Black Left feminists, during the 1900s, boldly declared an international social justice agenda of Black liberation, women’s rights, decolonization, economic justice, peace, and international working class solidarity. For those of us who teach in the discipline of American
history in higher education, and who use a version of Paulo Freire’s “pedagogy of the oppressed” model, we seek to impart knowledge of
modern American society based in large part on a special social activist understanding of the relationship between teacher, student, and society. Much of the philosophical content of this revolutionary pedagogy is informed by the transnational social justice values of Black Left
Historically, these social justice values have frequently been articulated by Black female Communist Party intellectuals. For example, there is the unconventional global wanderer Louise Thompson Patterson, who penned one of the first analyses of the “triple exploitation” of race, gender, and class; Esther Cooper Jackson, a Southern-based civil rights militant, narrated the trials and tribulations of Black female domestic laborers; and Claudia Jones, the Trinidad-born public intellectual, emerged as one of the Communist Party’s leading theoreticians regarding the triple exploitation of Black women.
Young historians of radicalism and the Black freedom struggle in the United States are constructing a new social and political history that contextualizes the narrative of Black Left feminism. It is one in which American Communism, and other revolutionary movements, did not fully succeed on their own terms, but nonetheless made lasting progressive contributions to American society. More specifically, as part of this larger story, the formidable “Academic Left” has manifested a scholarly reverence for radical Black feminists and their ideas. The three tomes under review in this essay, Minkah Makalani, In the Cause of Freedom: Radical Black Internationalism from Harlem to London, 1917-1939 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011); Dayo F. Gore, Radicalism at the Crossroads: African American Women Activists in the Cold War. New York: NYU Press, 2011; and Erik McDuffie, Sojourning for Freedom: Black Women, American Communism, and the Making of Black Left Feminism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011) bear witness to this truth.
Minkah Makalani, a young historian in The University of Texas at Austin
Department of African and African Diaspora Studies, reveals in his well-written study, In the Cause of Freedom, how early Twentieth-Century Black militants of both genders fostered a transnational movement focusing on the issues of racial oppression, gender inequality, colonialism, class exploitation, and global white supremacy. This remarkable analysis examines the concepts, enterprises, and associations of interwar (1920s and 1930s) African American radicals, as well as how they coordinated their projects across continents.
This insightful investigation offers an historical account of the complex interaction between radical Black activists and early American Communism. Communists in the United States, like the Socialists, at first displayed only a slight concern with Black workers. They also failed to engage the young Black militants that emerged on the scene in the post-World War I period. By the early 1920s, however, the American Communist Party (CPUSA) defined the “Negro problems” in the United States in a global context. As an instrument of world revolution and anti-colonialism, the CPUSA approached the racial situation from that broad perspective. Accordingly, Black Americans combating Jim Crow and lynching were essentially no different than Africans fighting for national independence and self-determination. Not surprisingly, then, the Party proved most attractive at this time to Black laborers who displayed internationalist proclivities. In fact, a number of African American members of the CPUSA in the early 1920s were immigrant workers from the West Indies. Understandably, they viewed the struggles of the Black working class in the United States in the larger context of non-Europeans fighting against capitalism and imperialism.
This line of analysis brings us to an important young radical scholar, Dayo F. Gore, and Radicalism at the Crossroads. Professor Gore, an African American feminist scholar and former fellow of Harvard’s Warren Center for North American History, is presently working in the History and Women’s Studies Departments at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is one of a new generation of youthful scholars researching and exploring the rarely chronicled history of 20th century Black women’s radicalism. In partnership with two other colleagues, Jeanne Theoharis and Komozi Woodard, Gore edited a collection of essays, Want to Start A Revolution? Radical Women In The Black Freedom Struggle (NYU Press, 2009), to which she contributed the chapter “From Communist Politics to Black Power: The Visionary Politics and Transnational Solidarities of Victoria Ama Garvin.”
In Radicalism at the Crossroads, Gore analyzes the leftist African American women who worked for racial and gender equality in the post-World War II Cold War years. In spite of the intolerance of the McCarthy period (1947-1956), these determined women refused to abandon their links with Communism. A lot of these women of color, according to Gore, were “lesser-known activists”: Vicki Garvin, Yvonne Gregory, and Thelma Dale Perkins. In her narrative, Gore also includes larger figures such as Lorraine Hansberry, the author of the classic Broadway play “Raisin in the Sun,” as well as Alice Childress. The latter Black female intellectual was an actress, director, playwright, novelist, columnist, essayist, lecturer, and theater consultant. Childress was also a highly regarded cultural critic and defender of the impoverished masses in the United States. Her works condemned American society for its exploitation of the poor in the name of capitalism. In her book, Gore reveals, in a kind of collective political biography, how Old Left Black female activists were actually coast-to-coast leaders, intellectual architects, and strategists in building the black freedom struggle, U.S. radicalism, and feminist politics.
In the moral epistemology of deconstructing the 20th century historical development of a global social justice program, the writings of Black Left feminists give voice to one of the most powerless and marginalized group in Western and American society: Black women. African American feminists in and around the American Communist Party, acting as Antonio Gramsci’s “organic intellectuals,” are profound moral teachers. An internationally acclaimed member of this group, present-day Marxist philosopher Angela Y. Davis, has asked a key philosophical question: what is the meaning of freedom?
Davis and the Black Left feminists have answered this fundamental query by contending that ending all forms of oppression that deny people their political, cultural, and sexual freedom is the ultimate meaning of “freedom.” They have reflected and written about the interconnected issues of freedom, power, race, gender, class, incarceration, the environment, and the ongoing need for revolutionary social change in the United States and the West. In and out of the Communist movement, radical Black feminists have also emphasized a participatory democratic social process that necessitates new modes of thinking about the American version of Marxist-Leninism that are revisionist in nature.
Indeed, the discussion so far raises the issue of the cogency of the revisionist historical view of American Communism that has dominated academic history from the 1970s to the present. Revisionists view the ties between the CPUSA and the Soviet Union as minimal and often treat them as largely irrelevant. The daily activities of the American Communist rank-and-file at the grassroots level were rooted in local working class concerns. Randi Storch (SUNY-Cortland) stands as one of the key academic leaders of the revisionist school. Her masterpiece, Red Chicago: American Communism at Its Grassroots, 1928-1935 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007), and her outstanding essay, “American Communism and Soviet Russia: A View from Chicago’s Streets,” American Communist History (June 2009), 25-28, represent some of the best of revisionist scholarship.
Revisionists are also aware of the shortcomings of the CPUSA. Over the last four decades the standard argument recognized that, all told, the CPUSA had a dual nature. On the one hand, it was in many ways rigid, secretive and undemocratic. However, on the other hand, it was, for much of the 20th century, the most active, productive group on the American Left. In any case, it was, as a matter of history, the vehicle through which hundreds of thousands of Americans, including African American feminists, sought to create a more democratic and egalitarian society. The best recent treatment of the Communists’ participation in an antiracist global campaign is Edward P. Johanningsmeier’s “Communists and Black Freedom Movements in South Africa and the US: 1919-1950,” Journal of Southern African Studies (March, 2004), 155-180.
It is in this context of a fresh revisionist look at history of American and international Communism, as described by Storch and Johanningsmeier, that Erik McDuffie’s Sojourning for Freedom depicts an international community of radical Black women activists and intellectuals who laid the foundation for a modern transnational Black feminism. This young African American scholar, now on the faculty at the University of Delaware, skillfully presents a collection of radical Black women of the Old Left. A few, like Claudia Jones, may be known to a few scholars. Others, however, have been overlooked or ignored. Nonetheless, in McDuffie’s account all are included in an account that progresses from the Twenties to the Seventies and includes all the “waves” of feminist stages of evolution in American history.
For instance, McDuffie offers an instructive analysis of the post-WWI generation of Black Left feminists who did not hesitate to involve themselves in the newly formed American Communist movement of the Jazz Age decade. To be sure, they were encouraged by the Great Migration and the subsequent urban expression of the “New Negro” as well as the emergence of the “New Woman’s” unprecedented freedom in manners and morals. Moreover, the fresh utopian dream of Bolshevism also inspired some of these African American female militants to embrace a Marxist vision that condemned white domination, Victorian standards, and European empire-building in Africa and Asia. As a careful historian, the author is at his best in detailing how Black feminists interacted with the new American Communist party.
Black Left feminists, as the decades rolled by in the 20th century, related in various ways to the CPUSA as a revolutionary organization. McDuffie analyzes these relationships with remarkable dexterity. Overall, as a matter of Marxist theory, the American Party presented itself as an operational base for Black Left feminists. Throughout her career as an activist and radical, Louise Thompson Patterson chose to operate inside the CPUSA. On the other hand, Audley “Queen Mother” Moore, feeling disrespected by the party’s white leadership, broke with the Communists during the World War II years. The truth is that African American party members sometimes openly expressed their disapproval of the racial sins of white comrades. For example, during the 1930s, Black party leader B.D. Amis directly confronted the CPUSA Central Committee about the white paternalists in the Party who had the Scottsboro mothers cleaning and cooking in their homes in New York City.
Furthermore, McDuffie’s book utilizes the Marxist-feminist critical theory of inter-sectionality and “triple oppression” as an historical tool of analysis to understand Black Left feminism. This is in itself a major contribution of this study to the scholarly literature of race and radicalism. It may be in the future that all worthwhile analysis of political oppression of all kinds must be related to and compared with Black women in particular. McDuffie does point out shortcomings of Black Left feminism in the 20th century, including how many of them ignored the transgressions of Stalinism until 1956. Lastly, the author’s overall analysis of feminist history moves scholars beyond the traditional three wave history.
Finally, the history of 20th century Black Left feminists is part of a usable past for present-day scholar-activists who employ some version of Paulo Freire’s “pedagogy of the oppressed” model in history, political science, journalism, and other similar academic disciplines. Furthermore, in the overall history of the American Left, reformers, radicals, and idealists who have struggled for a more just and caring society, from Frederick Douglass to Noam Chomsky, must now also include the names of African American feminists such as Louise Thompson Patterson, Esther Cooper Jackson, Claudia Jones, and Angela Davis among others. Likewise, in a recent book, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America, scholar-activist-journalist Melissa V. Harris-Perry reveals how Black Left feminism informs contemporary understanding of race, gender and class among the Black intelligentsia.
The author is Professor of History at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania.