Black Internationalist Feminism: Women Writers of the Black Left, 1945-1995

Black Internationalist Feminism: Women Writers of the Black Left, 1945-1995

by Cheryl Higashida

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Black Internationalist Feminism examines how African American women writers affiliated themselves with the post-World War II Black Communist Left and developed a distinct strand of feminism. This vital yet largely overlooked feminist tradition built upon and critically retheorized the postwar Left's "nationalist internationalism," which connected the liberation of Blacks in the United States to the liberation of Third World nations and the worldwide proletariat. Black internationalist feminism critiques racist, heteronormative, and masculinist articulations of nationalism while maintaining the importance of national liberation movements for achieving Black women's social, political, and economic rights.
Cheryl Higashida shows how Claudia Jones, Lorraine Hansberry, Alice Childress, Rosa Guy, Audre Lorde, and Maya Angelou worked within and against established literary forms to demonstrate that nationalist internationalism was linked to struggles against heterosexism and patriarchy. Exploring a diverse range of plays, novels, essays, poetry, and reportage, Higashida illustrates how literature is a crucial lens for studying Black internationalist feminism because these authors were at the forefront of bringing the perspectives and problems of black women to light against their marginalization and silencing.
In examining writing by Black Left women from 1945–1995, Black Internationalist Feminism contributes to recent efforts to rehistoricize the Old Left, Civil Rights, Black Power, and second-wave Black women's movements.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252079641
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 08/15/2013
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Cheryl Higashida is an assistant professor of English at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

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Black Internationalist Feminism

Women Writers of the Black Left, 1945–1995


Copyright © 2011 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-03650-7

Chapter One

The Negro Question, the Woman Question, and the "Vital Link"

Histories and Institutions

Feminism, Marxism, and Black nationalism have had contentious relationships with each other, to say the least. How is it, then, that the Communist Party's theory and tactics of African American nationhood gave rise to the Black internationalist feminist tradition that came into its own in the post-World War II era? This chapter investigates the histories of African American involvement with the Communist Left that shaped Black women writers' strategic commitments to national liberation as they strove to represent emancipatory enactments of gender and sexuality. I begin by discussing the intertwining of Black nationalist and Old Left movements in the interwar years, with special attention to the CP's Black Belt Nation Thesis, which produced political solidarities beyond the limited affiliations engendered and policed by U.S. liberal democracy. While putting the Black Belt Nation Thesis into practice entrenched Left masculinism more fully, several leading Black Communists transformed the meaning of self-determination to allow for intersectional analysis of race and gender and to address the "special oppressed status" of Black women. In doing so, African American Left women in particular paved the way for postwar Black feminism, which Claudia Jones definitively theorized. Jones's Marxist analysis of gender must be understood in light of her leadership in reviving the Black Belt Nation Thesis and its internationalist implications. Her Black internationalist feminism carried over into the cultural front, creating spaces within the Let for writing by and about African American women. I conclude by examining the primary institutions through which Black women writers represented nonheteropatriarchal identities and alignments in the process of exploiting the possibilities for African American freedom that national liberation throughout the Third World opened up.

The antagonism between Black nationalism and Communism is better known than their intersections, but the origins of the Black Left undeniably complicate this narrative. As Robin Kelley writes, "African Americans who joined the Party in the 1920s and 1930s were as much the creation of American communism as of black nationalism; as much the product of African American [and Afro-Caribbean] vernacular cultures and radical traditions as of Euro-American radical thought." This is made evident by considering the major source of the first known Black Communists, the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB). This revolutionary Black nationalist order, which was established in 1919 on the heels of the Red Summer's wave of racial terror, advocated armed self-defense and African liberation along with interracial labor/left solidarity. Many ABB members hailed from the West Indies, including Cyril Briggs, Richard Moore, Otto Huiswood, Arthur Hendricks, Claude McKay, and W. A. Domingo, and the colonial and immigrant background of these Black radicals honed their awareness of both national oppression and class exploitation. A turning point in ABB founder Cyril Briggs's politics came with the first congress of the Communist International (Comintern) in 1919, which "topp[ed] Wilson's post-war principle of national self-determination with outright calls for revolution in the colonial world, backed by promises to aid it." When the short-lived ABB folded in the early 1920s, its members turned to the CPUSA, which had been established in 1919, "largely because of the Communist International's commitment to supporting 'racial and national movements against imperialism.'"

While the emergent CPUSA tended to either ignore issues of race or reduce them to economic factors, the Soviet Union—which owed the success of its revolution to minorities within the Russian Empire—perceived African Americans to be strategically important as the largest and most oppressed minority group in the United States. Consequently, the Soviet-dominated Comintern not only pushed the CPUSA to fight for Black rights but also welcomed African Americans to the USSR as visitors, settlers, students to be trained at multinational Soviet schools, and Comintern delegates and speakers. There is good evidence that in the latter positions, Black Americans and Afro-Caribbeans impacted Communist theory on the national question. ABB member and Communist Claude McKay, for example, appears to have influenced the crafting and adoption at the 4th World Congress of the Comintern in 1922 of the "Theses on the Negro Question," which declared that the "Negro problem has become the urgent and decisive question for world revolution" and that "the Negroes' fight against imperialism is not the fight of one nation, but of all the nations of the world."

These theses set the stage for the adoption of the Black Belt Nation Thesis at the 6th World Congress of the Comintern in 1928. According to this resolution, the African American majority in the Black Belt from Virginia through the deep South reaching to eastern Texas comprised a nation within a nation with the right to self-determination; whites could live within the Black republic as minorities with full rights if they submitted to majority rule. African Americans in the North, on the other hand, comprised a national minority with the right to full integration. This resolution was fiercely debated, with Black and white Communists objecting to its segregationism, its incongruence with the experience of southern Blacks who did not see themselves in national terms, and its privileging of agricultural workers at the expense of the urban industrial class. Regardless of perceived and real shortcomings and ambiguities, the Black Belt Nation Thesis, "within the Leninist lexicon of values, endowed the black struggle with unprecedented dignity and importance." The resolution recognized African Americans as a distinct and primary revolutionary force that was integral but not identical to proletarian struggle and that maintaining the solidarity of Black and white workers was essential to Black liberation.

The practical consequence of this line was to prioritize Black struggle, racial equality, integration, and anti-imperialism within Communist work at a time when racial chauvinism and segregation were largely unchallenged. Enacting the resolution's precepts, the CP prioritized the recruitment, training, and promotion of African Americans; prepared white comrades for work among African Americans; refused to tolerate white chauvinism; and put the Negro problem at the forefront of party work. One of the greatest priorities was organizing African Americans in the South, where Communists established the Alabama Sharecroppers' Union, pushed for interracial solidarity among striking textile mill workers, and defended Angelo Herndon, a young Black Communist sentenced to twenty years on a chain gang for organizing an interracial rally for welfare relief. Of especial importance to African Americans was the CP's anti-lynching Scottsboro campaign, which did not substantially increase the party's Black membership but nonetheless raised its profile among African Americans and attracted individuals such as Claudia Jones who would become influential race radicals. In the North, the Let formed the Harlem Unemployed Council, which fought evictions as well as discrimination in employment and relief distribution; organized the anti-lynching League of Struggle for Negro Rights; and launched the Needle Trades Workers Industrial Union.

The possibility of a free African American nation also generated political identifications and solidarities that exposed the limits and exceeded the purview of U.S. liberal democracy. As a result of forced removal, enslavement, disenfranchisement, segregation, and super-exploitation, African Americans had been barred from full economic, political, and social rights within the liberal democratic U.S. nation-state. Oppressed national status illuminated the need for wider affiliations with other oppressed nations and the worldwide proletariat against oppressor nations. The forms of political community authorized by the Black Belt Nation Thesis included but went beyond claiming the full rights of U.S. citizenship.

Black Communists' internationalist identifications were most powerfully manifested in the interwar years in response to Italy's 1935 invasion of Ethiopia (Abyssinia), the only independent Black African nation at the time. African Americans nationwide mobilized funds and manpower in support of Emperor Haile Selassie and the Ethiopian people. Although Black Communists shared the party's critical view of the monarchy, they joined nationalists and other African Americans regardless of political affiliation to defend the imperiled Black nation against imperialist aggression. When efforts to rally around Ethiopia were thwarted by the U.S. government and the CP itself, over eighty African American men and one African American woman—mostly Communists—channeled their energies into defending the Spanish Republic against Franco the following year. Black radicals connected the Spanish Civil War to the fascist invasion of Ethiopia and to their own struggles against racism and exploitation in the United States, an internationalist perspective deepened by coming into contact with soldiers of African descent from throughout the world who were serving in the International Brigades.

While sharpening the fight against racism and imperialism, the Left's program for Black self-determination generally relied upon and exacerbated Communist masculinism at the expense of women's liberation. This version of Communism gendered the revolutionary class as male and subordinated women's concerns to those of the proletariat when they were not ignored altogether. Patriarchy was generally not treated with the seriousness with which racism was attacked, especially insofar as rank-and-file women were affected. In fact, Robin Kelley contends that "the Party's position on black liberation after 1928 ... not only took precedence over women's struggles, but it essentially precluded a serious theoretical framework that might combine the 'Negro' and 'Woman' questions." The cultural implications of the self-determination argument tightened patriarchy's grip on Black nationalism, which "conjured up masculine historical figures such as Toussaint L'Ouverture, Denmark Vesey, and Nat Turner" and "relied on metaphors from war and emphasized violence as a form of male redemption" while "render[ing] women invisible or ancillary." According to James Smethurst, "The concepts of black folk culture that derived from the Black Belt Thesis gendered the folk, and 'authentic' literary representations and recreations of the folk, as male to an extent never seen before even in black nationalism and modernism before the 1930s." In the mid-1930s, Stalin reversed progressive laws pertaining to gender and sexuality that the Bolsheviks had enacted earlier in the decade, a move that strengthened the mutual reinforcement of nationalism and patriarchy. This intensified the CPUSA's conservative views on women, the family, and homosexuality. In the latter half of the 1930s, the Left's popular front expressions of Black militancy were often informed by its use of "sex roles in the conventional nuclear family [to furnish] a ground on which to base working-class political activism, rather than a target for political critique."

Nonetheless, many Black Communists, women and men, strained against the gendered limitations imposed on Black self-determination, broadening and transforming it to account for the struggles of Black women and to generate intersectional analyses of race and gender. Claude McKay contended in The Negroes in America (1923) that "the Negro question is inseparably connected with the question of women's liberation." William Maxwell has pointed out that McKay nonetheless equates womanhood with whiteness and thereby compounds the invisibility of Black women's histories and subjectivities. However, Kate Baldwin's examination of McKay's Trial by Lynching: Stories about Negro Life in North America (1925), which was written at the same time as The Negroes in America, argues that "McKay was attempting to reclaim the denigrated space of black femininity often occluded in conventional accounts of the lynching scenario and certainly overlooked by Soviet theorization on the women question." Over ten years later, Richard Wright strove for a similar goal with his collection of novellas, Uncle Tom's Children (1938). Executing therein his "Blueprint for Negro Writing" (1937)—which Smethurst describes as the "most extended discussion of the literary applications of the Black Belt Thesis, and the burning necessity of such applications, by a leading writer connected to the Communist Let"—Wright depicted nationalism's dialectical transformation through Black female radicalism rooted in motherhood and feminine interracial solidarity.

To an even greater extent and in larger numbers than their male comrades, Black women on the Let established as a corollary to nationalism that they had special problems—subjection to super-exploitation, marginalization in organizational and interpersonal settings, and distortion or outright erasure by progressive as well as mainstream cultural forms—that could not be deferred by or subsumed under masculinist theories of race or class. The activism of two leading African American women of the Old Let, Maude White and Louise Thompson, reveals that Marxist-Leninist internationalism spurred their commitments to addressing these issues, which in turn reformulated androcentric and misogynistic ideologies that occluded Black women's centrality to the program for self-determination. Furthermore, White and Thompson's longevity as radical activists, evidenced by their connections with the postwar anticolonial Let and the beginnings of the second-wave Black women's movement, provide crucial insight into contemporary Black feminism's roots in nationalist internationalism.

While enrolled at Moscow's University of the Toilers of the East (KUTV) along with Ho Chi Minh, Deng Xiaoping, and Jomo Kenyatta, Maude White attended the 6th World Congress of the Comintern as it debated and passed the 1928 resolution on Black self-determination. In addition to monitoring discussions of the Negro question, African American KUTV students demanded and got a Negro section at the school "to allow them to explore the global dimensions of the black struggle by collecting and analyzing information on conditions and prospects for change in the black colonies of Africa as well as in the United States" The nationalist internationalism that White imbibed in the Soviet Union indelibly marked her political consciousness, as "in the ensuing years, she would fight relentlessly against racism wherever it appeared and for the right of African Americans to determine their own path to liberation within the framework of unity with all who were exploited by the dominant system." In conjunction with pursuing autonomous Black struggle in solidarity with proletarian movements, White raised the issue of the special character of the exploitation of Black women workers and prioritized organizing them. This White did soon after returning to the United States, when with the Needle Trades Workers Industrial Union she fought the subcontracting of African American women pressers, who were made to work harder for lower wages than their white peers earned. When party leaders informed White that the union would handle the complaints of Black workers no differently from those of whites, White demanded recognition of Black women's special oppression while pressing for interracial solidarity within the working class. White's militancy in denouncing the racism of the needle trades union resulted in the Yokinen trial, "one of the most spectacular and publicized anti-racist actions to that point in the nation's history."

The political and intellectual leadership of Louise Thompson similarly needs to be understood in the context of Left nationalist internationalism. By the early 1930s, Thompson was a leading radical well versed in Marx, Engels, and Lenin. With sculptor Augusta Savage she formed the Vanguard, "the most successful left-wing salon in 1930s Harlem," which drew other New Negro artists and writers to its social events, political forums, and Marxist discussion groups. She led middle-class whites and Blacks into the South to challenge segregation, and she organized the Harlem branch of the Friends of the Soviet Union. As part of this last group, Thompson led a delegation of African American artists and intellectuals to the USSR to make a film about Black workers in the United States. When the film fell through, Thompson was instrumental in arranging for the delegates to travel to Soviet Central Asia to see firsthand, as she later put it, colored "nations arising out of centuries of illiteracy, poverty and even nomad life."


Excerpted from Black Internationalist Feminism by CHERYL HIGASHIDA Copyright © 2011 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction. Black Internationalist Feminism: A Definition 1

1 The Negro Question, the Woman Question, and the "Vital Link": Histories and Institutions 31

2 Lorraine Hansberry's Existentialist Routes to Black Internationalist Feminism 57

3 Rosalind on the Black Star Line: Alice Childress, Black Minstrelsy, and Garveyite Drag 82

4 Rosa Guy, Haiti, and the Hemispheric Woman 112

5 Audre Lorde Revisited: Nationalism and Second-Wave Black Feminism 134

6 Reading Maya Angelou, Reading Black Internationalist Feminism Today 158

Notes 177

Bibliography 223

Index 243

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