Books · Feminism · History

Radical Black Women

This Saturday I was supposed to participate in a reading discussion group about the history of Black women’s radical activism, but I’m not not able to attend it, so I will use this post to discuss my thoughts about what I read and highlight some of the women involved in leftist/ communist activism in the early 20th century.

Leftist/Communist and/or socialist political activity in the U.S. was not a subject that I was very familiar with, in particular, Black people’s involvement. My knowledge was limited to the popularity of communist thought and activism in Harlem during the 1930s, and the fact that McCarthyism affected Black public figures such as Paul Robeson. The literature I have previously read about Black women’s activism during the early 20th century focused on the “club movement”, middle class Black women dedicating themselves to racial uplift. The assigned readings expertly shed a light on and analyzed the impact of the involvement of Black women in leftist/communist social movements, and how, as articulated by Erik S. McDuffie, formed a kind of black left feminism. The women involved in communist activism in the 20s and 30s understood the multiple ways in which Black women were oppressed in the social and economic system, and knew that when the most exploited workers, Black women, were free, then everyone would be free too. In the 40s and 50s Claudia Jones would come to articulate Black women’s triple oppression due to race, gender and class, laying the groundwork for Kimberle Crenshaw’s intersectionality framework in the 70s. Black women activist in the communist left also transgressed gender roles concerning the proper place of women; they demanded respect as equals with their fellow male comrades, both Black and White, and challenged their marginalized status within the movement.

The lives, work and commitment to Black freedom of the many Black women involved in the leftist movement is very inspiring, and i will leave you with book recommendations to learn about them.

Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones by Carole Boyce Davies

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

Radicalism at the Crossroads: African American Women Activists in the Cold War by Dayo Gore

Want To Start A Revolution? Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle. Edited by Dayo Gore, Jeanne Theoharis, and Komozi Woodard

Eslanda: The Large and Unconventional Life of Mrs. Paul Robeson by Barbara Ransby


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