Black Women Communists and Pan-Africanism: An Interview with Minkah Makalani

In today’s post, Richard Mares, an editorial assistant at Black Perspectives and Ph.D. candidate at Michigan State University, interviews Minkah Makalani about his recent article in the special journal issue on “Women, Gender Politics, and Pan-Africanism” edited by Keisha N. Blain, Asia Leeds, and Ula Y. Taylor. This Fall 2016 issue of Women, Gender, and Families of Color examines the gendered contours of Pan-Africanism and centralizes black women as key figures in shaping, refining, and redefining Pan-Africanist thought and praxis during the twentieth century. In this interview, Makalani discusses his essay, “An Apparatus for Negro Women: Black Women’s Organizing, Communism, and the Institutional Spaces of Radical Pan-African Thought,” which places the activities and ideas of black women Communists like Grace Campbell and Williana Burroughs within a Pan-African tradition. The entire special issue is now available in hard copy and online through ProjectMuse and JSTORReaders can download the introduction of the special issue here.

Makalani is an Associate Professor in the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas. His interests include intellectual history, black political thought, racial identity, black radicalism, and diaspora in the Caribbean, US, and Europe. Makalani is the author of In the Cause of Freedom: Radical Black Internationalism from Harlem to London, 1917-1939 (University of North Carolina, 2011); and co-editor (with Davarian Baldwin) of Escape from New York: The New Negro Renaissance beyond Harlem (University of Minnesota Press, 2013). In addition to editing a special issue of Social Text on “Diaspora and the Localities of Race,” his articles have appeared in the journals Souls and the Journal of African American History, and several edited collections. He is currently writing a history of C. L. R. James’s work on the West Indies Federation from 1958-1962, tentatively titled, Calypso Conquered the World: C. L. R. James and the Politically Unimaginable in Trinidad. Follow him on Twitter at @minkmak

Richard Mares: Where and how do you place Williana Burroughs and Grace Campbell within the long history of black women’s radicalism?

Minkah Makalani: Williana Burroughs and Grace Campbell fit within a history of black women radicals who both laid the very foundations of social movement organizations and elaborated the ideological and conceptual tools essential to those movements. We are learning a great deal more about such women as Audley Moore, Claudia Jones, Una Marson, Olive Morris, Flo Kennedy, and Vicki Garvinblack radical women we can locate within a genealogy that includes and builds on the works of women like Amy Ashwood Garvey and Amy Jacques Garvey. Burroughs and Campbell were equally as instrumental in establishing what we might call a black radical women’s tradition, though I would stress that what we think of as a black radical tradition would look much different without these radical black women. In some ways, Campbell’s and Burroughs’ role may have been minimized because the bulk of their organizational and intellectual work occurred within male dominated organizations tied in different ways to the international communist movement. This raises important questions of archival silencing, that in some ways reflects the very silencing that both endured within the white left. So my hope is to add to the work of such historians as Cheryl Hicks, Erik McDuffie, and LaShawn Harris who have already told us so much of what we know about Campbell and Burroughs.

Grace Campbell delivering a speech in Harlem, date unknown.

Mares: How did Burroughs and Campbell use communist and radical institutions to achieve a Pan-African vision? What role did gender play within institutions like the Harlem Tenants League (HTL) and the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB)?

Makalani: To my mind, you’ve actually posed two questions. Campbell and Burroughs, like their male counterparts, saw in organized communism an international network that could help them realize their vision of a pan-African, or African diasporic political movement. But the ABB and HTL were not merely communist organizations. Their histories are far more complex, as have I outlined in my book. Still, the gendered notions of racial manhood and race leadership, of who should do intellectual work, informed how the ABB operated, its view of black men as defending the race and protecting black women. Yet Campbell was the ABB’s backbone. She was the reason it lasted as long as it did. That’s why I find Ula Taylor’s concept of “community feminism” so useful, because it highlights how someone like Campbell both drew on dominant notions of black political organizing, but challenged the unquestioned dominance of black men in those formations. For Campbell, this came to a head in the HTL, where the internecine struggles within the Communist Party had a debilitating affect on the league’s activities, as it overran and in many ways suffocated the work that the league did in Harlem. There was a clearly gendered aspect to this as well. Campbell and Elizabeth Hendrickson did much of the heavy lifting of organizing tenants in Harlem, just as Campbell had done in organizing black radical educational forums in Harlem. It was Richard B. Moore who enjoyed the title, status, and power that came with being named its president. And, Moore’s hostility toward Campbell, based on their opposing positions within that Party line struggle, led her to leave the CP. Still, this was after she had helped build a template for some of the most dynamic organizing activities that Communists would ever undertake in this era, the Unemployed Councils, which saw the Communist Party makes its greatest strides organizing black communities, particularly among black women.

Burroughs had a much different trajectory. She was never part of the ABB, and came to prominence through her organizing in the teachers’ union and later in the HTL. While the league’s leadership certainly reflected the gendered logics of black radical organizing during that time, it nonetheless facilitated black women becoming both organizers and intellectuals. Burroughs, already an engaged intellectual by that time, found in the league an opportunity to organize black women as black women, which proved crucial to her subsequent arguments in the Communist International for the need to organize black women.

Drawing of Williana Burroughs from the 1933 election campaign, as published in The Daily Worker (Via Marxists Internet Archive)

Mares: In describing your methodology, you state that this article takes a “genealogical approach” to the archives of Black Marxism. Will you explain this process to our readers?

Makalani: I wanted to consider Campbell and Burroughs as activists in their own right, speaking to their immediate circumstances, what they viewed as the central issues confronting black people. I wasn’t terribly interested in thinking about them as nodes in the longer historical arc of black radicalism, because I fear that such an approach tends to treat historical figures as precursors for a better understanding of some subsequent period or era, when the ideas or activities under consideration have presumably developed, progressed, or grown into something better or matured politically. I am not suggesting that Campbell and Burroughs are unimportant for a more robust history of black women’s radical thought. But by focusing on how they approached organizing families, women, and tenants around consumption, we find a far more profound, complex politics. One aspect of the story that comes into view is that we see black radical women thinking through what, within Marxism, is generally dismissed as social reproduction, and thus considered less important than the production of surplus value.

What I call the archive of black Marxism is unrelated to this, but takes up a different set of questions. I am using archive here to mean what Michel Foucault calls a system of enunciability, the laws of what can and cannot be said. In studies of the black left, this has generally meant a concern for how closely someone hewed to, or broke from, what is taken to be Marxist orthodoxy. This also involves the ridiculous practice among established intellectual historians concerned with protecting who can and cannot be seen as an intellectual or a theorist—a rather trite concern to my mind. Beyond Foucault, however, I am far more influenced by David Scott’s discussion of the problem-space as a field that determines what are appropriate questions, and in turn, appropriate answersan assessment of the political stakes in play at the moment one is writing. For Scott, a question or an answer speaks to a given moment, while in another moment it may remain simply an academic exercise. Studies of organized Marxism, especially those focused on black radicals, tended to stress the ties of black radicals to given Marxist formationsa reflection of those scholars own political commitments. Any explanation of Grace Campbell’s radicalism through recourse to her membership in the Communist Party might have spoke to a particular concern in the 1960s or 1970s, but as Scott might put it, today it would be a purely academic question with little value beyond an overwrought debate. Thus a genealogical approach, by focusing on the specifics of Campbell’s and Burroughs’s activism, the field within which they worked out their ideas and elaborated their understanding of black working class women’s issues, holds important insights that might help us think about black radicalism in 2017.

Claudia Jones delivering a speech while in Japan, sometime between 1955 and 1964, Claudia Jones Memorial Photograph Collection (Schomburg Center)

Mares: Both Burroughs and Campbell dedicated their lives to activism. Yet, they also grew and changed as intellectuals across this trajectory. What remained constant in their struggle? Were there major shifts in their outlook? 

Makalani: I think both maintained their political commitments throughout their lives, though how they approached them certainly changed over time. It seems safe to say they were always concerned with the black working class, and black women and families in particular. Early in her career as a social worker, Campbell handled her charges in terms that we might think of today as a politics of respectability. By 1925, however, she articulated a more complex understanding of the gendered, racialized nature of black working-class women’s experiences in the criminal justice system. In the article, I called this a shift in her thinking, though I now question if that is really the case. There were people who were guided by a politics of respectability and at the same time critiqued the class, gender, and racial dynamics at play that contributed to the plight of black working-class and poor women. There’s every indication that black working-class men and women embraced a politics of respectability, which was hardly the sole province of black elites. I think many of us today have missed this part of what Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham was talking about in her work.

Mares: What do you hope readers—including those unfamiliar with Pan-Africanism or African American history, more broadly—will take away from your article?

Makalani: The impossible complexity of black radical thought, and the central role that black women played in elaborating that body of thought. This is, in part, a story of how a leftist black radical politics, in addressing race, had to approach questions of gender, family, consumption, and social reproduction. That breach in Marxist orthodoxy allowed black women in the 1920s the room to think more fully about gender oppression. Of equal importance, Campbell, Burroughs, and others like Hendrickson established and sustained the social spaces in which black radical thought flourished—and not merely the spaces in which black men could think, but space in which they, too, engaged and shaped black radical thought. This was also true of Amy Ashwood Garvey and black anticolonial politics in 1930s London; the Nardal sisters and Nègritude in Paris; Denise Oliver and the Women’s Caucus in the Young Lords Party; Elaine Brown in the Black Panther Party; and most dynamically with Frances Beal and the Black Women’s Liberation Committee in SNCC, which led to the formation of the Third World Women’s Alliance. All of these institutions led to a current in the black radical tradition that we can argue helped produce a Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, Opel Tometi and the Black Lives Matter movement. Whether there is a direct line one can draw from Campbell and Burroughs to Cullors, Garza, and Tometi is less interesting than if we consider the groundwork they did, which allowed someone like Claudia Jones to do the work she did, which Angela Davis explicitly engaged in her work, which in important ways informs our political present.

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Richard Mares

Richard M. Mares, an assistant editor for Black Perspectives, is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at Michigan State University. He is currently working on his dissertation entitled, “Exile is Hell’: Black Internationalism and Robert F. Williams’ Activist Network in the Cold War, 1950-1976.”