Theme: “The Sojourners: Women, Activism, Communism, Immigration, Deportation”
Last Tuesday on March 6, 2018—just two days before International Woman’s Day— “BlackListed” discussed the role of the Black feminist tradition as it relates to the work and life of Black woman Communist and theorist, Claudia Jones. I knew that when I recommended, in what was then our future “BlackListed” course, (last year in May in 2017 in a course planning session with Professors Shelly Eversley and Cathy Davidson), that if the class were to read “Left of Karl Marx” by Carole B. Davies that the lifework of Jones would be complementary to understanding what Erik S. McDuffie (2011) calls the “making of Black left feminism” in the context of the 1950s. More specifically, I thought that it would be a great way for the class to engage with the notion of Blacklisting from a Black internationalist perspective. Professor Shelly Eversley, who is finishing a book on this topic, liked the idea. She suggested that we also include on our syllabus Carole Boyce Davies’ (2015) “We (Still) Seek Full Equality.” Davies' essay is inspired by Claudia Jones’ earlier 1949 essay, “We Seek Full Equality for Women.”
Taken together, these texts were intended to help the students to see the clear and copious relevancy of Claudia Jones’ activism (both then and now). And as I note Claudia Jones’ 1950 speech, “International Women’s Day and the Struggle for Peace,” I am chilled as I reflect upon the fact, that it was this speech that eventually led to Jones’ official arrest (and Blacklisting). I am reflecting on this as it is only two days after this year’s International Woman’s Day. This matters, because it rings loud and clear that advocating for the liberation of poor and working class Black women (which if you don't know already means the liberation of all people) could only be met with the violence of Blacklisting, incarceration and deportation. These were the solutions? What I can say is that this is simply sad and gravely despicable. I leave this to your pondering and hopeful meditation.
Moving on. With our evening class underway, this week, Shelly and I would be the only professors in the room. Earlier in the day, we found out that professor Davidson was coming down with an unsmiling cold. Shelly and I extended Cathy some Black feminist care and encouraged her to do what was in her best interest: to leave early and recover via some much-needed rest. I tell what might read as a tangential story here, with the intention to interrupt what perhaps, should be a straightforward recap. Already I have deviated from what would typically constitute a “standard recap” by encouraging you to ponder what I have stated above. Here, I also intend to take advantage of this space and offer a pedagogical invitation that is embedded in this “side” story. While this narration might come off as being on the wayside—located at the margins of our March 6th class—it is far from peripheral. In fact, stories like this are central to understanding and providing clear examples (both large and small) as to how a radical Black feminist praxis of care invites us to resist the extraction of the workplace and inversely work to prioritize our needs. For me, it is important to always keep in mind that it is our personal and collective duty—even in our day jobs—to recognize and lift each other up (and "hold each other down"). In order to do so, however, we must first assert our radical capacity to care. As a pedagogical instance in and of itself, I think it is appropriate to be insurgent here and allow this story to be a treasured memento as we tirelessly work to honor and affirm our needs, despite the grueling and care-less demands of an extractive capitalist system.
Returning to what we did in class… Shelly and I began the class with a few house keeping items. First, we took notice of the students’ blogs. We reminded the students to engage each other’s writings by commenting on their colleague’s post on the online class website. This week’s topic “The Sojourners: Women, Activism, Communism, Immigration, Deportation” was led by students Damele E. Collier and Charlene Obernauer. Damele and Charlene pedagogically approached the class in a “multimodal” fashion. They kicked off the class using film (YouTube video) and then followed through with an adaptation of Sara Ahmed’s (2017) “Killjoy Survival Kit” and ended with a free writing/ “think-pair-share” activity.
In this class, Charlene and Damele as class session leaders suggested that we ground our theme “Sojourners: Women, Activism, Communism, Immigration, Deportation” with the reading of Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones by Carole Boyce Davies. In addition, Charlene and Damele, selected a film titled “Claudia Jones1” to jump start and further contextualize the discussion. Our “entry ticket” question, again, compliments of Charlene and Damele, was,“If you could speak to Claudia Jones, what would you ask her?” Several students responded with hypothetical questions as follows:
- How much do you [Jones] think is possible [in this present-history]? What is in your [Jones’] crystal ball?
- How does one prepare to be incarcerated, deported and arrested?
- Looking at online publishing and accessibility, what would it be to be “left” of Marx in this time? What would you [Jones] categorize as “left of Marx” in this present political moment? Is it Black Lives Matter (BLM), led and co-founded by queer Black women, or is it something else?
- Have we progressed or regressed?
- Who were you [Jones] most supported by since you [Jones] were much more “out there” than some of the other Black/African American authors of the time period?
- You [Jones] were bold in a very vulnerable time [1950s/Cold War Era]. How did you [Jones] develop a political and social analysis at such a young age?
- What drew you [Jones] to the communist party (pre-civil rights movement 1940s)?
- Where are the communist supporters now? Are they with Bernie Sanders or Hilary Clinton? Who do you [Jones]/would they [today’s communists] support?
(Photo left to right, Charlene Obernauer and Damele E. Collier)
The class proceeded. Prior to the class, Charlene and Damele assigned this feminist quiz for homework. Students reflected on the online feminist quiz alongside a “tool kit” that Damele shared with the class, which she made and brought from home. We went around the room to share our feminist quiz scores and we debated the contents of Damele’s toolkit. We imagined what we might include in our very own tool kit if we were to make one. It was interesting to learn of the student’s quiz results, their thoughts on the toolkit and all of their perspectives.
While this part of the class was full of dialogue, I could not help but think to myself, that we must deeply interrogate the construction of a woman, particularly as it relates to revolutionary Black women’s political interventions. As Davies points out, Jones’ politics veered to the far left of orthodox Marxism. I wonder about the radical activities—known and unknown—of other Black women during the McCarthy era. Who is the rebel Black woman in this historical and political context and how do the social, political and national conditions of the era, across geographies, afford her the capacity to enact a certain kind of open rebellion similar to the work of Claudia Jones?
I also found myself pondering, alongside the class (and Carole B. Davies), what did Jones give to the communist party? As Davies writes, “If the party made Jones, she [Jones] also made it [the Communist party]” (p. 31). This said, I am left categorizing the above questions as questions of labor. How do we account for the labor of rebel Black women (across generations) without making and reducing their labor to something that is merely knowable and seeable and thus data? This question, as I pondered it silently in class, brings me back to the previous class’ readings of Katherine McKittrick’s “Freedom is a secret” and Simone Browne’s “Dark Matters.” Before leaving, I asked the class: “Can we interrogate the construction of ‘woman’ in this context?”
Lastly, the concluding section of the class involved a free writing/”Think Pair Share” activity. “Pick a quote that you agree with and one you would like to push back on [in the ‘Left of Karl Marx’ reading].” Students in the class were given about 10 minutes to write and discuss. After the allotted 10 minutes, many of the students shared their thoughts on the positionality of Black working class woman, social movements of the 1950s and what it means to be young, Black, immigrant, radical and woman, in this tumultuous anti-Black and anti-left context.
Next week we will read Brown Girl, Brownstone by Paule Marshall and “The Bronx Slave Market (1950).” Follow along and read with us if you so desire.
Works Cited & Further Readings:
Ahmed, Sara. Living a Feminist Life. Durham: Duke University Press, 2017.
Browne, Simone. Dark Matters on the Surveillance of Blackness. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015.
Cooke, Marvel. "The Bronx Slave Market (1950)." Viewpoint Magazine (web log), October 31, 2015. https://www.viewpointmag.com/2015/10/31/the-bronx-slave-market-1950/.
Davies, Carole Boyce. "We (Still) Seek Full Equality." Viewpoint Magazine (web log), February 21, 2015. https://www.viewpointmag.com/2015/02/21/we-seek-full-equality-for-women/.
Davies, Carole Boyce. Left of Karl Marx: the political life of black communist Claudia Jones. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008.
Marshall, Paule. Brown girl, brownstones. New York, NY: The Feminist Press, CUNY, 1981.
McDuffie, Erik S. Sojourning for freedom: black women, American communism, and the making of black left feminism. Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2011.
Katherine McKittrick (in conversation with Carole Boyce Davies). “Intellectual Life: Carole Boyce Davies’s Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones,” MaComere: The Journal of the Association of Caribbean Writers and Scholars,(April 2008): 27-42.
Katherine McKittrick. “Freedom is a Secret: The Future Usability of the Underground,” in Katherine McKittrick and Clyde Woods, eds., Black Geographies and the Politics of Place. Toronto: Between the Lines Press, 2007: 97-111.