We began our student-led seminar on March 6, 2018, centering the work of black communist feminist Claudia Jones. We first invited the class to ponder if they were to have dinner with Jones, what questions would they ask her? Students asked a series of questions, contemplating her life, organizing, and methodological approaches to communism. During the discussion, students wondered aloud:
- Have we progressed or regressed?
- Who was she most supported by as she was much more “out there” as opposed to the other authors we have learned about. She is bold in a vulnerable moment. How did she develop at so young? (She was only 19)
- What drew her to the communist party (pre-Civil Rights Movement 1940s)?
- Where are the communist supporters now? Are they with Sanders or Clinton? Who do/would they support?
- How much would Jones think is possible? What would be seen in her crystal ball?
- Looking at online publishing and accessibility, what would it be to be “left” of marx in this time? What would Jones categorize as “left of Marx” in this present political moment?
- How does one get prepared to be incarcerated, deported and arrested?
We then watched a film made by BBC Pebble Mill, which presented live footage of Jones’ life, as well as footage of the House of Unamerican Activities Committee’s hearings. The film, which we screened for approximately ten minutes, which helped bring Jones to life for the class and highlighted important questions and statements of the time period.
"It is so hard for black people to make their mark that we have to remind people that we existed." (Claudia Jones: A Woman of Our Times, 1989)
We also looked at Jones’ FBI files, made publicly accessible through the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s The Vault, which publishes the FBI files of public figures. By reviewing these files, we were able to discuss the frequencies of Jones’ lectures and essays and analyze her as a public figure within the historical framework. We then analyzed Carol Boyce Davies’ biography of Jone, Left of Karl Marx, to review an academic analysis of Jones’ life’s work. Davies wrote,
The only black woman among communists tried in the United States, sentenced for crimes against the state, incarcerated, and then deported, Claudia Jones seems to have simply disappeared from major consideration in a range of histories. [...] How could someone who had lived in the United States from the age of eight, who had been so central to black and communist political organizing throughout the 1930s and 1940s, up to the mid-1950s, simply disappear?
We then discussed whether the FBI had been successful in effectively silencing Jones by deporting her from the U.S. and distancing her from American communists. Where would she have been had she not been deported? Had she not been surveilled?
– Charlene Obernauer
In conversation with our groupmates’ presentation on the life and writings of Claudia Jones, particularly her activism surrounding West Indian immigrants and women, we turned to the autobiographically-inspired novel Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959) by Paule Marshall. The narrative follows young Selina Boyce, the daughter of Bajan immigrants residing in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. Throughout the novel, spanning 1939 to 1950, Selina navigates adolescence and early adulthood as she endeavors to reconcile the identity of her family with that of her own (first-generation American) self. Embedded within the soul of the text is the experience of struggle, compounded by race, class, gender, and citizenship, echoing what Claudia Jones articulated as the “triply-oppressed status of [Black] women” in her treatise “We Seek Full Equality for Women” (1949).
Given the expansive and intersecting themes, motifs, and characters within the novel, we asked each of our classmates to sketch a “map,” drawing connections across the text. Employing a visual methodology, we each constructed a mind map, organizing our individual impressions and meanings gleaned from the novel. Having been made familiar with the exercise, we assembled in small groups to share our work and construct new, collaborative maps that endeavored to include each group member’s individual contribution. Upon completion, each group shared their collaborative work with the larger class, demonstrating the wide array of readings and interpretations of the text and its characters.
Many of the collaborative mind maps reflected the social and cultural happenings surrounding the novel, which evolved into a brief overview of the Bronx Slave Market and the associated investigation of it by activists Marvel Cooke and Ella Baker. In a four-part essay published in January 1950, Cooke chronicled her (undercover) experience as a member of the “paper bag brigade,” the rotating group of black and immigrant women who would stand outside the Woolworth’s department store on 170th Street between Jerome and Walton Avenues in the Bronx, seeking domestic work by the day or hour. In Cooke’s exposé, she details the arduous labor performed by these women and the verbal abuse they suffered at the hands of white, middle-class women who bought their bodies for the meagerest of wages.
The experiences articulated by Cooke, who had previously written about the Bronx Slave Market and its pre-World War II iteration, paralleled those quietly endured by Selina Boyce’s mother in Brown Girl, Brownstones. Reflecting on both the history of these 20th century slave markets and their manifestations in the literature of the era, the activism and advocacy by Claudia Jones on behalf of black women everywhere remains especially poignant and imperative.
– Flora de Tournay