Radicalism at the Crossroads: African American Women Activists in the Cold War
By Dayo Gore
New York: New York University Press, 2011, 231 pp., $39.00, hardcover
Sojourning For Freedom: Black Women, American Communism, and the Making of Black Left Feminism
By Erik McDuffie
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011, 328 pp., $23.95, paperback
Reviewed by Mary Helen Washington
In a recent PBS documentary on the 1961 Freedom Riders, then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, flummoxed by a radical young black woman who dared to defy his spineless Justice Department by insisting that the freedom rides continue, picked up his phone and demanded of his assistant, John Seigenthaler, “Who the hell is Diane Nash?” In another context, say the 1940s and 1950s, when black women on the Left were also defiantly in the forefront of struggles for civil rights justice, the AG might well have asked, “Who the hell are Victoria Garvin, Yvonne Gregory, Maude White Katz, Thelma Dale Perkins, Marvel Cooke, Claudia Jones, Yvonne Gregory, Audley (Queen Mother) Moore, Bonita Williams, Alice Childress, Beulah Richardson (Beah Richards), Helen Samuels, Rose Gaulden, Louise Thompson Patterson, Salaria Kee, Thyra Edwards, Charlene Mitchell, Sallye Bell Davis, and Esther Cooper Jackson?” Communists, pro-Communists, labor activists, and left cultural workers, these women are the subjects of two groundbreaking studies of black women on the Left, Radicalism at the Crossroads, by Dayo Gore, an assistant professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst; and Sojourning For Freedom, by Erik McDuffie, an assistant professor of African American Studies and Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
These two studies constitute the first comprehensive, book-length histories of black radical women in the US. Using oral testimonies and interviews with their subjects (many of whom were—and are—in their eighties and nineties), mining a trove of archival material, searching through newspapers, and reading the few biographical materials that exist on the subject, Gore and McDuffie examine the intellectual work and activism of a network of black women radicals who operated within the US Left from the 1930s through the 1980s, showing how these women, in their activism and theorizing, defined feminism with black working-class women at the center. Gore’s study focuses specifically on black women radicals during the height of Cold War anticommunism. While McDuffie’s project covers some of the same territory, it is in many ways entirely different, an exploration, analysis, and genealogy of black Left feminism.
Challenging the dominant narrative that the Cold War represented only a decline for the radical Left, Gore, along with a number of other scholars of the black Left (myself included), maintains that the Cold War, ironically, provided an important space for black women’s activism. As a “shrinking left sought to adjust to the changing landscape,” she writes, black women, despite the increased dangers, moved into claim their space. Black women radicals “centered issues of African American women’s civil rights and self-defense…, expanded the politics of the labor movement, and articulated the need for an intersectional analysis that addressed the diversity of women’s gendered experience.”
The women studied by Gore and McDuffie deliberately and consciously chose to work within the Communist Party (CPUSA) or with Communist-led organizations such as the Civil Rights Congress (CRC), the National Negro Congress (NNC), and Paul Robeson’s newspaper Freedom—even during the most dangerous days of the Cold War. These women were truly radical: “supportive of a left-wing politics” that critiqued and fought against capitalism and white supremacy and that had an internationalist focus. And, Gore insists, they were not simply “ground troops” or women in the background; they moved from grassroots organizing to national leadership roles, retaining their commitments to both. “Diverse locations” is the term she uses to describe how these women worked—in the marginal spaces of unions, Left-leaning newspapers, and labor organizations, always pressing the demands of women and fighting gender discrimination.
While they came from varied family backgrounds, most had some economic and educational mobility. Many had college-educated parents, were college educated themselves, or came from families that emphasized education. While black women had to demand leadership opportunities in CP-affiliated organizations, both Gore and McDuffie suggest that they would not have found the same openness to their leadership in traditional black political organizations. It’s hard to imagine the NAACP or CORE selecting a black woman to head their organizations in the 1950s, as the National Negro Labor Council (NNLC) did when it appointed Garvin as executive secretary of the New York Labor Council (NYLC), after the organization’s head, Ferdinand Smith, was deported. Garvin says that she had her issues with male leadership and had to fight against sexism, but she never felt that the men tried to “run roughshod over her.” And although black women experienced drawbacks and limitations in finding intimate partners in the interracial Left, some married or formed relationships with the men they met in Left circles.
At the center of this rich history, standing beside these leading women of the Left, is another figure—the black woman domestic. At the same time that the radical women were crafting their personal feminist politics, they were constructing an imbricated feminist praxis through their analysis of the job discrimination faced by black domestics. Marvel Cooke is a good example: a child of the white suburbs of Minnesota, the daughter of a Pullman porter and a prominent supporter of Eugene Debs, a graduate of the University of Minnesota, Cooke was recruited into the Communist Party by the leading New York Communist and City Councilman Ben Davis. Cooke and the activist Ella Baker co-authored “The Bronx Slave Market,” an exposé of the exploitation of black women domestics published in 1935 in The Crisis, the NAACP’s magazine. Reporting for the black weekly, the New York Amsterdam News, Cooke continued her investigations into the treatment of domestics in a series of articles with headlines like “Modern Slaves.” Apparently Cooke herself participated in the “market,” and experienced for herself being approached by predatory men and hired at less than the going wage. In the five-part series she published in 1950 for the radical New York paper The Daily Compass, she vividly describes the vicious, sexualized indignity of being made to stand on a spot where white women would come to look over the potential domestic help.
Cooke’s investigations demonstrated that black domestics’ largely hidden labor allowed white women to create and live up to a white ideal of womanhood. She also wrote articles highlighting the work of Local 149 of the Independent Domestic Workers’ Union, the fight over laws regulating minimum wage and maximum hours, the benefits of worker’s compensation, and “above all, unionization,” says Gore. Unsurprisingly, for her efforts, she was called by McCarthy to testify before the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and was accused of being a major party leader. Refusing to testify, Cooke cited the Fifth Amendment and was never again contacted, says Rodger Streitmatter in Raising Her Voice: African-American Women Journalists Who Changed History (1994), though she continued her involvement with the Party.
Gore’s recovery of Vicki Garvin’s role in making black women’s employment rights central to union organizing, to the left, and to civil right struggles brings to light one of the most important and neglected stories in US labor history. Garvin’s major victory was probably the 1952 campaign, through the local National Negro Labor Congress (NNLC) in San Francisco, to force Sears, Roebuck and Company to end its practice of limiting black women to menial jobs such as janitors and to open up sales clerk positions to them, which the company managed to do in 1954. Sears, of course, was not the only offender. General Electric, Ford, and Westinghouse plants in the South refused to hire black women on their production lines. Though 6,000 of its workers were white women, GE refused to hire black women as anything except “scrub women.”
The category “black domestic worker” misleadingly implies a huge number of untrained and unskilled black women looking only for work as domestics. But until the early 1970s, black women—unless they had college educations and could work as teachers, social workers, or nurses—were systematically excluded from all but the most menial jobs, denied even low-paid clerical, sales, or security guard work—in the North as well as the South—domestics by default. In Cleveland, Ohio, where I grew up, black women who wanted to be secretaries were steered away from attending John Hay High School (a public business school) and encouraged to train as “housekeepers” instead. Despite all of my high grades and honors at a prestigious Catholic high school, when I was sixteen and looking for my first job at the department stores in downtown Cleveland in the late 1950s, I was offered only a job in the stockroom—with a uniform. I was not eligible even for a cashier’s job, the unwritten but rigidly observed rule being that black women could work only where they could not be seen by the public.
Many of the radical black women eventually left the CP and cut their leftist institutional affiliations, but they continued their political work. During the sixties, they moved in international and radical circles; some joined the African American expatriate communities in newly independent African nations such as Ghana. Garvin traveled to Nigeria, lived in Ghana, and then spent six years in the People’s Republic of China, continuing throughout her life to support the Chinese Communist Party. Cooke, Garvin, and Alice Childress became active in US-China Peoples Friendship Association (USCPFA) and the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship (NCASF) as a way to stay connected to old allies, “to reengage with left politics,” and to extend their radical visions internationally, says Gore. Of course the US State Department was hypervigilant in watching these vocal and radical African Americans, fearing their analyses of and protests against US policies.
Under the leadership of Esther Cooper Jackson they kept alive the left-wing journal Freedomways, founded in the 1960s, until 1985. Freedomways had a clear and consistent black feminist politics. Its contributors and editors were drawn from Jackson’s wide network of writers and cultural workers, and included novelist Alice Walker, poet Gwendolyn Brooks, poet Audre Lorde, artist Tom Feelings, activist and scholar Angela Davis, novelist James Baldwin, and jazz drummer Max Roach as well as Popular Front figures such as Paul Robeson, W.E.B. Du Bois, Childress, and Charles White. The journal also published international figures such as President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana.
Determined to continue their political work by “supporting our youth in whatever form and manner possible,” during the sixties and seventies, black radical women led and participated in protests on behalf of incarcerated women such Angela Davis and Joan Little, bringing together a broad coalition of feminist activists, veterans of radical movements, and black-power advocates.
McDuffie’s project in Sojourning for Freedom is not so much to survey the history of radical black feminists as to lay the groundwork for theorizing and defining black Left feminism. What influenced black women to join the CPUSA? How did their lived experiences, along with their Party, community, and international connections, contribute to their radicalization? What enabled them to continue their work? Through oral testimony, McDuffie profiles eleven black women radicals, activists, and theoreticians, all of whom were affiliated at some point with the Communist Party. He argues that “the international Left served as a key site where black women in the United States forged an innovative radical black feminist politics during the early and mid-twentieth century, [which] laid the groundwork for the black feminism of the 1970s.”
These women were the first to formulate the concept of “triple oppression” of race, class, and gender, now generally referred to by scholars as “intersectionality.” They challenged the CP’s representations of workers as white and male, shifting the terms of radicalism to the site of domestic work rather than the factory floor, and insisting that black women were the vanguard of revolutionary change. Advancing black women’s concerns, they forced a rethinking of Marxist-Leninism that challenged the masculinist assumptions of the CP’s analysis of the “Negro Question” and the racist assumptions of its view of the “Woman Question.”
McDuffie traces the journeys of three generations of black radical feminists, beginning with the generation of 1920s activists, including Grace Campbell, Hermina Dumont (Huiswould), Maude White (Katz), and Williana Jones (Burroughs), who made their way to the Communist Left via the Workers Party (WP), through black leftist groups like the African Black Brotherhood (ABB), and through other left-wing groups like the Socialist Party (SP). Campbell, a social worker and Howard University graduate, was radicalized by her experiences as a parole officer and jail attendant in the women’s section of the New York’s women’s prison known as the Tombs. Disillusioned with social work, Burroughs joined the WP because of its antiracist and anti-imperialist policies. Dumont’s marriage to Otto Huiswould, a Communist from Dutch Guiana, sealed her lifelong commitment to leftwing radicalism; while Maude White, who was raised in poverty in the coal-mining town of McKeesport, Pennsylvania, was recruited into the CP by her white English teacher, Eleanor Goldsmith.
Crucial to the development of feminism among this first generation was, first, the CPUSA’s 1928 resolution on the Negro Question, which directed American Communists to fight against racial discrimination “with special emphasis on fighting against lynching and Jim Crow.” Though the 1928 statement represented a masculinist vision and ideology, it nonetheless “declared black women ‘the most exploited’ segment within the labor force” and emphasized the powerful role of black women in black emancipation, McDuffie explains. Second, McDuffie emphasizes, was international travel, especially to the Soviet Union. At least three of the early black Communist women traveled there, where they experienced “an exhilarating moment of self-discovery and freedom,” feeling for the first time that they were treated with respect and dignity. At the time of their travel, Moscow was “the center of Bolshevik feminist discussions on women’s rights and sexual liberation,” and the visitors would have been part of conversations about the relationship between sexism, racism, capitalism, and imperialism, says McDuffie.
Maude White stayed in the Soviet Union for three “exciting” years, on a scholarship to the University of Toilers (KUTV), “an ideological institute in Moscow founded to train Communist cadres from the colonial world and nationally oppressed people,” says McDuffie. Hermina Dumont Huiswould stayed for three years and became an interpreter at the institute. Williana Burroughs took her two children, Charles and Neal, to the Soviet Union, while her progressive husband remained at home. As a result of her training in Moscow she would become a leader of the global Communist movement, making four trips to the Soviet Union, one as a delegate to the Sixth Comintern Congress. She left her two children there for fifteen years, determined that they would grow up in a society free of racism. McDuffie does well at imagining the changes wrought in these women by years of studying and working in the Soviet Union, where they were treated as equals and dignitaries, and, even more importantly, saw themselves at the center of the creation of world socialism. All returned to Harlem to work with the Harlem Communist Party.
The second generation of black radical women came of age during the 1930s, when the Depression was at its worst. McDuffie concentrates in this section on Claudia Jones, Esther Cooper, Louise Thompson (Patterson), Thyra Edwards, and Salaria Kee, whose first encounters with the CP would have been through its presence in neighborhoods like Harlem, protesting against conditions for poor people and minorities. According to the claims of Harlem Communist leaders, black women constituted seventy percent of CP membership in Harlem in the mid-1930s, attracted to the Party, McDuffie contends, not because of its Marxist-Leninist politics but because of its track record on behalf of poor blacks. Working-class black women organizers led rent strikes and protests against evictions; picketed racist businesses and sponsored a mass action against white grocers in Harlem, forcing them to lower their prices. In 1938, British West Indian Bonita Williams joined other nationalists for a mass meeting at the Abyssinian Baptist Church to denounce the shooting of striking Jamaican cane workers. Women in the Harlem Communist Party organized black, Puerto Rican, and Italian women at the Works Progress Administration’s (WPA) massive (3500 women) garment factory (p. 85). Though scholarly studies tend to give credit to middle-class intellectuals like Louise Thompson, it was these street-level organizers and their grassroots followers who built the Communist Party in Harlem in the 1920s, putting black working-class women at the center.
Supported by the Communist Left, this second generation also took advantage of the opportunity to travel internationally. Louise Thompson and Thyra Edwards, who had been drawn to the Left because of Depression conditions in black communities, traveled to the Soviet Union with a film crew led by the Communist organizer James W. Ford, as members of the cast for a Soviet film, Black and White, which would portray “Negro life”—although the film was eventually cancelled in response to American diplomatic pressure. Thompson spent five months in the Soviet Union in June 1932. Returning home, she became involved in the defense of the “Scottsboro boys,” nine black teenagers who had been accused of raping a white woman, and joined the CPUSA. Like the first generation of black women radicals, Thompson and Edwards found their experience in the Soviet Union transformative: there, they could explore issues of race, class, and gender “in a global context,” says McDuffie; the USSR was “a political terrain for nurturing their nascent black feminism.”
For both Thompson and Edwards, the model of feminism they encountered in the Soviet Union helped them to formulate the idea of black women as the vanguard of the revolution. Although they and other black women radicals didn’t use the modern term “intersectionality,” they were dealing with and theorizing what they called the “triple exploitation” of poor, black women. They learned to question both the procapitalist views of the black women’s clubs and the masculinist assumptions of black radical groups and the CP.
Black women also became radicalized during trips to Ethiopia and Spain, countries that were fighting Italian fascism. In these countries they witnessed firsthand the “Manichean struggle between fascism and democracy,” says McDuffie; others, like Claudia Cumberbatch (Jones) and Esther Cooper (Jackson), supported the struggles from the U.S. Cumberbatch was born in 1915 to a poor family in Trinidad. She immigrated to the US, where she was radicalized by her work with the Harlem Young Communist League and by her passionate support for Ethiopia. Cooper worked on behalf of the Republican government of Spain while at Oberlin College.
Salaria Kee, born in Georgia, studied nursing at Harlem Hospital, and as part of the Medical Bureau of the North American Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy, was appointed head surgical nurse. She supervised white nurses in Spain and treated civilians of all nationalities. In Spain Kee met and married an Irish ambulance driver, John “Pat” Joseph O’Reilly. While both partners would have been subjected to criminal prosecution in the US, the Communist press celebrated their marriage.
Thyra Edwards went to Spain as part of the Social Workers Committee for the Aid of Spanish Democracy, and like the other radical black women, she too saw in Republican Spain “a powerful ally to black struggles worldwide against white supremacy, capitalism, and European colonial empires,” McDuffie says. Louise Thompson, who went to Spain as a journalist for the Communist Daily Worker, met her old friend, the poet Langston Hughes, in Madrid, where the two befriended members of an international writers’ group, Alianza de Intelectuale. Also in Spain, Thompson, Edwards, and Kee met with black International Brigade volunteers from the US, the Caribbean, and Africa. By the time Edwards and Thompson went to Paris in 1937, for the Second World Congress against Racism and Anti-Semitism, they had already begun “to think critically about gender, race, and class in a global context,” says McDuffie. When they returned home in the late 1930s, they continued to work on behalf of Spain, their concerns with people of color and women worldwide establishing them as part of a global Popular Front.
One question inevitably arises: why did these women turn away from mainstream civil rights organizations? As McDuffie demonstrates, although they often worked with traditional civil rights organizations, their leftist politics and liberated sexual practices “placed them ideologically outside of the political mainstream.” In the Soviet Union they met people with whom they could discuss free love and open marriage, and they returned home with ideas about sexuality that challenged “the heteronormative politics of the church, women’s clubs, the NAACP, and the Garvey movement,” says McDuffie. They came back smoking Russian cigarettes and sporting an attitude that suggested their emancipation from bourgeois respectability. Though they romanticized and idealized an imagined revolutionary, feminist, nonracial, progressive space in the Soviet Union, their sojourns there enabled and encouraged them to flaunt heteronormative gender conventions, reject traditional marriage, seek sexual freedom, and defy ideas about black folk formed in the US.
In Left organizations at home, they were able to work as grassroots organizers, street-corner orators, and in formal leadership positions; and in these groups they would have encountered and embraced the “sexual modernism” that accepted birth control, gay and bisexual love, and gender equality. They participated in or joined the progressive Harlem Unitarian Church (HUC), a haven for freethinkers. Their social and political networks included bohemian Harlem Renaissance artists, homosexuals, and free-love advocates. In any case, they were not driven by the imperatives of racial uplift and bourgeois respectability characteristic of traditional black and women’s organizations.
Radical black women had to challenge both the CP’s sexism and its racism, and McDuffie provides a judicious and finely tuned analysis of black women’s complicated relationship with the Party. They were both attracted to the Party and alienated and marginalized within it. Queen Mother Moore, for one, broke from the Party in 1950 because of what she saw as its hostility to black nationalism. She believed that the Party favored “middle class, college-educated [black] male Party officials like [Benjamin] Davis, and never had the same respect for her as a southern-born, formally uneducated black woman,” says McDuffie—and there is evidence to support her claim. Black women’s issues started to slip between the CP’s ideological cracks as the Party deemphasized the Negro Question during the Popular Front (1935-1939), and, according to McDuffie, “reached out to white middle-class women like never before.”
The Party was never much involved in general women’s issues, such as consumer movements, housewife leagues, birth control, or male chauvinism. And as McDuffie admits, early Left feminists were understandably silent on sexuality, and the truly groundbreaking work on the links between sexuality and politics would not take place until the 1970s, as the sexual revolution and the black power movement opened the space for young feminists to challenge racial and sexual conventions. These young black radicals, such as Barbara Smith and the women of the Combahee River Collective, were, understandably, unaware of the powerful examples of their forerunners.
One of the great breakthroughs of McDuffie’s book is his careful examination of personal testimonies, which like any narratives, demand analysis. He demonstrates that the Communist conversion narrative has produced a somewhat predictable plot, following the subject from the moment of conversion and including only those stories that affirm the trajectory of life after conversion. Thus, although Louise Thompson describes the Soviet progress she saw during her visit, McDuffie argues that all was not well on these Soviet trips. Thompson, for example, does not recognize the Soviet Union as a colonizing power imposing its culture and politics on an oppressed minority as she uncritically supports the unveiling of Uzbek Muslim women. The black radicals went to the Soviet Union as respected dignitaries, traveling at the state’s expense and seeing the world through the eyes of a Soviet translator. They did not work, as most women did, on collective farms or in factories. They were, probably unknowingly, simply political tourists.
McDuffie’s critique and analysis of Claudia Jones’s 1949 essay, “An End to the Neglect of the Negro Woman!”—now considered the most authoritative and groundbreaking statement of a black left feminist position—explains both its innovations and its limitations. In her theorizing of labor oppression in this essay, Jones argues for the fundamental role of black women, triply oppressed, and therefore at the vanguard of social change. Written at the time she was facing investigation and deportation, the essay challenged the Left, and especially the white women of the Left, because of their exploitation of black women domestics; it also criticized white Communists for opposing interracial marriage, progressive women for failing to understand their own racism, and black men of the Left for their chauvinism. The essay, according to McDuffie and most scholars of the black Left, “marked the first time that these grievances were so systematically theorized and aired so publicly within the CPUSA.” While he writes about the essay as profound and influential, however, he does not hesitate to show its flaws, one of which is its appeal to “family values” or what he calls “familialism,” which undercuts the essay’s progressive force by at least apparently assuming that motherhood is women’s “natural” role.During the Cold War, no group was as important for radical black women as Sojourners for Truth and Justice. Several hundred black women, mostly from New York, came together in 1951 to form the group—which because of its Communist ties was barred from participating with the NAACP. Sojourners was, finally, a left movement in which black left women were central, not peripheral; it combined black nationalist and Popular Front organizational strategies with Communist positions on race, class, and gender, and it made racial equality central to its mission. As internationalists, the Sojourners forged ties with South African anti-apartheid women activists, demonstrated against the South African consulate in Manhattan, corresponded with trade unionist women in India, and tried to establish links with freedom movements led by “colored women” in Africa, Asia, and the US.
McDuffie acknowledges that the Sojourners made mistakes along the way: they assumed the possibilities of international solidarity among women without taking into account the differences in their social and political locations, their histories, and their daily lives; they were silent on reproductive rights; they used traditional terms that celebrated black motherhood; they articulated their issues in terms of black Christianity; and they got embroiled in disputes between Party leaders and nationalists. Yet they built mass movements in defense of the Trenton Six (six black men sentenced to death in Trenton, New Jersey for allegedly killing a white shopkeeper); Willie McGee (sentenced to death when his white lover falsely accused him of rape); Rosa Lee Ingram (sentenced along with her sons for defending herself against a white male attacker); and Paul Robeson, red-baited and hounded by the US government for his “un-American” attempts to build a peace movement.
Eventually the Justice Department declared Sojourners a subversive Communist front and shut it down in 1952, after only two years in existence. Claudia Jones was jailed and deported; Charlotta Bass’s passport was seized; Patterson was under threat from McCarthy; Thyra Edwards left the country and moved with her husband to Italy; Eslanda Robeson and Shirley Graham Du Bois were called before Senator Joseph McCarthy’s investigative committee and blacklisted. In the South, white supremacy joined with the red scare—the government in league with the Ku Klux Klan—to outlaw civil rights militancy; SNYC, the organization McDuffie calls “the pioneering black militant organization with international connections and progressive gender politics,” closed its operation in 1949. Yet, both Gore and McDuffie agree that under CPUSA leadership, in the midst of these attacks by the cold warriors, black women radicals made some of their most important gains in theorizing, organizing, and pursuing a black feminist agenda.
I am reminded of the importance of these two studies of black left feminism as new books and news stories about the civil rights movement appear. Few of them incorporate any of the history of black Left feminists. Manning Marable, in his new biography, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (2011), captures Malcolm’s amazement at being treated like a dignitary in Africa, wined and dined everywhere he went—but he neglects to report that Malcolm’s “romance with Africa” was at least partly enabled by the black American expatriates, Victoria Garvin, Maya Angelou, and Alice Windom. As the informal “Malcolm X committee,” these women organized his visit to Ghana, connecting him to important dignitaries and insuring invitations from revolutionaries as well as from heads of state. (To his credit, Malcolm X cites the women in the “Malcolm X Committee” by name in his Autobiography (1966), acknowledging “Alice Windom, Maya Angelou Make, and Victoria Garvin,” as playing a critical role in leading him toward his new internationalism [my emphasis].)
It would have been instructive to have more documentation and analysis in these histories of the ways white and black left feminism(s) converge and differ, intersect and contravene one another. When I went back to Red Feminism: American Communism and the Making of Women’s Liberation, by Kate Weigand (2001), I found the similarities between the genealogy of black Left feminism and that of white feminism striking. According to Weigand, both the white and black feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s have their roots in the 1930s labor struggles of Communist and left-wing women. Both black and white women found that underlying male supremacy among Marxist and Communist men interfered with their ability to address women’s issues. Like black Left feminists, white feminists also sought to theorize “intersectionality”—although it goes almost without saying that black women’s theorizing on race was far more urgent and developed. For both white and black feminists, “the legacy of anticommunism in the United States is largely responsible for their obscurity,” says Weigand.
There are, of course, fault lines between black and white feminists that have never been eliminated: feminist theorizing by white women seems too easily to spill over into elevating the interests of middle-class white women; and black women’s theorizing was (and still is) considered a tributary to the mainstream of white feminist thought—as if black women were simply women with an added race problem. But this is why these two books are so important. Black women theorists and activists cannot simply be inserted into white feminist history; nonetheless, the Communist Left, with its emphasis on class as well as gender and race oppression, was where black and white feminists found common ground.
Undoubtedly, the woman who most ably links modern black feminism with the black feminism of the Old Left is Angela Y. Davis. Imprisoned for two years, from 1970 to 1972, Davis was freed in June 1972, in large part due to the efforts of the CPUSA and a multiracial, intergenerational group of Communist and non-Communist activists, cultural workers, civil rights leaders, and trade unionists, who formed the broad coalition of the Free Angela movement. It included Davis’s mother, Sallye Bell Davis, a former SNYC member, the veteran black Communist Charlene Mitchell, and Louise Thompson Patterson, who embarked on an international tour to fight for Davis’s freedom. In contrast to these black organizers, the white feminist groups the National Organization of Women (NOW) and Women Strike for Peace refused to support Davis on the grounds that her case was not a feminist issue.
Davis’s scholarship shows that she sees herself as part of a black left feminist tradition forged by many of the Old Left women who worked on her campaign. In her famous article “The Role of Black Women in the Community of Slaves” and her 1981 book Women, Race, and Class, Davis employs both a feminist and a Left framework that is indebted to the activism and the theorizing of the radical black women who came before her. Davis reminds us that the life and work of black Left women radicals, though routinely and systematically excised from official records, have continued percolating through and shaping several decades of American radicalism—reaffirming the timeliness, significance, and necessity of Gore’s and McDuffie’s transformative histories.
Mary Helen Washington is professor of English at the University of Maryland, College Park, specializing in twentieth-century African American literature. Her book The Other Black List: Portraits of the African American Literary and Cultural Left is forthcoming from Columbia University Press in 2012.