Sojourning for Freedom: Black Women, American Communism, and the Making of Black Left Feminism

Sojourning for Freedom: Black Women, American Communism, and the Making of Black Left Feminism

by Erik S. McDuffie

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Overview

Sojourning for Freedom: Black Women, American Communism, and the Making of Black Left Feminism by Erik S. McDuffie


Sojourning for Freedom portrays pioneering black women activists from the early twentieth century through the 1970s, focusing on their participation in the U.S. Communist Party (CPUSA) between 1919 and 1956. Erik S. McDuffie considers how women from diverse locales and backgrounds became radicalized, joined the CPUSA, and advocated a pathbreaking politics committed to black liberation, women’s rights, decolonization, economic justice, peace, and international solidarity. McDuffie explores the lives of black left feminists, including the bohemian world traveler Louise Thompson Patterson, who wrote about the “triple exploitation” of race, gender, and class; Esther Cooper Jackson, an Alabama-based civil rights activist who chronicled the experiences of black female domestic workers; and Claudia Jones, the Trinidad-born activist who emerged as one of the Communist Party’s leading theorists of black women’s exploitation. Drawing on more than forty oral histories collected from veteran black women radicals and their family members, McDuffie examines how these women negotiated race, gender, class, sexuality, and politics within the CPUSA. In Sojourning for Freedom, he depicts a community of radical black women activist intellectuals who helped to lay the foundation for a transnational modern black feminism.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822350507
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 06/27/2011
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 328
Sales rank: 876,792
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Erik S. McDuffie is Associate Professor of African American Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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SOJOURNING FOR FREEDOM

Black Women, American Communism, and the Making of Black Left Feminism
By Erik S. McDuffie

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2011 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-5033-0

Contents

Acknowledgments....................xiii
Abbreviations....................1
Introduction....................25
Chapter 1 Black Communist Women Pioneers, 1919-1930....................58
Chapter 2 Searching for the Soviet Promise, Fighting for Scottsboro and Harlem's Survival, 1930-1935....................91
Chapter 3 Toward a Brighter Dawn: Black Women Forge the Popular Front, 1935-1940....................126
Chapter 4 Racing against Jim Crow, Fascism, Colonialism, and the Communist Party, 1940-1946....................160
Chapter 5 "We Are Sojourners for Our Rights": The Cold War, 1946-1956....................193
Chapter 6 Ruptures and Continuities, 1956 Onward....................221
Notes....................261
Bibliography....................297
Index

Chapter One

Black Communist Women Pioneers, 1919–1930

Grace Campbell showed herself an ardent Communist ... Though employed by the City Administration, is frank in her disapproval of it and said the only way to remedy the present situation was to install Bolshevism in place of the present Government. BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION, NEW YORK BUREAU FILE, 61-6864-1, 4 MARCH 1931

Grace P. Campbell was exhilarated. In May 1920, she spoke passionately at a rally in Harlem for a candidate of the Socialist Party of America (SPA) who was running for a seat in the New York State Assembly from the neighborhood's Twenty-First District. A government informant reported that she "made a few remarks upon the need of women waking up to the fact that they are being driven to prostitution and other evils by the low scale of wages. She promised to work hard among the women, not only of her race but all of the women." In addition to stumping for Socialist candidates, Campbell ran on the SPA ticket for a seat in the New York State Assembly for Harlem's Nineteenth District in November 1920. She was the "first colored woman to be named for public office on a regular party ticket," according to The Messenger, an SPA-affiliated black radical newspaper co-founded by A. Phillip Randolph and Chandler Owen. They, too, stood for election on the SPA ticket for state office. The newspaper endorsed Campbell's candidacy, lauding "her pioneer [sic] social service work for colored girls" in Harlem. On Election Day, she won nearly two thousand votes, more than any other black SPA candidate, including Randolph and Owen. The impressive support for Campbell spoke to her reputation in Harlem as a trustworthy, able community organizer and social worker committed to fighting for the dignity, rights, and survival of black women, children, and the entire community. Her high profile in Harlem radicalism also caught the attention of authorities. In the years immediately after World War I, the Bureau of Investigation, the predecessor of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, meticulously monitored her left-wing activism.

Campbell's active involvement in the SPA signified her pioneering role in Harlem's early twentieth-century radicalism. From World War I through the eve of the Depression, she was the most prominent woman in the Harlem Left. By 1923, she had joined the Workers (Communist) Party (WP). She was the first black woman to officially do so. But she was hardly alone. A small, dedicated cadre of Harlem women radicals enlisted in the Workers Party during the 1920s. These included Williana Burroughs, Maude White, and Hermina Dumont Huiswoud. Like Campbell, they earned reputations as well-respected community leaders. Combining a pragmatic approach to community work with a leftist, transnational political vision, they called for world revolution and focused special concern for black women's freedom. Passionately committed to the nascent Communist movement, early black women radicals saw it as a viable alternative to mainstream black protest organizations. Black left feminists embraced this conviction through the entire Old Left period.

Tracing these women's lives, this chapter focuses on the first generation of black Communist women who joined the Party immediately after World War I and prior to the social upheavals of the Depression. Trailblazers, they began formulating black left feminism. The first part of the chapter looks at their varied social backgrounds and journeys into the Communist Left, demonstrating how early black women radicals were hardly a monolithic group. Next, the chapter examines how these women often functioned as outsiders within the early Communist Left. Grappling with the Party's contradictions and neglect of black women's issues, these pioneers nevertheless pressed forward with their black left feminist agenda. They were at the frontlines of building left-wing movements in Harlem for the community's economic survival. Black women radicals understood how struggling for decent housing and jobs was vital to the well-being of Harlem residents. Rethinking Marxism-Leninism, they proffered early articulations of the "triple oppression" paradigm, the thesis on black women's superexploitation, and the vanguard center approach. They also embraced the "New Woman" ideal, a term referring to early twentieth-century American urban writers, suffragettes, journalists, educators, and bohemians who were less constrained by Victorian gender mores and domesticity and who pursued independent womanhood. This sensibility prompted some to challenge ideals of bourgeois respectability espoused by church, club, and Garveyite women. The latter part of the chapter looks at the importance of traveling to the Soviet Union in helping black Communist women rethink their place in the world and begin forging a "black women's international." Through their experiences in the early Communist Left, black women radicals began building a community and collective identity. Paving the way for black women who joined the CPUSA during its heyday in the 1930s and 1940s and anticipating the black feminism of the 1970s, the lives of first generation black Communist women speak to the radical aspects and ideological complexities of early twentieth-century black feminism.

Local and global events provided the background in which early black Communist women came of age, cultivated an oppositional consciousness, and enlisted in the Workers Party. They were born during the "nadir" in African American life (1880–1915). These years witnessed the consolidation of Jim Crow, the highpoint of lynching, and the beginning of the Great Migration, which, between 1910 and 1930, brought more than one million African Americans from the rural South to the urban North in search of a better life. During these years, nearly forty thousand people from the Caribbean arrived in Harlem. The New Negro movement (1890–1935) emerged in response to these events. Committed to "nation building," New Negro protest organizations and intellectuals promoted "racial uplift ideology," what the historian Kevin Gaines describes as a "black middle class ideology ... that came to mean an emphasis on self-help, racial solidarity, temperance, thrift, chastity, social purity, patriarchal authority, and the accumulation of wealth."

Black women were visible in the New Negro movement. In 1893, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, the prominent Boston newspaper publisher and clubwoman, named her newspaper Woman's Era, aptly capturing club and church women's sentiment that the "race could rise no higher than its woman" and that women were best qualified to lead the race. Women's clubs were at the forefront in agitating for the protection of black women and crusading against lynching and Jim Crow. No organization was more visible in these campaigns than the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), the first national secular black women's organization, founded in 1896. Club and church women also vocally demanded equality with black men. However, by the early 1920s women's clubs had become increasingly elitist. Their growing concern with middle-class female respectability and attempts to police the behaviors of purportedly licentious, lazy black working-class people alienated clubwomen from the very communities they intended to uplift.

Internationally, World War I marked the beginning of the end of European global supremacy. Unprecedented carnage on the battlefield, wartime migrations, strikes, and nationalist revolts in India, Ireland, and China weakened the European colonial grip on Africa and Asia. In 1917, the Russian Revolution established the world's first socialist state, the Soviet Union. Two years later, Bolsheviks organized the Communist International (Comintern) to coordinate the world revolution from Moscow. Inspired by the Bolsheviks' success, short-lived Communist insurrections shook Western and Central Europe immediately after the war.

The World War I era also witnessed a global black revolt as anti-colonial uprisings erupted in Africa and across the diaspora. In the United States, these global upheavals, together with massive wartime black migrations, a spike in lynching, the "race riots" in East St. Louis in 1917 and Chicago in 1919, and a national wave of strikes in heavy industries, spawned "New Negro radicalism," a more militant New Negro tendency. As a political and cultural movement composed of Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB), The Messenger, and other protest groups, as well as news and literary journals, New Negro radicalism linked black struggles for self-determination with postwar, anti-colonial struggles across the Global South.

The early twentieth century also proved to be an exciting and tumultuous moment for the U.S. Left. The Russian Revolution both inspired and divided American radicals. In the summer of 1919, two groups of left-wing militants held inaugural conventions, forming the Communist Labor Party and the Communist Party of America respectively. Both organizations claimed to be the legitimate "Communist" party. Authorities immediately targeted both parties as part of a wider government crackdown—popularly known as the red scare—against left-wing organizations, civil rights and black nationalist groups, and trade unions. Under this intense wave of government repression, both Communist groups functioned as underground organizations. Upon the urging of the Comintern, they merged in 1922, forming a unified, aboveground organization, the Workers Party of America. In 1929, it renamed itself the Communist Party, USA.

Developments in the global Communist Left around the Negro Question and the Woman Question had lasting implications for framing discussions around race, gender, and class within the Workers Party. The Comintern's resolutions of 1922 and 1928 on the Negro Question were key in recruiting black men and women. The resolution of 1922 defined black struggles across the diaspora as key partners in the world revolution, while the resolution of 1928, commonly referred to as the "Black Belt thesis," declared the right of African American self-determination in the South. Soviet women's status also influenced U.S. Communists' thinking. In the years immediately after the Russian Revolution and into the 1930s, the ideal of "the new Soviet woman"—a modern, sexually liberated, revolutionary woman—generated immense interest in left-wing, bohemian, and even politically mainstream circles throughout the West. Soviet laws on women's rights, which on paper were some of the most progressive in the world, granted women full citizenship rights and legalized divorce and abortion (the first nation in the world to do so). Soviets initially adhered to a policy of tolerance toward homosexuals. A small group of Bolshevik feminists, such as Aleksandra Kollontai and Clara Zetkin, argued that women's sexual liberation and the "withering away of the bourgeois family" were vital both to women's liberation and to building a classless society. In 1919, Soviet officials established the Zhenotdel (Women's Department) to raise Soviet women's gender consciousness. In the following year, the Comintern founded the International Women's Secretariat to coordinate Communist women's work around the world.

The world revolution failed to materialize immediately after the war, as Communists had predicted. So the Soviet Union went about constructing a socialist state in isolation. But Communists globally, including a small cadre of black women radicals in Harlem, remained confident that capitalism and imperialism were doomed. Informed by the early Communist Left's positions on race, gender, and class, together with their lived experiences, black women radicals forged their own left-wing politics. Viewing black women as the revolutionary vanguard, early black left feminists both contested and affirmed the politics of middle-class respectability espoused by church and clubwomen, and rejected the pro-capitalist agendas of New Negro groups and the masculinist articulations of black self-determination advanced by the international Left.

The Social Origins of Early Black Communist Women

Several prominent first generation black Communist women enjoyed successful professional careers as social workers, teachers, and secretaries before joining the Workers Party. This pattern would continue through the entire Old Left period. These women were part of a new middle class that emerged across the African diaspora beginning in the late nineteenth century. Focusing on the uplift and protection of black women and children in the age of Jim Crow and European global supremacy, early black women radicals' work underscored how the New Negro movement was foundational to their political visions before and after they joined the WP.

No person better exemplified this than Grace Campbell, who was born in 1882 in Georgia. Her father was a Jamaican immigrant and teacher and her mother was a woman of mixed African American and Native American heritage from Washington, D.C. Her family eventually settled in Washington where she grew up. She apparently never traveled to Jamaica to visit her father's family. Following in her parents' footsteps, she graduated from the historically black Howard University in Washington. Like many black women reformers of the Progressive era, she never married or had children. By 1908, Campbell had made her way to New York. There, she began her distinguished career as a social worker, community activist, and civil servant. She joined the multiracial, mixed-gendered National League for the Protection of Colored Women (NLPCW), one of three organizations that merged in 1911 to form the Committee on Urban Conditions Among Negroes, later renamed the National Urban League. She also briefly sat on the committee's board. Given that a key tenet of turn-of-the-century black women reformers was their belief that women were best qualified to lead the race and taking into account their demand for equality with black men, her reform work surely helped to cultivate her feminist sensibility.

Meanwhile, Campbell worked on multiple fronts in pursuit of uplifting black women and children. In 1911, she became the first black woman appointed as a parole officer in the Court of General Sessions for the City of New York. She worked as a jail attendant in the women's section at "the Tombs," New York's infamous prison, until her death in 1943. In 1915, she established the Empire Friendly Shelter for Friendless Girls, a settlement home in Harlem for young, single black mothers. The home solidified her reputation as "one of the best known colored women in New York," as the Harlem-based New York Age put it in 1924.

Continues...


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Abbreviations xiii

Introduction 1

1. Black Communist Women Pioneers, 1919–1930 25

2. Searching for the Soviet Promise, Fighting for Scottsboro and Harlem's Survival, 1930–1935 58

3. Toward a Brighter Dawn: Black Women Forge the Popular Front, 1935–1940 91

4. Racing against Jim Crow, Fascism, Colonialism, and the Communist Party, 1940–1946 126

5. "We Are Sojourners for Our Rights": The Cold War, 1946–1956 160

6. Ruptures and Continuities, 1956 Onward 193

Notes 221

Bibliography 261

Index 297

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