Minkah Makalani. In the Cause of Freedom: Radical Black Internationalism from Harlem to London, 1917-1939.
Cheryl Higashida. Black Internationalist Feminism: Women Writers of the Black Left, 1945-1995. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2011. 264 pp. $50.00.
These are two well-documented and timely works, one in history, the other in literature, that advance our knowledge of radical black internationalism in complementary ways. One deals largely with the major players, the mostly male protagonists in black left movements; the other accounts for the contributions of women writers who were also activists and major contributors to those movements. One focuses on the early years of the twentieth century (1917-1939); the other, the latter years (1945-1995). By these means, we end up coveting the entire century and are provided with the kind of gender balance that makes the full story of black radicalism reveal itself. We are in a period in which the archival material is available because of the distance in time from these movements, the availability of materials via the Freedom of Information Act, the post-Cold War sensibilities that provide the space, without fear, for a reassessment of the black left. Additionally, the fact that there were several omissions in African American historiography regarding the contributions of Caribbean and women activists who were critical members of the black left, is remedied by both of these works.
Makalani's Freedom works with the critical period spanning the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and the succeeding Great Depression of the 1930s. What was often overlooked, as this work demonstrates, is that this period (not fully limited to the 1920s) was filled with intense political activism and organizing, and prepared by activists like Hubert Harrison, who actually named a New Negro Movement, as his biographer, Jeffrey B. Perry, documents. Harrison, who died in 1918, is identified as the father of Harlem radicalism. Makalani's work fills in the period after Harrison's death and details what radical movements contributed during the era of Marcus Garvey. Makalani examines the black radical international movements, socialist in orientation, that critiqued the nationalist/capitalist orientation of Garvey and led to the creation of the African Blood Brotherhood (1919). Subsequent organizations, like the International African Service Bureau (1937), had the explicit purpose of achieving socialist revolutionary change, even if they were precipitated by events such as Mussolini's attempt to depose Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. As we also know, writers like Claude McKay traveled to Moscow to attend Communist internationals, and addressed these gatherings with the intent of highlighting the African American condition in order to create an international awareness to end oppression. What is also interesting about Makalani's work is that it provides the historical background for the participation of Caribbeans like Richard Moore, Cyril Briggs, and Otto Huiswoud, who would become radicalized within the context of U. S. antiracist struggle.
Freedom is organized into seven chapters that capture the Black Atlantic movement that Gilroy misses, as the subtitle From Harlem to London indicates. The rifles of chapters are evocative of the inherent tensions that existed between movements and often within the movements themselves. Chapter one, titled "Straight Socialism or Negro-ology?" captures precisely the tension within nationalist movements like Garvey's UNIA, and actually clearly reveals an internal tension within the broader left movement. The project sought to reconcile this dichotomy particularly within these organizations as well as develop an understanding of the various meanings of racism. As Makalani writes, what is often not accounted for is "the fact that their radicalism arose from their attempts to reconcile their experiences with the racial logics and systems of the Caribbean with a much different U. S. racial hierarchy, especially as it was experienced in Harlem's unique diasporic community" (25). While Harrison had already advocated a notion of "race first" as a means of advancing black interests in a context where European Americans always advanced their racial interests first, for Garvey it became a nationalist mantra, but without the complexity that Harrison intended. This chapter situates a kind of diasporic Harlem in which institutions and ideologies of black radicalism were created.
Chapter two is a fascinating chapter in that it provides the pretext for a diasporic activism in its wording, "Liberating Negroes Everywhere." Here the various alliances that went into the creation of the African Blood Brotherhood are significantly articulated. We are given as well a bit more detail on Grace Campbell, a woman in the ABB leadership. The fact that she herself was a child of Caribbean and African American parentage is also significant, as she carried within her own family lineage the two trends that were being represented politically. That the ABB organized for black self-defense in ways similar to those of the Black Panther Party in the 1960s is also worth indicating. Alongside its community organizing, however, there was also a knowledge component which included studying theories of race and class, and because it was socialist, a building of alliances across races; one of its internationalist goals was the creation of worldwide freedom struggles from disparate African, Caribbean, and Asian liberation movements.
The attempts to work formally through Communist international movements are the concerns of chapters three, four, and five. These chapters discuss the work of Claude McKay in shaping a black international communism, which insisted that the Fourth Congress Comintern actively support pan-African activism and liberation. Above all, we get a better understanding of African and Asian alliances which would explain the ongoing African/Asian connections which existed up through Claudia Jones's adding Afro-Asian and Caribbean News to the West Indian Gazette's initial titling in 1958. But we are also informed of the fissures with the white left, which led to the maintenance of separate African-diasporic organizations and a focus on black issues, but nonetheless gave energy to anticolonial struggles in the Caribbean, Asia and Africa. In the end, the direct encounters with other black radical intellectuals and activists from around the world, in events like the 1927 Brussels World Congress Against Colonial Oppression and Imperialism, ended up being perhaps more valuable. Makalani's presentation of the resolution by Ford and Williana Burroughs, defining "Blacks as an oppressed nation, with the right to self-determination" at the Sixth Congress in Moscow explains this as a black-generated position which would become a platform of the CPUSA and was subsequently elaborated by activists like Jones and other black party members.
Perhaps most valuable is the focus on the work of George Padmore in chapter six, "The Rise of a Black International." Padmore maintained into the 1950s a range of diasporic encounters with African leftists, such as Garan Kouyate. His political alliance with his childhood friend, fellow Trinidadian C. L. R. James, is much better known than his friendship with Jamaican Amy Ashwood, first wife of Marcus Garvey. While Brent Hayes Edwards's work The Practice of Diaspora: Translalion and the Rise of Black Internationalism (2003) had rendered the Padmore/Kouyate connection through the prism of language, Makalani takes it further, focusing both on the organizing strategies that these encounters provided, and above all, on the belief that these alliances would actually bear fruit in decolonization and independence struggles. Padmore and Kouyate, for example, would build a black international of workers that led to successful strikes in Senegal. But one will also see the connections between Padmore and Kwame Nkrumah that led significantly to the actual achievement of independence through moving the colonial Gold Coast to the country today called Ghana.
Finally, chapter seven, "An International African Opinion," describes the founding of the International African Friends of Ethiopia (1935-1937) and the International African Service Bureau (1937-1944) with goals that included using the Ethiopian invasion as the impetus for pan-Africanist activities and consciousness-raising. Here there was the consistent conjunction of workers' rights with struggles against colonialism. Perhaps the longest survivor of these movements would be C. L. R. James himself, who would live almost throughout the century (1901-1989), and was therefore able to reach a later generation that would become active in the 1960s. As Makalani reveals, London became the iconic center for this brand of pan-African organizing, as it had in the days of Henry Sylvester Williams, who had founded the idea of pan-Africanism via the First Pan-African Conference in 1900. Also, while this work touches on her only briefly, the importance of women like Amy Ashwood Garvey in this mix is critical, as these women often provided the connective link to two sets of movements--black women's rights and workers rights.
This is where the work of Cheryl Higashida's Black Internationalist Feminism provides additional components of the story of black radical internationalism. Though dealing with the second half of the century, Higashida's work, with chapters on Lorraine Hansberry, Alice Childress, Rosa Guy, and Audre Lorde, brings us to the contributions of Maya Angelou, whose long life, like C. L. R. James's, has enabled her to reach new generations. While Higashida deals primarily with creative writers, we see that they also considered themselves intellectual activists. Just as the black male radicals struggled with the idea of the "class struggle vs. Negro-ology," these women found a way to bring together the issues of the "Negro Question" and the "Woman Question" in their very being. Higashida provides in her Introduction and in chapter one important definitions of black internationalist feminism that advance the work of Mary Helen Washington, who Erik McDuffie, in Sojourning for Freedom: Black Women, American Communism, and the MakSng of Black Left Feminism (2010), credits with defining that feminism. Additionally, there is my own Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones (2008), which was aimed explicitly at reclaiming the radical black female subject. Higashida indicates that her work "reconceptualizes the relationships between Left, civil rights, Black Power and second-wave Black women's movements." (4) This includes her rethinking the opposition between nationalism and black feminism, and above all, reinserting transnationalism into black feminist frameworks.
The added value of this work is that writers like Lorraine Hansberry and Alice Childress are identified solidly in terms of their activism and their creative work as Communist Party activists. One remembers, for example, Harold Cruse's attack on Hansberry in The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (1967) as being a spoiled bourgeois who wondered naively into left politics, though in the rest of his work he failed to recognize the women who were actively involved in left movements. Higashida's work is an important correction to the tendency to see left activists solely as Caribbean radical men. Importantly, Rosa Guy is included in this timely intervention, since her death in 2012 otherwise left her without a full articulation of how her work intersected with these other movements. Guy was also a co-founder of the Harlem Writers Guild, which provided an outlet for a subsequent generation of black writers.
What Higashida defines as the "vital link" between the Negro Question and the Woman Question has also been developed by Dayo Gore as "crossroads" in her 2011 book, Radicalism at the Crossroads. In many ways, then, we are able now to study all of these works together, as their cross-conversations provide an important advancement of the increasing scholarship on the black left. For example, Higashida describes the importance of the work on the journal Freedomways, particularly because the women who worked on or wrote for it--Shirley Graham, its founding editor; Victoria Gavin; Lorraine Hansberry; and Eslanda Goode Robeson--were all activists in their own right. The Harlem Writers Guild, which would also count people like Paule Marshall among its members, would also produce a body of material which addressed the black condition from a variety of perspectives. Higashida provides a list of members (53) which becomes almost simultaneously a listing of the major contributors to the black literary canon, leading up to their support for Toni Cade's 1970 anthology The Black Woman, seen today as one of the founding texts of contemporary black feminism.
By the time specific attention is given to various writers (Hansberry, Guy, Angelou, Childress), we already have some interesting points of entry into these various contributors. Chapter two, on Hansberry, provides a good biographical background, including Hansberry's involvement with a black anticolonial left. Higashida also indicates another intersection with anticolonial, queer, and feminist sensibilities in the work of Hansberry; she describes the anticolonial/pan-African strands in A Raisin in the Sun which were first downplayed, but which then were a cause for notation from surveillance functionaries. Higashida concludes that because earlier work on the black left has tended to exclude the black female subject, it thereby missed the "black internationalist feminism developed by Hansberry and her sisters on the anticolonial Left, for whom feminism and nationalism were at times in tension but were ultimately not mutually exclusive" (81).
The chapters on Rosa Guy and Audre Lorde are good counterpoints, as we here have black left women who saw black lesbian sensibility as a critical aspect of their political formations. She also identifies Guy's definition of a hemispheric woman through her work on Haiti. But Guy, born in Trinidad and emigrated to the United States, could not help, like Lorde, but be diasporic in orientation. Still, the work from Guy that Higashida selects for analysis seems limited, and is determined to make a contrasting analysis with Terry McMillan's 1996 novel of romance tourism, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, which in my view does not give Higashida enough space to explore Guy's larger body of material. Instead, the chapter focuses on one Guy novel, The Sun, the Sea, A Touch of Wind (1995) for all of its analysis, and seems to capture the exigencies of limiting one's scope for the particular task of writing a dissertation.
The work on Audre Lorde is significant and also necessary, for Lorde perhaps best carried forward the praxis of black internationalist feminism. Also of Caribbean descent, though born in New York, Lorde nevertheless finds her sense of identity in reclaiming her Caribbean Zami, her heritage of woman-identified self-possession. Staying with the theme of this work, Higashida writes that "Lorde's nationalist internationalism positions her ideologically and historically as a descendant of the postwar Black Left.... Lorde's writing displays a Marxist, pan-Africanist, and feminist worldview that her later years reprised the Black internationalist feminism of Claudia Jones[, who] challenged monadic, androcentric formulations of race by accounting for the triple burden of Black working-class women" (157). This is an important observation, as it creates a series of lineages into which Audre Lorde's work fits beyond the popular definition of black lesbian, to which she is often singly defined.
It may be hard to see Maya Angelou in her present incarnation as carrying the legacies of all of these movements. Age has clearly mellowed Ms. Angelou into a general black female sage who is called upon to comment at particular moments on Barack Obama, or Michael Jackson, or Oprah Winfrey. But Angelou has also a rich history of involvement, as her various autobiographies indicate, including her life in Ghana and encounters with Malcolm X and other civil rights/Black Power leaders Perhaps the domesticating or mainstreaming into the demands of U. S. politics, or the demises of leaders with whom she intersected, has created this new persona But it also indicates a side of Angelou that was shaped by her involvement in the performative arts. The conclusion of this work with the figure of Angelou, however, ends up being somewhat anticlimactic, perhaps because Higashida does not also look at other possibilities for black internationalist feminism in a subsequent generation. This ending also suggests, ironically, that the black left activism of an earlier generation has acquired a kind of media popularity, rather than formed a legacy of political organizing.
The growing library of this scholarship is what nonetheless energizes those who are working in this area as, with each contribution, one is able to advance the understanding of the dynamism of the black left. Almost obliterated in the last century but having remained alive in its literary works, its intellectual and critical contributions, and its interventions, the black left remains dedicated to the full liberation of African-descended people and their friends and allies worldwide.
Reviewed by Carole Boyce-Davies, Cornell University
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|Title Annotation:||Cheryl Higashida.Black Internationalist Feminism: Women Writers of the Black Left, 1945-1995|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2012|
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