Tracing the Pan-African Foundations of Transnational Black Feminism

An unidentified event attended by, left to right, Claudia Jones, Paul Robeson, Amy Ashwood Garvey, Eslanda (Essie) Robeson, and an unidentified couple, circa 1959 (Schomburg Center/ NYPL)

Following her deportation from New York to London, England, Black communist Claudia Jones expanded the scope of her leftist, anti-imperial journalism. During these years, she wrote about her experience as a Black, immigrant working-class woman, but also as an activist who lived her life in close contact within the confines of imperial rule. In her biography of Jones, scholar Carole Boyce Davies states that Jones embraced Pan-Africanism—specifically citing the Ghanaian revolutionary, Kwame Nkrumah as an inspiration who brought “Marxist-Leninist views to bear on their pan-Africanist thinking.” It is evident that she and Pan-Africanist Amy Ashwood Garvey, Marcus Garvey’s first wife and the cofounder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), were well acquainted with each other during the 1930s and 40s. Ashwood’s relationship with Jones embodies the revolutionary capacity of transnational Black feminism because it disrupted the patriarchal, hierarchical nature of empire.

The two were well acquainted with each other in New York and kept in contact as they both relocated to London. It is through the particular lens of Jones’ and Amy Ashwood Garvey’s long-standing friendship that we can glean more information regarding their shared commitments to the ideals of internationally-oriented feminist and Pan-Africanist work.  Keisha Blain posits that Pan-Africanism, often employed interchangeably with Black internationalism, describes freedom visions and movements among people of African descent worldwide and captures their efforts to forge transnational collaborations and solidarities among people of color. The specific Black feminist political commitments, informed by Pan-African solidarities, at the heart of Jones and Ashwood’s friendship should be understood as an incredibly early demonstration of transnational Black feminism.

In general terms, transnational feminists understand that conditions of imperial domination transcended the local and must therefore be analyzed within a transnational frame. Beginning in the Great Depression era Harlem, the friendship that Jones and Ashwood established was founded on mutual trust, respect, and a shared vision of a Pan-African, anti-imperial future.

Although she explicitly denounced communist ideology and did not engage Marxist theory in her class analyses, Amy Ashwood Garvey shared a similar commitment to advocating on behalf of the Black working class. This became particularly evident during World War II, as she shared her perspectives on the dynamic entanglement of labor recruitment, immigration, and gender bias in the United States Emergency Farm and War Industries Program. Despite their different ideological commitments, the two became very close friends and worked together on projects centered around supporting the Black community in London. Their most explicit demonstration of this dedication was working together in the Afro-Women’s Centre and Residential Club, founded by Amy Ashwood Garvey in Ladbroke Grove, London, in 1954.

The Centre, proclaiming to promote the “spiritual, social, and political advancement” of women, eventually developed into a community center, restaurant, boarding house, welfare agency, and the headquarters for many local Black women’s small business ventures. Initiated to serve the specific needs of London’s Black community, the Centre prioritized the needs of Black women from all classes and ethnic backgrounds. Ashwood Garvey took the question of boarding at the Centre very seriously, as she originally envisioned offering boarding as a service to women barred from living in London on the basis of their race, immigration status, or economic hardships. The Centre demonstrated its commitment to supporting all working-class women, also serving as a safe space for sex workers experiencing housing and/or financial insecurity.

In 1956, Ashwood took a step back from managing the Centre to embark on an intellectual journey to the African continent. Throughout her travels in Africa, Ashwood Garvey became acquainted with many high-ranking politicians and activists alike, including C.L.R. James. As her political ideology moved beyond Garveyism, her career as a foundational Pan-African feminist evolved throughout her travels and cultivation in correspondence with her travels throughout the Black Atlantic. After her divorce from Marcus Garvey, Amy Ashwood Garvey was exposed to many different ideas regarding the future of Black politics, many of which were critical of Black capitalism. Although she never directly claimed to be anti-capitalist, it was clear throughout her life that Ashwood Garvey deviated from the inherently Black separatist ideology of Garveyism. She eventually proposed the idea of interracial idealism, suggesting that Black people did not necessarily have to physically separate themselves from white people in order to be free.

While she maintained strategic interracial alliances, she was always clear regarding her foundational commitment to the ideals of Black internationalism, Pan-Africanism, and feminism. This is made clear in her correspondence with a conservative London contact—Sir Hamilton Kerr, the first Baronet of the British Conservative Party. When he learned that Ashwood Garvey was not only a social friend but a project partner with Claudia Jones, he threatened to withdraw his financial support from Amy and her travels due to Jones’ leftist ideals. In response to this threat, Amy told him, “Go to hell. Claudia is my friend. You can stick your 500 pounds where the monkey put the ripe banana .” Throughout the years, Ashwood and Jones continued to correspond—providing financial and emotional support to one another in acknowledgment of the unique, multi-dimensional forms of oppression Black women activists faced.

In 1958, Jones founded the West Indian Gazette, one of London’s first Black newspapers. She requested that Ashwood Garvey contribute a piece addressing the contentious debate regarding the conversation of federation between different West Indian and African nations as a vehicle to achieve true self-determination. The two supported one another’s artistic and literary endeavors. While many instances of this support included intellectual contributions, there are also examples of the two financially supporting their endeavors found in Ashwood Garvey’s financial records—indicating a bond built on mutual trust and a vision of a free Black world.

Ashwood Garvey claimed that Jones was her “most loyal friend.” Their friendship and Left-leaning political affiliations made them targets of state surveillance. While they recognized that this could threaten their immigration status and physical safety, they both continued to move as freely as possible within their activist spheres of influence. In response to the infamous racially charged post-war Notting Hill race riots of 1958, Ashwood Garvey immediately traveled back to London in order to support her community. She was also in attendance at the inaugural Notting Hill Carnival, organized by Jones in 1959 in response to the riot. The Carnival would eventually become an avenue through which London’s Black community could come together to resist the state-sanctioned violence they faced and uplift one another through Black cultural expression.

Ashwood Garvey, in solidarity with scholar-activists like Jones, built a collaborative framework of Black women’s liberation that prioritized cultivating transnational networks of poor and working-class Black women. The relationship between Ashwood Garvey and Jones played a crucial role in the longevity and overall impact of their Pan-African feminist activism. This relationship exemplifies the undoubted significance of Black transnational feminism throughout these years. Their contributions to Pan-African and feminist organizing are exemplary of the building blocks on which our contemporary understanding of transnational Black feminism rests.

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