphosphate; 
  • Alcohol/ethanol/ethyl alcohol; Any 2 
  • Thermoregulation; Osmoregulation; Regulating salt balance; Any 1
  • - Blood vessels/arterioles; - Hair, - Sweat glands; - Erector pili muscles; - Nerve endings Any 3
  • To fit in the limited space) in the kidney/occupy less space;
  • Increase surface area for selective) reabsorption;
  • Allow for more time for (selective) reabsorption;
  • Cannot be used for most animals/plants;
  • Assumes organisms are evenly distributed;
  • Inaccuracy (over/under-estimation); Any 2 
  • Hypocotyl elongates faster than the epicotyl; pushing cotyledons above the ground; 
  • Fish uses dissolved oxygen for gaseous exchange: gill filament epithelium dries up; gill filaments clamp together; surface area for gaseous exchange reduced; oxygen lacks moist surface for dissolution causing death(due to suffocation);
  • Femur; Pelvic girdle;
  • Converts carbon (IV) oxide to carbonic acid; which easily dissociates into hydrogen ions (H + and hydrogen carbonates (HCO 3 - for easier transportation; reducing acidity in blood;
  • Height (tallness); Long hair; Skin colour (light); Any 2
  • Most of the genes are sex-linked and are carried on the X chromosomes: boys receive X chromosomes from the mother (and Y chromosomes from the father); if the X carries a recessive gene, it is more likely to be phenotypically expressed in boys; 
  • Beak M is simple/basic; original beak; the birds separated to occupy different niches, and specialized for different diets; leading to more complex/developed beaks over time; Any 3
  • Different embryonic origin but evolved to perform similar functions due to exploitation of same kind of environment);
  • -Wings of bats and insects; -Eyes of mammals and molluscs; -Limbs of mammals and arthropods; -Flipper in whales/dolphins and fins of fish; 
  • Twinning around a support:
  • Use of tendrils/spines/thorns/hooks (to cling on nearby plants/trees); 
  • Turgid cells in their stems); Any 2
  • Gradual change from simple life forms to complex forms over a (long) period of time; 
  • Growth; and development; 
  • Reproduction: C
  • A camel is a desert animal, a longer nephron increases the surface area for reabsorption of water, to conserve it; a whale is aquatic animal, (does not need to conserve water);
  • Aestivation;
  • Reduced metabolic activity; hence low rate of respiration; minimizing water loss/ dessication (to the environment); 
  • Less-toxic;
  • Very soluble;
  • A small molecule (easily filtered in the kidneys);
  • Requires less water to excrete; Any 2
  • Mouse is active/has a large surface area to volume ratio; hence has a higher metabolic rate (rate of breathing) to cope with the rate at which energy (oxygen) is consumed or lost to the environment; an elephant is less active/has a small surface area to volume ratio hence has a lower rate at which energy (oxygen) is used or lost; or Mouse is small in size/has large surface area to volume ratio, hence has a metabolic rate (rate of breathing) to cope with the rate at which oxygen is consumed/energy is lost to the environment, an elephant is large in size/has small surface area to volume ratio; hence has a lower rate at which oxygen/energy is lost;

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biology essays atika school

Tag: Atika School Biology Notes

Kcse history and government notes form 1 to form 4 & revision questions.

160 Biology Essay Topics

For most science courses, assignments are generally lab-based and rarely require much writing. However, all of that changes in biology courses when detailed essays must be written to highlight a student’s understanding of the subject. These essays are highly technical, with specific comments required to meet the factual nature of the subject.

In addition to meeting the factual requirements needed to complete the assignment, biology essays must also be written in a writing style that is informative and authoritative rather than subjective and personal.

These detailed specifics of writing a biology essay can make completing the writing difficult from the very beginning. Fortunately, we’ve created this guide to help students learn how to write a biology essay. In addition, we’ve also included 160 biology essay topics to help inspire the creative writing process.

How to Write a Biology Essay?

Writing a biology essay starts with choosing a topic. If your teacher has not already assigned a specific topic, then students must choose one that is broad enough to find credible resources and specific enough that the research won’t overtake the writing process.

To select a suitable topic for a biology essay, consider the type of biology class you are taking, the current and previous chapters studied, and the overall context of the course. These factors will help you select a topic that is likely to be relevant to your teacher’s needs and to the passing of your course.

Once students have selected a suitable topic, it’s time to research credible resources that will support the subject. To do this successfully, students need to consider the following:

  • What information is already known about this topic?
  • What topics are related or similar to this topic?
  • Who are credible authors that can explain this topic?
  • What additional sources will provide me with the information needed to complete this assignment successfully?

For example, if you want to write a biology essay on protein synthesis and its regulation at the transcriptional level, research material would include books, articles, and other written works published by credible authors or publishers. While important, this material isn’t the only type of research that should be completed.

Students may also consider consulting medical and biology dictionaries, textbooks, online research databases such as PubMed or Medline, and professional organizations for biologists to find additional sources. Once the research has been completed, it’s time to create the first draft of the biology essay.

Biology Essay Introduction

Starting an essay is always the same. Students should open with a catchy hook statement that introduces an interesting fact, presents a unique perspective, or raises a thought-provoking question.

Once that sentence has been created, students can use the middle part of the introduction to introduce fundamental concepts and provide background details about the topic.

Once that information has been laid out, and the reader knows the necessary details to make the reading interesting and worthwhile, students should move into the final portion of the introduction that answers the question: WHY is this essay important? This question is answered in the form of a thesis statement that details the essay’s overall purpose.

Biology Essay Body Paragraphs

The body paragraphs of your essay will contain the bulk of your research. Be sure that each body paragraph meets the following requirements:

  • One clear idea represented per paragraph or section
  • Examples that back up the point of the paragraph
  • A clear and logical flow between paragraphs with transition words

Make sure that the body paragraphs only contain information pertinent to the subject or topic. Avoid fluff or filler words and phrases that don’t add any substance or value to the writing.

The number of paragraphs in the body may vary depending on the assignment parameters and the essay style. For example, an essay with a 1000 word limit won’t have as many body paragraphs as an essay with a high word count.

Additionally, a compare and contrast essay that examines the similarities and differences between two or more biology concepts may have more body paragraphs than an argumentative essay.

Biology Essay Conclusion

The final section of a biology essay is the conclusion. In this section, students need to summarize the major points of the essay and the overall purpose for writing it. The thesis should also be re-stated to recap what has been learned from the writing.

In addition to these sentences, students should include a final remark about their research and findings. This might be a thought that ties into the intro or another interesting angle that presents a new way of looking at your topic.

Once the conclusion is completed, students should edit and review their work. Make sure that the essay is free of grammar and spelling mistakes before submitting it for grading.

When it comes to choosing a biology essay topic, it is not always as easy as it seems. For students looking for help with writing a biology essay, we have compiled a list of 160 biology essay topics that will hopefully give you some great ideas.

Biology Essay Topics About Animals

  • What is the importance of bats in our ecosystem?
  • What is the difference between a domesticated cat and a wildcat?
  • How do animals adapt to their environments?
  • What are the various types of symbiotic relationships found in nature?
  • Which animals have been known to show altruism towards other species?
  • What impact does human activity have on animal behavior?
  • What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of zoos?
  • How do animal brains work?
  • What is an animal’s anatomical structure like?
  • What are some symbiotic relationships between humans and animals?
  • What is the difference between herbivores, carnivores, omnivores, and insectivores?
  • Why are having pets important to humans?
  • What are the positive and negative impacts of commercial farming on animals?
  • Do you think it is acceptable to keep pets in zoos? Why or why not?
  • What are some common misconceptions about cats, dogs, rodents, cows, sheep, horses, reptiles/fish/insects?
  • How do animal bones support their body structure?
  • What are the effects of humans on the natural habitats of animals?
  • What are some ways in which animal anatomy is similar to human biology?
  • What are some symbiotic relationships found in the animal kingdom?
  • Can humans and animals communicate with each other?
  • How do different types of animal cells function differently than human cells?
  • Why do some animals see better in the dark?
  • Explain the circulatory system of cold-blooded animals and how it differs from that of warm-blooded animals.
  • What are some examples of mimicry in nature?

Biology Essay Topics About Cellular Biology

  • How does cell theory apply to cellular biology?
  • What is mitosis, and where does it take place?
  • What are the different parts of a cell?
  • What is a nucleolus?
  • What are the differences between prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells?
  • How do viruses affect our cells?
  • How does photosynthesis work?
  • Why is it important to study cellular biology as a foundation for other disciplines of biology?
  • What are the functions of organelles in cells?
  • What is anabolism and catabolism?
  • How do plants use photosynthesis to produce sugar while animals break down food for energy?
  • Describe the process of homeostasis and explain how the human body maintains its internal environment.
  • What are the important parts of a cell?
  • How do cells reproduce?
  • What is the difference between mitosis and meiosis?
  • What is the importance of cellular research to humans?
  • Explain mitochondria, chloroplasts, and vacuoles in plant cells.
  • What are some of the problems with using stem cells in medical research?
  • What are the differences between eukaryotic and prokaryotic organisms?
  • How do humans reproduce sexually?
  • Why is it different to clone plants than animals?
  • What are some important functions of membranes in cells?
  • What is the significance of mass spectrometry to molecular biology and genetics?
  • How do viruses reproduce?
  • What are mitochondria responsible for in eukaryotic cells?
  • What is the difference between a plasmid and a virus?
  • Do you think cloning animals should be allowed? Why or why not?
  • What is a cell cycle?
  • How do diseases affect the structure and function of cells?
  • What are some ethical issues with genetic engineering?
  • What is cell division, and how does it work?
  • Where does meiosis occur in the body, and what does it accomplish?
  • Explain the structure and function of ribosomes in eukaryotic cells.
  • What is a cell membrane made up of, and what are its important structural components?
  • How do antibiotics affect bacterial cells?
  • Do you think cloning humans should be allowed? Why or why not?
  • What makes up the cytoskeleton?
  • How are molecular structures related to the functions of cells?
  • What are some examples of biomolecules necessary for cell function and survival?
  • What types of molecules make up an organism’s genome?

Biology Essay Topics About the Ecosystem

  • What does the term food web mean?
  • Why is it important to study population dynamics in an ecosystem?
  • How do humans affect other species and their environments?
  • How can we prevent and control invasive species, and why are they so dangerous?
  • What effects does pollution have on animals and their habitats?
  • How do global warming and climate change affect the ecosystem?
  • What are the different types of animals found in ecosystems?
  • What happens to an ecosystem when one species becomes extinct?
  • What is the difference between biotic and abiotic components of an ecosystem?
  • How do humans feed off other species to survive?
  • Describe how the r-selected life strategy works.
  • What are some examples of symbiosis found in nature?
  • How does biodiversity affect the structure, function, and survival of ecosystems?
  • How does the stability of an ecosystem depend on biodiversity?
  • What are trophic levels, and how do they function to maintain the structure of ecosystems?
  • Why are invasive species dangerous?
  • How do global climate changes and human activities affect the biodiversity of ecosystems?
  • What types of organisms thrive in wetlands?
  • How do humans benefit from studying ecosystems?
  • What ecosystems are best suited to rapid climate change?

Biology Essay Topics About Evolution

  • Is evolution strictly a scientific theory, or is it also valid spiritually?
  • Why is research about the evolution of life important to our understanding of the past?
  • What are some examples of convergent evolution?
  • How does natural selection contribute to evolution?
  • Why is it important for people to understand evolution and its role in biology?
  • What are some benefits that humans enjoy thanks to evolution?
  • How do mass extinctions impact the evolution of different species?
  • How does a mutation affect a population’s gene pool and diversity?
  • Explain the core principles of Darwin’s theory of evolution.
  • How does an organism’s ability to respond to environmental changes contribute to its rate of evolution?
  • What is polyphyletic evolution?
  • What are some examples of vestigial traits in humans and other species?
  • How do eco-evolutionary dynamics play a role in evolution?
  • Do you think that past mass extinction events had an impact on evolution? Why or why not?
  • What are some benefits humans enjoy thanks to evolution by natural selection?
  • How could modern-day diets affect the evolutionary growth of humans?
  • What animals have had evolutionary changes based on threats to their diets?
  • What evolutionary response makes for the best camouflage?
  • What types of traits can be used to differentiate between closely related species?
  • What are the main factors that prevent a population from evolving?
  • How is artificial selection different from natural selection?
  • Why do scientists still debate about evolutionary theory despite overwhelming evidence supporting it?
  • What are some examples of convergent evolution in nature, and how do they function as an adaptation?
  • Why is research about the evolution of life important to understanding the past?

Biology Essay Topics About Genetics

  • What is genetic drift, and how can it lead to changes in a population over time?
  • How do the different parts of DNA interact with each other?
  • How are dominant and recessive traits identified?
  • What are some examples of genetic disorders?
  • What causes Down syndrome, and how is it diagnosed in children?
  • How does natural selection act on mutations to create variation in a population?
  • Can scientists use DNA testing to learn about our ancestors’ migratory patterns and where they lived?
  • How can animal migration help us to better understand genetics?
  • Define molecular genetics and explain how it relates to classical and Mendelian genetics.
  • What is the Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium, and why is it important in population genetics?
  • Do you believe that scientists should clone human beings? Why or why not?
  • Why are dominant traits sometimes called masking genes?
  • Why is genetic diversity important for long-term species survival?
  • How are epigenetic changes related to evolution?
  • What is the difference between gene expression and gene activity with regards to genetics?
  • How do developmental genes affect the appearance of an organism throughout its life cycle?
  • How have animal and plant breeders used genetic engineering to produce certain types of hybrids?
  • What are the ethical implications of human cloning?
  • What are the latest technologies in genetic engineering?
  • What new technologies are needed to make human cloning a reality?
  • How are living organisms adapting to the presence of plastics in our environment?
  • Why are some individuals resistant to certain genetically programmed diseases?
  • What are three common misconceptions about genetic engineering?
  • What is transgenic technology, and how can it be used for disease prevention or treatment?
  • How do microorganisms impact human health and the environment?
  • What are some examples of a genetically modified organism?
  • How does natural selection impact microorganisms?
  • What is DNA profiling, and how can it help to solve crimes or return missing persons to their families?
  • Why do scientists need more research surrounding epigenetics before drawing conclusions on its effects on evolution?

Biology Essay Topics About the Human Body

  • What is the purpose of skeletal and respiratory systems?
  • How do hormones affect our body on a daily basis?
  • How does the endocrine system work as part of an overall regulatory system in the human body?
  • What are some different types of cells found in the human body?
  • What are the differences between exocrine and endocrine glands?
  • What are stem cells, and why are they important to biological research?
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A Black Communist’s Disappearance in Stalin’s Russia

By Joshua Yaffa

Lovett Fort Whiteman portrait in red and black

In the spring of 1936, Lovett Fort-Whiteman, an African American man from Dallas, Texas, vanished in Moscow. He had lived in the Soviet Union for nearly a decade, most recently with his wife, Marina, a Russian Jewish chemist, in a cramped apartment around the corner from the Central Telegraph building. By then, a half-dozen African Americans had settled in Moscow permanently. Even among them, Fort-Whiteman, who was forty-six, was a striking sight. He wore knee-high boots, a black leather cap, and a belted long shirt in the style of Bolshevik commissars. Homer Smith, a Black journalist from Minneapolis and Fort-Whiteman’s close friend in Moscow, later wrote, “He had adopted the practice of many Russian Communists of shaving his head, and with his finely chiseled nose set into a V-shaped face he resembled a Buddhist monk.”

Nearly two decades had passed since the Bolshevik Revolution established the world’s first Communist state, a society that promised equality and dignity for workers and peasants. In the Soviet Union, racial prejudice was considered the result of capitalistic exploitation, and, for the Kremlin, countering racism became a question of geopolitical P.R. Throughout the nineteen-twenties and thirties, dozens of Black activists and intellectuals passed through Moscow. Wherever they went, Russians would give up their place in line, or their seat on a train—a practice that an N.A.A.C.P. leader called an “almost embarrassing courtesy.” In 1931, after the so-called Scottsboro Boys—nine Black teen-agers falsely accused of raping two white women in Alabama—were put on trial, the American Communist Party provided pro-bono legal defense, and rallies in their support were held in dozens of cities across the Soviet Union. Two years later, Paul Robeson, the singer, actor, and activist, visited Moscow and remarked, “Here, for the first time in my life, I walk in full human dignity.”

Homer Smith eventually published a memoir, “Black Man in Red Russia,” in which he described Fort-Whiteman as one of the “early Negro pilgrims who journeyed to Moscow to worship at the ‘Kaaba’ of Communism.” Fort-Whiteman, Smith went on, was a “dyed-in-the-wool Communist dogmatist” who once said that returning to Moscow after a trip to the U.S. felt like coming home.

By the mid-thirties, however, the exuberance of Moscow’s expat community had begun to wane. In 1934, Sergei Kirov, a leading Bolshevik functionary, was shot dead in Leningrad. Joseph Stalin, who had spent the previous decade consolidating power, used the event to justify a campaign of purges targeting the Communist élite. Foreigners, once fêted, became objects of suspicion. “The broom had been sweeping steadily,” Smith, who attended the hearings for a number of high-profile defendants, wrote. “Thousands of lesser victims, I knew, simply disappeared or were liquidated without benefit of trial.”

Fort-Whiteman had become a polarizing figure. He could be pedantic and grandiose, with a penchant for name-dropping. “He did his best to proselytize and indoctrinate,” Smith wrote. Increasingly, Fort-Whiteman came to argue that the Communist Party, in order to win more support among African Americans, must acknowledge that racism, as much as social class, fuelled their plight. For Marxist ideologues, this was heresy.

One day, Smith stopped by Fort-Whiteman’s apartment. He knocked a few times, and finally Marina opened the door. “Is Gospodin Fort-Whiteman at home?” Smith asked, using the Russian honorific. Marina was clearly on edge. “No, he isn’t,” she said. “And I beg you never to come here looking for him again!” From his reporting on the purges, Smith could reasonably assume the worst. He later wrote, “I had been living in Russia long enough to understand the implications.”

Like many African Americans in the early twentieth century, Fort-Whiteman’s life was directly shaped by the atrocities of the antebellum South. His father, Moses Whiteman, was born into slavery on a plantation in South Carolina. Shortly after Reconstruction, he moved to Dallas and married a local girl named Elizabeth Fort. They had a son, Lovett, in 1889, and then a daughter, Hazel. When Fort-Whiteman was around sixteen, he enrolled at the Tuskegee Institute, the historically Black university in Alabama, then led by Booker T. Washington. Moses died a few years later, and Elizabeth and Hazel moved to Harlem. Fort-Whiteman eventually came, too, finding work as a bellhop and moonlighting as an actor in a Black theatre troupe.

In his mid-twenties, he went to Mexico, entering without a passport, and headed for the Yucatán. The Mexican Revolution was under way, with upstart anarchist and socialist movements confronting the wealthy landowning class. By the time Fort-Whiteman returned to Harlem, four years later, in 1917, he was a committed Marxist.

In Russia, it was the year of the October Revolution, in which Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks, after the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, seized power and declared a dictatorship of the proletariat. In the U.S., the appeal of Communism for many immigrants and ethnic minorities was obvious: few other political philosophies at the time held out the possibility of full equality. “It can be difficult for many who think of the Soviet Union through the lens of Stalinism or the ‘evil empire’ to recognize all it seemed to offer African Americans,” Glenda Gilmore, the author of the 2008 book “Defying Dixie,” a history of the radical roots of the civil-rights movement, told me. “They weren’t delusional but, rather, thinking quite practically.”

Fort-Whiteman enrolled in a six-month course at the Rand School, a socialist training academy operating out of a converted mansion on East Fifteenth Street. He told a reporter from The Messenger , a Black-owned magazine that covered the politics and literature of the Harlem Renaissance, “Socialism offers the only lasting remedy for the economic ills from which humanity is suffering and which weigh so heavily on the colored race.”

In the years that followed, Fort-Whiteman returned to acting and began publishing theatre criticism and short fiction in The Messenger . His stories were richly imagined and often laced with a brash disregard for the era’s racial mores. In “Wild Flowers,” Clarissa, a Northern white woman with “a slight but well-knit figure,” has an affair with Jean, a Black man from the South “of pleasing countenance, and in the early flush of manhood.”Eventually, Clarissa gets pregnant, and she tries to hide the affair by accusing her husband of harboring Black ancestry.

As soldiers returned from the First World War, increased competition for jobs and housing contributed to rising racial tensions in the United States. During the summer of 1919, some twenty-six race riots broke out across the country. In Chicago, a Black teen-age boy who drifted on a raft into a whites-only area of Lake Michigan was attacked with rocks and left to drown by a crowd of white bathers. In the violent aftermath, hundreds of Black businesses and homes on the South Side were destroyed, and nearly forty people were killed.

Fort-Whiteman set off on a speaking tour, in the hope that this nationwide spasm of racist violence, known as the Red Summer, would open up African Americans to his radical message. A labor organizer from Illinois compared him to “a man carrying a flaunting torch through dry grass.” Fort-Whiteman was detained in Youngstown, Ohio, after trying to convince Black laborers to join striking steelworkers. He drew a meagre audience in St. Louis, where the police arrested him, boasting to the local papers that they had busted the “St. Louis Soviet.”

Fort-Whiteman eventually caught the attention of the Bureau of Investigation, soon to become the F.B.I. In February of 1924, an agent named Earl Titus, one of the first African Americans to work at the Bureau, saw Fort-Whiteman speak in Chicago. As Titus wrote in his report, Fort-Whiteman told the crowd that “there is nothing here for the negro, and that until they have a revolution in this country as they have had in other countries, the negro will be the same.” Fort-Whiteman added that he “would like very much to go to Russia.”

Two crows in a field judge two scarecrows dressed as tourists.

Link copied

Four months later, at the age of thirty-four, he got his chance: he was selected as a delegate to the Fifth World Congress, the preëminent gathering of the Communist International, to be held that summer in Moscow.

On arrival, Fort-Whiteman and other delegates to the Comintern, as the Communist International was known, were taken to Lenin’s mausoleum, on Red Square. The father of the Revolution had died six months earlier, and his body lay in perpetual state, attracting pilgrims from all over the world. Stalin had been named the head of the Party, but he had not yet solidified power. Bolshevik politics were in a liminal phase, marked by a boisterous debate over the future of Communism. Everything seemed up for grabs, including the Comintern’s policy toward recruiting and organizing African Americans.

During a session devoted to the “national and colonial question,” Fort-Whiteman was given the floor. Stalin was in the audience, along with foreign delegates such as Palmiro Togliatti, a leader of the Italian Communist Party, and Ho Chi Minh, then a young Vietnamese socialist, who had travelled to Moscow on a fake Chinese passport. Fort-Whiteman began by explaining the Great Migration: Blacks were moving north, he said, not only in search of economic opportunity but also as an “expression of the growing revolt of the Negroes against the persecutions and discriminations practiced against them in the South.”

Fort-Whiteman suggested that issues of race and class, in varying and overlapping ways, were responsible for the oppression of African Americans. “The Negroes are not discriminated against as a class but as a race,” he said, seeming to acknowledge that this was a controversial statement. For Communists, he continued, “the Negro problem is a peculiar psychological problem.”

Much of the congress was leisurely. Delegates went boating on the Moscow River and attended a classical-music concert held along the shore. At the end of the three-week event, Fort-Whiteman decided to remain in Moscow. He was invited to enroll as the first African American student at the Communist University of the Toilers of the East (K.U.T.V.). White Americans attended the International Lenin School, Moscow’s premier academy for foreigners. But, because Soviet policy deemed African Americans a “colonized” people, they were to study at K.U.T.V., alongside students from China, India, Indonesia, and elsewhere. (Ho Chi Minh was a student there; so, too, was Deng Xiaoping, the future Chinese leader.) Students spent ninety minutes a day on Russian lessons, and the rest of their time reading Communist texts.

That summer, Fort-Whiteman embarked on a tour of the Soviet Union. Gilmore, in her book, recounts that a Cossack division in Ukraine made him an honorary member; in Soviet Turkestan, residents voted to rename their town Whitemansky. The archives of W. E. B. Du Bois contain a letter from Fort-Whiteman, written “from a village deep in the heart of Russia,” in which he describes how the many nationalities of the Soviet Union “live as one large family, look upon one another simply as human beings.” He tells Du Bois of evenings spent with his K.U.T.V. classmates, staging open-air theatrical performances in the forest: “Here life is poetry itself!”

Back in Moscow, Fort-Whiteman settled into his room at the Hotel Lux, where he wrote a number of letters to top Communist officials. I read them in the Comintern archive, held in the building that once housed the Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute—a five-story edifice in what is now a posh stretch of central Moscow, across from a Prada boutique. Fort-Whiteman asked Grigory Zinoviev, a powerful Bolshevik and the head of the Comintern, about the possibility of enlisting “the discontented elements of the Negro race in America into the revolutionary movement.” He noted that, though African Americans were the most oppressed group in the United States, American Communist organizations had done little to reach out to them. Even if most Black workers had not read Marx, they had been pushed toward radicalism by the crucible of American racism. The Party, he wrote, must “carry Communist teaching to the great mass of American black workers.”

Fort-Whiteman soon returned to Chicago, where he established the American Negro Labor Congress (A.N.L.C.), a forum for Communists to make their pitch to Black workers. Not long after he arrived, he ran into Oliver Golden, a friend from his student days at the Tuskegee Institute. Golden, who was in his late thirties, worked as a railway porter. Fort-Whiteman was walking down the street in a Russian blouse and boots. Golden later recalled, “I asked him what the hell he was wearing. Had he come off stage and forgotten to change clothes?” Fort-Whiteman said that he had just returned from Russia, and asked if Golden wanted to study in Moscow. Golden remembered, “At first I thought he was kidding, but, man, I would have done anything to get off those dining cars!” A couple of weeks later, Golden was on a boat headed across the Atlantic.

That year, Fort-Whiteman dispatched ten Black students to study at K.U.T.V. “Feel assured that the university will be satisfied with the group of young men and women I am sending,” he wrote to K.U.T.V.’s director. The New York Herald Tribune reported that Fort-Whiteman hoped for his recruits to “do some real upheaving when they come home,” and that he planned to open a K.U.T.V. branch in Harlem with courses such as “Economics of Imperialism” and “History of Communism.” The journalist, clearly alarmed, wrote, “The flame of Bolshevism, kindled by Lenin and threatening at one time to set all Europe ablaze, is being quietly concentrated upon the United States through the instrument of the American Negro.”

Harry Haywood, a child of enslaved parents, who had served in a Black regiment in the First World War, helped Fort-Whiteman organize the American Negro Labor Congress. (His older brother Otto was among the men whom Fort-Whiteman convinced to study at K.U.T.V.) Haywood, in his memoir, “Black Bolshevik,” published in 1978, wrote, of Fort-Whiteman, “There was no doubt that he was a showman. He always seemed to be acting out a part he had chosen for himself.”

On the evening of October 25, 1925, five hundred people assembled in a rented hall on Indiana Avenue, in Chicago, for the A.N.L.C.’s founding convention. The program, which Fort-Whiteman had arranged, quickly went awry. A member of a “Russian ballet” company—actually made up of white American dancers—shocked by all the Black faces in the audience, shouted a racial slur. Someone yelled back, “Throw the cracker bitches out!” The company refused to go on. A Soviet theatre troupe performed a one-act Pushkin play, in Russian. “Of itself, it was undoubtedly interesting,” Haywood noted. “But its relevance to a black workers congress was, to say the least, quite unclear.”

After the convention, Fort-Whiteman mounted a barnstorming tour of industrial cities, inviting press attention wherever he went. In Baltimore, the local African American newspaper wrote, approvingly, “If this is red propaganda, then for God’s sake let all our leaders supply themselves with a pot and a brush and give 12,000,000 colored people in this country a generous coating.” The white press reacted with predictable hysteria. In 1925, an article in Time referred to Fort-Whiteman as the “Reddest of the Blacks.”

Fort-Whiteman never ventured farther south, where the vast majority of African Americans lived. The A.N.L.C.’s recruitment efforts floundered. A Communist Party directive in the Comintern archive notes the failure of Fort-Whiteman’s mission, informing Party members that “all shortcomings in tactics and organization must be frankly brought to light.” One high-ranking Black official in the Workers Party of America declared that the organization ended up “almost completely isolated from the basic masses of the Negro people.”

Fort-Whiteman was removed as head of the A.N.L.C. in 1927. It appeared that his great ambition had failed: he hadn’t convinced many African Americans that socialist revolution was a means for combatting racism, nor had he convinced his Communist brethren in Moscow that African Americans were oppressed based on their race. But Fort-Whiteman wouldn’t let the matter drop.

In an article in the Comintern’s official organ, he wrote that “race hatred on the part of the white masses extends to all classes of the negro race.” This debate about the roles of race and class in the perpetuation of inequality continues among leftist activists and thinkers today. “It was clear then, as it is now, that, in America, race classes you,” Gilmore told me. “Fort-Whiteman and others were talking about which should be fixed first.” If race is a social construct, then an egalitarian revolution could be seen as a means for achieving racial equality, too. But, Gilmore added, Fort-Whiteman had a different notion: “Even as a devoted Communist, he understood that, in America, it always came down to the fact that he was a Black man.”

In the Comintern archive, I read an “editorial note” that Fort-Whiteman’s comrades later attached to his essay, calling his position “very superficial.” Fort-Whiteman, they warned, was “shifting from the Communist to the petty bourgeois nationalist point of view.”

At the Sixth Congress of the Comintern, in the summer of 1928, there was a major debate about how best to agitate for Communist revolution among African Americans. Some people within the Party pushed for recruiting sharecroppers and rural laborers in the South. Fort-Whiteman, who had returned to Moscow as a delegate, argued that it was better to wait out the Great Migration, organizing Black workers once they became urban proletariat in the factories of the North. His position aligned with that of Nikolai Bukharin, the editor of Pravda , who saw capitalism as ascendant; worldwide revolution, Bukharin argued, would have to be deferred. Stalin, of course, disagreed.

But, even as Fort-Whiteman found himself in opposition to the Communist mainstream on the “Negro question,” as Comintern ideologues called it, he was thriving in the Soviet Union. He studied ethnology at Moscow State University and spent a summer in Murmansk, in the Arctic Circle, researching the effects of hydrogen concentration in water on fish metabolism. The Moscow Daily News , an English-language paper, hired him as a contributor. His clips reflect an omnivorous mind, on subjects ranging from early radiation therapies (“The result of this experiment was a 70 per cent cure of cancerous mice”) to the fauna of western Siberia (“The expedition reports the presence of an abundance of elk”). In an interview that Smith conducted for the Chicago Defender , a Black-owned paper, Fort-Whiteman described the Soviet Union as a place where “the Negro is untrammeled by artificial racial restrictions to make a genuine contribution to human culture.”

Along the way, he married Marina, a chemist in her late twenties, although, as Smith recalls, Fort-Whiteman’s Russian was still rudimentary, and Marina’s English wasn’t much better. Soviet authorities opened an Anglo-American school in Moscow, to educate the children of foreign workers; Fort-Whiteman took a job there, as a science teacher. Yevgeny Dolmatovsky, a celebrated poet, wrote a verse about a visit to Fort-Whiteman’s classroom: “The black teacher Whiteman / Leads the lesson. / From in my heart I draw my words / From the deepest reaches within / I see again, and again, and again / You, my Black comrade!”

Fort-Whiteman was eager to mentor the other African Americans living in Moscow. He regularly hosted lunches at his apartment, where he expounded on Marxist theory and boasted about his connections to top Bolsheviks, such as Bukharin and Karl Radek, an Austrian-born Jewish Communist and a former secretary of the Comintern. He also implored his visitors to remain acutely aware of their race. This emphasis on color consciousness, which ran counter not only to reigning Communist theory but also to the everyday experience of being Black in Moscow, was often met with resistance. One of Fort-Whiteman’s guests suggested that, if he enjoyed “going around with a black chip on his shoulder,” he should return to the American South. Smith later wrote, “His Negro guests relished the food and drinks, but the indoctrination dish did not prove as digestible.”

In 1931, a production company financed by the Comintern backed a big-budget movie, “Black and White,” about the American race problem. The film was set in Birmingham, Alabama, and featured Black stokers in steel mills and domestic workers in affluent white households. Fort-Whiteman was enlisted as a screenwriting consultant. A number of aspiring Black actors in the U.S. expressed interest in taking part. Langston Hughes joined on as a writer.

In the early-morning hours of June 14, 1932, twenty-two Black students, teachers, actors, and writers set off from New York, travelling to Germany on the ocean liner Europa, and then by train to Moscow. Fort-Whiteman met them on the platform with a welcome party that included most of the city’s small African American community. As Hughes later recalled, invoking a popular spiritual, “Certainly colored comrade Whiteman didn’t look anything like a motherless chile, a long ways from home .”

The Americans spent the next few weeks dancing at the Metropol Hotel, cavorting with nude bathers along the riverfront, and embarking on love affairs. A member of the company was soon engaged to a Russian woman; Mildred Jones, an art student at the Hampton Institute, in Virginia, was pursued by an official from the Soviet Foreign Ministry. According to Smith, one couple were so engrossed in their rendezvous on a rowboat in the Moscow River that they failed to notice the boat was sinking.

Fort-Whiteman had helped write the first draft of the “Black and White” script. I found a copy at the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art, where a typewritten note from the esteemed Soviet filmmaker Boris Barnet was attached to the first page. “This picture tries to provide a historical perspective to the narrative of the enslavement of American Negroes, which is part of the general enslavement and exploitation of the capitalist system,” Barnet wrote. “Even if individual events in this picture may seem grotesque or almost incredible, the fault lies not with the author but with the viewer himself, who deliberately closes his eyes to the cruelty of the capitalist system.”

Hughes, put in charge of revising the script, found the draft “improbable to the point of ludicrousness.” He recalled, “I was astonished at what I read. Then I laughed until I cried.” A number of the film’s scenes, including one in which the son of a rich white industrialist asks a Black servant to dance at a party, were “so interwoven with major and minor impossibilities and improbabilities that it would have seemed like a burlesque on the screen.” At one point, a well-heeled capitalist hatches a plot to keep labor unrest at bay, saying, “You see, racial hatred allows us to avoid more serious conflicts.” The workers, however, aren’t having it: “The proletariat does not see racial differences,” one of the union leaders proclaims.

“Black and White” was a dream world of Fort-Whiteman’s making. As Smith put it, “He was a negro intellectual and so steeped in party dogma that he had completely lost touch with America.” Hughes told his Soviet hosts that the script was beyond saving.

In the end, the project fell apart for reasons that had nothing to do with Hughes or Fort-Whiteman. In the autumn of 1933, after years of negotiations, the United States agreed to grant formal diplomatic recognition to the Soviet regime. The agreement, Stalin hoped, would help secure the loans and the foreign machinery needed to realize his Five-Year Plan, an ambitious race to build up industry and modern infrastructure. But in return the Kremlin was required to limit its dissemination of anti-American propaganda. “Black and White” was cancelled before a single scene had been shot.

A person on a boat with a basket of laundry is about to enter the Tunnel of Laundry.

By the mid-thirties, Stalin had squelched internal debates about the pace and the objectives of the Communist project. His secret police, the N.K.V.D., was sending previously loyal Party members to an expanding network of work camps, the Gulag, in the harshest corners of the country. Smith began to sour on the Soviet Union, wondering, “Was the racial equality worth the bare subsistence living in an atmosphere filled with fear and suspicion?”

Even Fort-Whiteman was having doubts. He confided to Smith that he feared Stalin was leading the country away from the original tenets of the Revolution. In October, 1933, he sent a letter to the Workers Party head office, in New York. “I wish to return to America,” he wrote, proposing that he work as a lecturer at the Party school on East Fourteenth Street. Soviet authorities monitored the correspondence of foreigners in Moscow, and the letter was intercepted before it left the country. I found it in Fort-Whiteman’s file at the Comintern archive. A handwritten note from a top official at the Comintern’s Anglo-American secretariat, scribbled across the page, instructed subordinates to bring Fort-Whiteman in for a talk. His request to leave was denied.

Letters documenting Fort-Whiteman’s activities began piling up in his personnel file. His informal apartment gatherings were a cause of concern: “Fort-Whiteman held the most backward view that a group of this kind should not exist as a political entity nor within existing structures.” Indoctrination was the exclusive role of the Party, and Fort-Whiteman was going off script.

During the purges, ideological disagreements and skirmishes over bureaucratic positioning often blended with petty personal grievances. In April, 1935, at the Foreign Workers’ Club, Fort-Whiteman led a discussion about “The Ways of White Folks,” a new collection of fiction by Hughes, which depicts the immutability of racism with tragicomic irony. Fort-Whiteman, perhaps still stung by his experience on “Black and White,” was not a fan of the work, dismissing it as “art, not propaganda.”

William Patterson, a prominent Black Communist and a leading civil-rights lawyer, who had travelled to Moscow from Harlem some months before, was in the audience that night. He seemed to harbor ill feelings toward Fort-Whiteman, and moved to strike against him under the pretext of defending Hughes. In a letter to the Comintern, Patterson wrote that Fort-Whiteman had used his review of the book as cover for making “a very open attack upon the Comintern position on the Negro Question,” adding that Fort-Whiteman should be “sent to work somewhere where contact with the Negro comrades is impossible.”

That summer, at the Seventh Congress of the Comintern, a few American delegates met to discuss what to do about Fort-Whiteman’s efforts to “mislead some of the Negro comrades.” It was agreed that Patterson and James Ford, a Black Communist who had run for Vice-President of the United States on the Party’s slate, would take charge of the question. During the next several months, Patterson filed a flurry of letters with the Comintern. In an elegant cursive, he alleged that Fort-Whiteman had a “rotten” attitude toward the Party and was preoccupied with “the corruption of the Negro elements.”

Once a person was identified as unreliable, the pile-on was inevitable; the only danger was to be seen as inadequately vigilant in calling out class enemies. A kindly archivist passed me a summary of the “secret” portion of Fort-Whiteman’s personnel file, still technically off limits nearly a hundred years after its compilation. According to the accounts of unnamed informants, Fort-Whiteman had been overheard saying that the work of the Comintern had amounted to “empty talk,” that Stalin was a “minor” figure in the Bolshevik Revolution, and that Communists held their “white interests dearer and closer” than those of Blacks. Fort-Whiteman, one source claimed, considered himself a natural “leader of the people” who would return to the U.S. and create a movement among African Americans outside Soviet influence.

Reading the list of Fort-Whiteman’s supposed transgressions, I pictured him strolling through Moscow in those days, projecting an air of headstrong industriousness. He was still working on manuscripts and speeches, teaching, travelling, and attending the theatre—generally enjoying the kind of spirited intellectual and social life that would have been impossible in the land of his birth. In the spring of 1936, when he was ordered to report to N.K.V.D. headquarters, on Lubyanka Square, how could he have foreseen the cruelty that his adopted country was about to inflict on him? By the time Homer Smith knocked on Fort-Whiteman’s door, a few days later, he was in exile.

After the Soviet collapse, many archives in Russia were suddenly accessible. Alan Cullison, who worked as an A.P. reporter in Moscow during the nineties, spent much of his free time researching the fates of Americans in the Soviet Union. In the Communist Party archive, he found a partial record showing that Fort-Whiteman had been banished to Semipalatinsk, a distant outpost in the eastern reaches of Soviet Kazakhstan. It was a hard, unforgiving place, but Fort-Whiteman made a life for himself. He found work as a language teacher and a boxing instructor, attracting a circle of curious locals to his sports club.

Back in Moscow, the purges had taken on a fearful momentum. Radek, the former Comintern secretary, who had mentored Fort-Whiteman, was declared a traitor and sent to a labor camp. Bukharin was executed after providing a false confession at a show trial. On November 16, 1937, a squad of N.K.V.D. agents showed up at Fort-Whiteman’s apartment in Semipalatinsk. Fort-Whiteman’s investigative file at the agency’s Kazakh bureau was unearthed by Sean Guillory, a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh who is working on an audio documentary about African Americans in the early Soviet Union. The file includes the testimony of a young man, whom Fort-Whiteman tried to recruit as a boxing pupil, reporting that Fort-Whiteman had recommended foreign literature and said, “Come join my club, we’ll earn a lot of money, travel across the Soviet Union and go abroad.”

For the next eight months, Fort-Whiteman was held in a prison cell in Semipalatinsk, while a “special council” of the N.K.V.D. was assembled to decide his fate. The Kazakh prosecutor’s office sent me a copy of his case. It showed that, in August, 1938, he was found guilty of crimes including anti-Soviet agitation, slandering the Party, and “cultivating exiles around himself while instilling a counter-revolutionary spirit.” He was sentenced to five years in a correctional labor camp.

His destination was Kolyma, a region in the Russian Far East which Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn described as a “pole of cold and cruelty.” Fort-Whiteman was assigned to a network of forced-labor sites known as Sevvostlag, where convicts mined for gold and laid new stretches of road on the frozen tundra. The prisoners were outfitted with crude boots and thinly padded jackets—little defense against temperatures that regularly dipped to fifty degrees below zero.

Within a few months, Fort-Whiteman fell behind on his work quota, and his daily food rations were withheld. Camp guards beat him brutally and often. A man of so much vitality, even glamour, was reduced to a dokhodyaga , camp slang that roughly translates as “a person nearing the end of his walk.”

None of his Moscow friends had any idea what had happened to him. Among them was Robert Robinson, an African American toolmaker from Detroit who had been recruited to work in Russia by Soviet emissaries who were visiting the Ford Motor plant. Robinson ultimately stayed in the Soviet Union for more than four decades. In a memoir, he described an encounter with a friend in Moscow who had been a prisoner in Kolyma with Fort-Whiteman. “He died of starvation, or malnutrition, a broken man whose teeth had been knocked out,” the friend said.

The final document in Fort-Whiteman’s long record is his death certificate, a faded sheet of paper held in a distant archive in Kazakhstan. Just after midnight on January 13, 1939, Fort-Whiteman’s frozen corpse was delivered to the hospital in Ust-Taezhny, a settlement carved out of fields of snow. The official cause of death was “weakening of cardiac activity.” Fort-Whiteman is the only African American recorded to have died in the Gulag, but in his final moments that distinction made little difference. He was buried in a mass grave with thousands of fellow-inmates who met the same fate. ♦

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