Click for papers on:
Aisha Finch, Rethinking Slave Rebellion in Cuba: La Escalera and the Insurgencies of 1841-1844
Nancy Hewitt, Radical Friend: Amy Kirby Post and Her Activist Worlds
Crystal N. Feimster, Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching
Carolyn J. Eichner, Surmounting the Barricades: Women in theParis Commune
Carolyn Ashbaugh, Lucy Parsons: An American Revolutionary
Louise Michel, Red Virgin: Memoirs of Louise Michel
Mary Nash, Defying Male Civilization: Women in the Spanish Civil War
Angela Jackson, British Women and the Spanish Civil War
Le Ly Hayslip, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places
Carole Boyce Davies, Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones
Angela Davis, Angela Davis: An Autobiography
Gregg Andrews,Thyra J. Edwards: Black Activist in the Global Freedom Struggle
Kym Winchell on Rethinking Slave Rebellion in Cuba: La Escalera and the Insurgencies of 1841-1844, by Aisha Finch
Resistance Both Quiet and Loud
Aisha Finch's Rethinking Slave Rebellion
in Cuba: La Escalera and the Insurgencies of 1841-1844 is primarily concerned
with the reclamation of a rich history of resistance in the face of Cuban slavery,
especially around the stories and lives of Afro-Cuban women and non-elite men.
Aside from the documents arranged by white creole slaveholders, little record
is left behind of La Escalera, a putative conspiracy to promote a slave revolt
on the island's sugar plantations. Finch uses a method of "reading the
silence" within this colonial document, a method which allows her to move
beyond the record of the oppressor. In this paper I reflect on Finch's understanding
of the importance of the unrecorded historical subject, and the ramifications
this has for women within a revolutionary context.
The historical case of La Escalera is a particularly complex one. It is not known whether the many acts of resistance across Cuba were indeed united, or whether the illusion of a centralized resistance was crafted by the colonial power as justification for a brutal display of force, meant to evidence the absolute authority of Spanish control. For this reason, the term La Escalera is used to refer to the trials of alleged revolutionaries by the Spanish colonial force. The turn of the century had seen the Haitian revolution prove the precarious position of islands dominated in population by enslaved men and women. White creole resentment of Spanish authority (1) combined with this threat to lead the Spanish colonial government to reassert its dominance by increasing the presence of the Spanish military on the island and attempting to establish a slave system closer to that of the United States. (2)
Interpreting the Colonial Document
Historians who wish to depict the experience of an oppressed people inevitably come into conflict with the record of power. In a colonial context the colonizer holds sweeping power to falsify testimony through torture and threat, and to falsify records indefinitely. Finch meets this challenge directly, acknowledging the difficulty of her task and conscientiously developing a methodology that she applies towards understanding the role of the silenced party. Her method is particularly useful for any historian whose task is to give dimensionality to the role of women in resistance. Finch asserts the importance of the role of women in sustaining and fomenting rebellion in ways that do not draw the colonizer's gaze. In performing the reproductive work of the family women are not necessarily passive. Finch allows herself to acknowledge the importance of a role that has become passé in contemporary feminist discourse; that to be revolutionaries women do not necessarily need to engage the same performance of power as their male counterparts; and that in a gendered context the revolutionary roles of men and women can have complementary characteristics.
Finch takes account of the gendered conditions that existed in nineteenth-century Cuban life under slavery, and yet does not ignore the importance of those women who do make an impression on the colonial record by abandoning expectations of femininity (3) and leading their people into battle. Her goal is not to reduce these stories or underestimate the bravery of the individual women who died in resistance; rather, Finch seeks to remind us of the bravery within daily life, and the tactical necessity of quiet subversion. The great battles are founded upon the survival of the colonized and enslaved people, and upon the organization of solidarity, exchange of information, and sheltering of refugees; all tasks that are not explicitly included in the colonial record but which emerge nonetheless, implied by its gaps.
These daily acts of resistance expose themselves
to Finch's compassionate detective work. She discusses the importance of Afro-Cuban
enslaved women as Brujas, who engaged in a form of witchcraft that married regional
practices of Africa into a contemporary dialogue across cultural boundaries.
Brujas were active and powerful within their practice, going beyond the role
of passive oracle that is often conjured in the contemporary western imagination.
(4) In the context of Cuban slavery in the 1850s, Brujas were a driving force
behind the plans for revolt. These priestesses would foretell events and conditions
of the resistance, distribute protective blessings, and forge amulets which
bound men to their role as fighters. In the brutal interrogations that slaveholders
used to extract information about La Escalera, some men maintained their silence
for fear of death upon breaking the pact of the amulets. Here it becomes clear
that the authority and power of the Bruja is comparable to that of a general
in war, although a general who took a shape unrecognizable to the colonizer.
Not all women were engaged in the exceptional
work of brujería, but this did not limit their importance to colonial
resistance. Meetings of enslaved men and women took place on plantations grounds
at night, at which revolutionaries of all genders laid plans and communicated
messages to be carried to other plantations. Women spent evenings caring for
children, cooking, and creating the illusion that all was in its place so that
men could travel, carrying information to distant plantations against the will
of the slaver. The unique conditions of Cuban slavery made it so that some women
had freed themselves from slavery, and become landholders in the city or, occasionally,
acquired plantations of their own. Finch highlights the particular cases of
Desideria Pimienta and Altagracia Villa. These esteemed individuals were often
at the crux of plans for rebellion, providing a safe meeting place and overnight
quarters for revolutionaries.
Returning to the case of women in battle, Finch gives careful attention to the Afro-Cuban women who do appear in documents about the inquisition of La Escalera, particularly Carlota and Fermina Lucumí. (5) Carlota died in battle, distinguished by her maiming of the daughter of a plantation overseer during an uprising; she became a symbol of white creole anxiety. Fermina was a significant leader in revolutionary planning, executed in the trials of La Escalera. Both women became acute points of tension within creole and colonizer conceptions of those who they held in bondage. Carlota and Fermina were also evidence against the assumption of a natural domination of man over woman. No longer could the white creole slaver sleep soundly next to the Afro-Cuban woman coerced into his bed.
The Silent Party
Expanding on Finch's analysis of the Afro-Cuban women of La Escalera to establish its broader relevance is absolutely necessary. Her subtle handling of the limitations of evidence in the colonial record shows that history is not a sealed tomb, but a living dialogue which the historian is responsible for translating. By contextualizing the events of La Escalera in the conditions of Cuban slavery in 1850, she constructs a variegated understanding of power, resistance, and gender. She is careful to treat forms of survival and resistance which rely on a gender binary with respect and understanding, while also honoring the individuals who became symbolic as women warriors. Finch understands that the task of the intersectional historian is not to cast off or diminish any single way of being, but to allow the diversity of tactics to emerge from the record, complicating our notions of womanhood and femininity, violence and power, and even success and failure.
1. Many of the islands' plantation owners came from the Americas and did not identify with Spanish authority. This led to some white creole landowners' organizing for the independence of Cuba. These white creoles did not imagine that independence would lead to any greater freedom for enslaved Cubans; rather they sought greater profits and less oversight for themselves.
2. The possibility of purchasing one's freedom, the shared quarters which remained unlocked after working hours, the lax attitude towards hunting and taking wage work in one's "free" time were all elements of Cuban slavery that the Spanish authority came to view as central to the problem of insubordination.
3. Expectations of the roles of men and women (and of any traditional non-binary roles) are complicated by the exercise of colonial power and the bringing together of people from a vast continent with varying traditions and social practices.
4. In the western contemplation of the Occult since the Witch Trials the role of active witchcraft has generally been abandoned for a passive image of the oracle, a woman who acts as a conduit for messages from some greater "other". The favorability of a version of tarot card reader, crystal ball, and palm-reading plays into this preference. This subject deserves more attention than I can give here, but interestingly the tide seems to be shifting again with the creation and popularity of the new "Sabrina", in which witchcraft is portrayed as an empowering force in the hands of the individual witch.
5. Both Carlota and Fermina were surnamed
Lucumi. In Cuban slave society those kidnapped from Africa were given their
places of origin as surnames. Significantly, the Lucumi people came from a warrior
society that was often at the forefront of armed resistance to slavery.
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Hannah Rodums on Radical Friend: Amy Kirby Post and Her Activist Worlds, by Nancy Hewitt
One of the first lessons I learned in my First
Year Studies course was that of the individual's relationship to the larger
world around them. While not a complete dismissal of free will, the historicized
individual's actions were to be understood within the framework of their contemporary
moment. We are always interacting with and shaping the world around us; and
in return are shaped by the contemporary events in ways unique to us only.
Tonight I am here to talk about Amy Kirby
Post, an individual from the specific historical moment of the American nineteenth
century. As the title of Nancy Hewitt's Radical Friend: Amy Kirby Post and
Her Activist Worlds suggests, Amy was affiliated with multiple activist
movements throughout her life. Amy's intentionality - or sense of purpose -
in relating her various worlds was that of advocating for the equality of women
and men in all spheres of life, the emancipation of the individual from all
forms of repressive institutions. In light of what I learned from my First Year
Studies, I attempt to tease out the complicated relationship between Amy's fundamentalist
approach to activism and the challenge individual female agency presented to
her historical moment. I am also cognizant however that individual intent is
but one part of making history - and that through a collaboration of intentionalites
does change begin to precipitate, and then crystalize itself in the historical
We all come to our contemporary moment with our own particular pasts and experiences; they are what relate us to it. In the case of Amy, her worldview was heavily informed by the Quaker religion, of which she had been born into. As Hewitt notes, Quakerism of the early nineteenth century presented a unique perspective on the relationship of the individual to other individuals, faith, and purpose. The Spirit of God resided in each individual; and it, rather than a religious authority, was the primary means of religious truth and personal conviction. In light of the United State's inherited history of slavery, Quaker principle decreed that all persons be free of bondage. Wives were regarded as spiritual equals to their husbands, and sometimes considered the chief religious and moral authority of the Quaker household - a position that throughout the eighteenth and into the nineteenth century was held by the male. Men and women together met monthly in meeting houses with other Friends, and when only compelled by their inner light spoke. Hewitt suggests that the individual emphasis of both men and women's spiritually in particular impacted the young Amy tremendously in how she understood her relationship to the men, freed slaves, and other women she daily came into contact with.
Quakerism's fiercely individualist understanding
of spirituality however was in conflict with the institution of Quaker religion
as a whole, which imposed on its members strict disciplinary codes and forbade
the involvement of Quakers with the affairs of the Non-Quaker world. In the
context of Amy's historical moment, this meant that while she personally could
condemn slavery as an immoral and unchristian practice (as her religion taught),
she could not participate in the nascent abolitionist organizations forming
in the Northeast. Societal understanding of the woman's place within the private
sphere doubly condemned any notion of public speaking, never mind outright activism
in a world of men. A budding radical herself, Amy had a choice to make: sacrifice
her individual religious and moral convictions and conform to the institutions
of religion and womanhood, or risk separating herself from her Quaker family,
of whom she was very close to. The decision, Hewitt notes, wasn't an easy one,
in the end Amy and her husband/equal, Isaac, switched from orthodox Quakerism
to Hicksite Quakerism, the more radical of the two in its sympathizing with
the abolitionist cause. Ultimately Amy and Isaac would stop attending Monthlies
with Friends from either sect of Quakerism altogether, instead vouching form
their own Waterloo Friends of Human Progress meeting with other disenchanted
Quakers like themselves.
To recognize one's individual purpose is one
thing: but that individual purpose is squandered by the larger authorities which
haunt our lives if it cannot find an outlet to express itself. As her radical
worlds broadened to encompass the blooming abolitionist and women's rights scenes
in Rochester, New York, she (as well as other women radicals within her circles,
including the likes of Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton), exposed the
connections between the larger institutions of marriage, law, and slavery that
inhibited individual - and especially individual women's - emancipation. Hence
followed a flurry of activist activity as Amy erected and engaged with a myriad
of organizations: The American Anti-Slavery Society, the Western New York Anti-Slavery
Society, The Yearly Meeting of Congregational Friends, the National Woman Suffrage
Assocation, to name but a few. In these organizations women asserted their agency
by electing members to held positions, openly discussing issues of women's oppression
via American culture and slavery, and forming communities of women that operated
outside the institutions men had excluded them from. In this light, recognition
of the female as individual agent of her own destiny challenged the male-dominated
institutional structures of the law, religion, and the family that otherwise
dictated the intentionalities of the nineteenth-century woman.
Complimentary to the many activist groups
Amy was in, the Post house on Sophia Street was a destination on the Underground
Railroad, opened to all slaves escaping to Canada; it was a meeting place for
women's groups and meetings, and a resting place for extended family members
(and friends that were considered family, such as Frederick Douglass and his
wife Rosa) who too were a part of the activist network. It was also home to
the flash-in-the-pan Spiritualist movement of the Antebellum era; in fact Amy
and Isaac held séances and contacted many of their deceased relatives
via mediums, a practice their Quaker relatives looked upon with skepticism.
Ann Braude notes in Radical Spirits that the fundamental basis of Quakerism
and Spiritual shared a similarity in their belief that "individuals should
look within themselves and act according to the convictions placed there by
the creator" (Braude, 62), rather than accept a higher authority. In the
context of spiritualism, the harsh reality of death, paired with the Puritan/Calvinist
beliefs of the predestination of the soul, constituted the overarching religious
view. Via contacting the dead through a medium, spiritualism "usurped the
authority of God by interfering with the authority of a moral agent" (Braude
88); and through usurping God usurped His representatives, other known as the
Bible, nineteenth-century values of womanhood, and the United States' institutions
created by men and oppressed all women. Here could the agency of the female
individual be recognized in all of its power; and through contacting the spirits
of former slaveowners who had in the afterlife renounced slavery, Spiritualism
became another vehicle through which Amy and her activist friends could utilize
individual female agency to push forward contemporary issues of social justice,
in the context of a world dominated by nineteenth-century middle-class social
values, law, and taboos.
Amy, however, is not a storybook character
who marches from one conflict to the next, completely unconnected from her contemporaries
like many protagonists tend to be. Perhaps it is a hold-over from the way nineteenth-century
historians rendered history as a linear progression form the "backward"
past to the "forward" present, and the inevitable "modern"
future: we fail to see the connections between individuals, their actions, and
the other historical actors walking alongside them, as if every moment is a
separate chapter in the story of history. One individual's purpose alone cannot
account for everything the American abolitionist movement as a whole accomplished
within the nineteenth century.
As I've hinted at, Amy had a plethora of activist
friends that called Rochester their home; and like each one of us those activists
had their own individual purposes which influenced the way they interacted with
their world, and with each other. One of Amy's closest radical friends, Frederick
Douglass, joined the abolitionist movement in the Garrisonian belief that slavery
was a moral sin against the nation; as he matured however he refined his intentionality
to focus more on abolition as a political cause, vouching for the emancipation
and legal enfranchisement of enslaved black men. The specific purpose he had
written for abolitionism clashed with Amy's conviction of slavery as moral flaw,
and extending well beyond slaves that were daily exploited and discriminated
against; that however did not stop Amy from supporting Douglass's North Star
publication, nor did it prevent Douglass from attending women's rights conventions
that Amy organized. Should one have offended the other with their particular
sense of what the proper course of action was (as Amy once did in relation to
Douglass's North Star becoming too politically oriented), the two forgave each
other; and set their minds on the collective effort of the abolition of slavery,
and all forms of bondage.
The same can be said for Susan B. Anthony
and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, whose relationship to Amy Hewitt characterizes as
ambivalent. By the dawn of the Civil War the two women's rights advocates had
abandoned religious and moral convictions of woman's freedom in favor of legally
enfranchising and granting the rights of women. After the war it evolved into
an elitist and racist stance on granting only white women suffrage, ignoring
the prominent - and critical - voices black women's activists such as Sojourner
Truth and Ellen Frances Watkins Harper. Indeed their intentionality staunchly
differed from Post's inclusive view of emancipating all individuals,
one which recognized the complex nuances of race and gender that made them all
but inseparable in the cause for individual female emancipation. Amy however
collaborated with Stanton and Anthony's specific intentionalities by attending
specific women's rights conventions held by them, and attempting to have herself
registered to vote in Rochester elections. Done alone, and perhaps neither Amy
nor Douglass, Stanton, or Anthony would have gotten anywhere; but through the
collaboration of their individual intentionalities could they together forge
a path ultimately changing the unique historical moment they had in common.
Hewitt stresses Post's "fundamentalist
approach" (Hewitt, 179) as the defining motive behind her activism - never
whittled down to one faction of oppressed individuals, but deeply aware of the
ways abolition, women's rights, and peace were intertwined with one another.
Her reputation was of someone who crossed the boundaries of race, class, and
gender the nineteenth century had identified as "rigid" - a jack of
all trades, if you will, and approachable to many people that hailed from diverse
groups and interests. That her goal of emancipation for all individuals affected
the historical narrative, I agree; but where I see the individual purpose in
Post's life I also see a woman intimately connected the members of her activist
worlds, pushing together rather than separately against the stubborn institutions
and social values inhibiting them. Like the throwing of a stone into a pond
the individual act is a singular event dropped into the narrative; its ripples
however interact in their own with other historical actors and phenomena, and
through their collaboration influence the larger superstructure of their own
historical moment, and echo well into the moments occurring well after it.
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Kathryn Brantley on Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching, by Crystal N. Feimster
In Crystal Feimster's work, Southern Horrors, the reality of the United States during Reconstruction is exposed by comparing the activist journeys of two southern women from very different backgrounds. Feimster works to shed light on the assaults performed against black citizens that have been sanitized, covered up, and left unpunished and unatoned for. The acts that she describes are, indeed, horrors. However, even difficult histories need to be learned from; victims need to be honored and perpetrators held accountable, even if only through text. Beyond the atrocities described in the pages of Southern Horrors, Feimster discusses the lynchings of the Reconstructed South through the pens of two women of startlingly different views. Ida B. Wells, the esteemed teacher, journalist, and activist who spoke against lynchings in the south in no uncertain terms, is compared and contrasted with Rebecca Felton, a white writer from Georgia who advocated for lynchings of black men to continue under the argument that they were necessary for the protection of white women. In the pages of her text, Feimster describes (and shows her readers through pictures) horrors that are nearly unimaginable.
Feimster opens her text by discussing the incredible differences that existed between Wells and Felton. Although they were contemporaries, existing in the same generation and in similar areas of the United States, the experiences that Wells and Felton had, experiences that would shape them into the women and activists that they became, were disparate in the extreme. Wells, born the daughter of slaves in Mississippi, and Felton, born the daughter of a slaveholding family in Georgia, both would end up as activists, Wells fighting against lynchings and Felton fighting for what she perceived as the continued protection of white women. In order to better explain how Wells and Felton would end up with such diametrically opposing views, Feimster dedicates the first portion of her book to describing the differences in how both Felton and Wells were raised, and the journey each took to their respective careers as activists. From the perspective of modernity, it's hard to understand how Feimster can write, "From different sides of the color line, Felton and Wells were women's rights pioneers who negotiated and challenged the racial and sexual politics of the New South" (1), when the position that Felton took was so utterly repulsive. However, Feimster, not only by describing in such stark terms how Wells and Felton ended up activists and pioneers for such radically different movements and positions, but also by holding a mirror up to her readers, forces us to meditate upon the ideals and perspectives that each of us was steeped in growing up.
From the beginning of her text, Feimster urges her readers to acknowledge the common ground that surprisingly existed between Wells and Felton. On the surface it would seem that a daughter of slaves and a daughter of slaveowners would hold little in common in terms of morals and ideals, Felton points out that Wells and Felton shared ideologies in regards to the unreigned sexuality of southern white men, they both took to the public sphere to voice their opinions on both race and sex when it was still uncommon for women to exist in the public sphere in this manner, and they each, "albeit in very different ways, laid the groundwork that would eventually allow southern black and white women to come together in the fight against lynching." (6) Feimster does not ignore, however, the incredibly different ways that Wells and Felton grew up. Feimster works diligently, giving background to both Felton and Wells' childhoods, the places they inhabited, and the way they learned to interact with the world around them. Felton's childhood as the daughter of slaveowners, groomed to manage a household of slaves, raised by a "Mammy" and bound to the social order of the elite slave-owning south, is disparate from Wells childhood as the daughter of slaves, later freed, who grew into a fiercely independent and vibrant author and activist.
In the chapter titled "The Horrors
of War," Feimster uses descriptions of Felton's early years as a way to
frame the atmosphere that women of her class were raised in. Reflecting upon
later chapters, when Felton's activism is explored, her terror at the idea of
sexual assault on white women, and her willingness to sacrifice as many innocent
black men as necessary to "protect" white women, it is clear to see
where these seeds were planted. Feimster writes on how, in the Civil War era
south, white women and their accompanying virtues were treated with the utmost
care, and the loss of any virtue, especially at the hands of either a Yankee
soldier or a black man, was feared incredibly. One quote stands out in particular,
ascribed to a young woman named Cordelia Lewis Scales from Holly Springs, Mississippi.
Writing to a friend, Cordelia said: "I
wish you could see me now with my hair parted on the side with my black velvet
zouave on & pistol by my side & riding with my fine colt, Beula. I know
you would take me on for a Guerilla. Quite warlike, you see." (19) This
attitude of defiance, the willingness to fight to the death if necessary to
protect one's virtue, of course would bleed over into the activism of Felton
in her later years.
After discussing the origins of Rebecca Felton, Feimster outlines the way that Wells was raised, comparing her upbringing with that of Felton's and using it to create context in the way that women of Wells' background and Felton's background experienced the world around them. She describes the way that Wells was raised, how her parents, both of whom were raised as slaves, focused so intently on raising their daughter to be exposed to politics and to pursue her education. The world that Wells was raised in was quite different that the world that Felton grew up in and inhabited. While both were raised in the south during the time of slavery (although Wells was a generation younger than Felton), the experience that Wells had was diametrically opposed to Felton's. While both Felton and Wells were taught of the violence, sexual and otherwise, that existed in their overlapping southern worlds, Feimster writes of how Wells' parents taught her about the world she inhabited. "Ida's childhood also included powerful lessons about the racial and sexual politics of the antebellum South." (39) Feimster goes on to write of how Wells was taught about the "hard times" that her mother encountered as a slave (taken as meaning violence, sexual and otherwise), and how she was told of other hardships, encounters with brutalities sexual and otherwise that her extended family, friends, and community at large experienced. However, instead of the narrative of sexual abuse and hardship in the south that Felton was taught, the views that Wells would have heard and seen did not center white women as the sole victims of abuse and hardship in the south, but as perpetrators of violence against black men and women.
The point that Feimster makes in writing of the childhoods and upbringings of both Wells and Felton is to illustrate how the respective upbringings of both Felton and Wells would shape the way that they interacted with the world as activists later on in their lifetimes. Immediately after showing how Wells and Felton experienced their formative years, Feimster goes on to write about the Civil War and the Reconstruction period that followed, and how the anti-rape movement, helmed by white southern women, began. Feimster is careful to note that, although they had greatly differing views expressed in similar manners, both Wells and Felton were women who stepped outside of the bounds typically prescribed to women of their time and place. "Instead, armed with painful lessons from their past and motivated by hopes for the future, they seized upon women's postwar concern with protection of body and property and forcefully entered into the violent racial and sexual politics of the 'New South.'" (62) It must be discussed that, as a modern spectator of the New South, one can be loath to acknowledge Felton's accomplishments, seeing as they came on the backs and through the blood of innocent black men. One must give credit to Feimster for removing her lens of modernity with such dedication in acknowledging Felton for the work that she did.
However, despite the similarities that Felton and Wells had in their activism and breaking outside of the roles that the south, even the New South, would steadily prescribe to them, the way that their activism was expressed and the accomplishments that they hoped to achieve differed greatly. In the first few chapters of Southern Horrors, Feimster writes of how both Wells and Felton worked to make the changes that they sought in the south. Felton, Feimster explains, did work to help reduce sexual assault in the south, and this surprisingly expressed itself in bucking the traditional view of the time that black women should be sexually available to white men, and seeking instead to acknowledge their sexual availability and protect them from assault at the hands of white men. "Felton used her husband's political position and the influence of the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) to broaden her concern with protection to include black women and poor white women." (63) Including black women in her goals for protection, however, did not keep her from playing up the hysteria that led to the torture and destruction of so many black men.
In contrast, Wells would, in the course of her career, become an outspoken activist against the lynchings of black men, and would specifically decry the excuses and accusations of rape as a cover-up for the more commonly economically motivated lynchings of black men. Feimster writes about this, stating that at first, even the black community had difficulty decrying lynchings when rape was given as the reason why. Rape was seen as morally reprehensible within their communities, and lynching was seen, Feimster implies, as a justifiable punishment for such an offense. However, when faced with the surge of lynchings and racially based violence in the early 1890s, it became clear that other reasons, such as "preventing black political and economic mobility," (87) was more of a driving factor behind lynchings than punishment for sexual violence was. Feimster gives multiple examples, each horrific, of lynchings that were described as punishments for rape, when really economic factors could have been behind them. This political landscape was the one in which Ida Wells would come into her own as an author and activist in, and would shape the way she acted as an activist and journalist for the rest of her career.
Feimster also writes of Wells's work, Southern Horrors, and how it came to define the movement against the rash of racially motivated violence in New South. This work, Feimster discusses, would win Wells many enemies and allies, and would alienate her from both the white and black presses because she was a woman delivering this message. Beyond her own activism, Wells would go on to inspire the next generation of female black activists. The reach of her activism was far and impactful. This was due to the power of her arguments against racially based violence and lynchings, the way that she used her words to decry and topple the reasoning given for such unspeakable acts. "Wells argued that the rape/lynch narrative depended on a variety of racialized gender constructions: the chaste and dependent white woman; the sexually violent black man; the immoral and unredeemable black woman; and the honorable and civilized white man." (103) Wells's work in breaking down these beliefs, although so many of the walls wouldn't fall until after her time (and many of these stereotypes sadly persist into today), was crucial. Wells inspired a generation of black women activists who came behind her.
The activism that Wells and those like her inspired was not, however, without its qualms. Other activists, especially those within the National Federation of Afro-American Women (which became the National Association of Colored Women, or NACW) were less radical and more in favor of less radical activism than Wells (now Wells-Barnett) desired. Wells was an advocate of armed resistance and agitation against the racialized violence that the black community was experiencing. The aforementioned organizations, however, were more apt to advocate for participating in what we would now call respectability politics. "Emphasizing domesticity, club-women sought to improve family life, health, and morality in the black community." (114) This approach mirrored the beliefs that white society placed upon black communities when they painted them as less moral, advanced, or dignified than white communities.
Despite the activism of groups like NACW and individuals like Ida B. Wells, the New South was full of white women like Felton who used race as a way to make progress on their own issues, using the black community as leverage to secure their own advancement. Feimster writes of how white women in the New South sketched out their platforms, campaigning for prison reform, calling for returns to chivalry on the part of white men, advocating for temperance prohibition. An interesting note that Feimster makes here is that despite the image that women activists in the New South painted for themselves, many of them participated in mob violence "in the name of 'home protection' and white supremacy." (125) As Feimster writes, "They laid claim to their rights to legal and/or extralegal protection and expressed their desire to move freely without fear of sexual violence. In so doing, they transformed the 'problem'of black rape into a discussion about white women's rights." (125) This attitude and approach would continue to shape the way that women in the New South would face the legitimate problems they had as women. By placing blame on black men (and black individuals in general) instead of simply fighting for their own rights, they would, though, play a crucial role in the devastating violence put upon the black community in the New South and beyond in the Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction eras.
The issues that Wells fought against, discrimination and lynchings and the violence that the black community suffered through, would continue to plague the south for years and years to come. While black men were primarily targeted, black women suffered as well. Feimster writes, "Between 1880 and 1930 lynch mobs murdered at least 130 black women. Many more were tortured, mutilated, tarred and feathered, shot, burned, stabbed, dragged, whipped, or raped by angry mobs all over the South." (159) The atmosphere of fear that so many black southerners lived in was one intentionally stoked by activists like Felton, where the safety of innocent citizens was put in jeopardy in order to move forward the progress of white southern women. Feimster dedicates an entire chapter to discussing the horrors that faced black southerners during the Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction era, detailing horrific stories of abuse, murder, and gut-churning violence. One point that Feimster does make, is that while racial violence made up the majority of lynchings, white women, almost always women of lower social classes, women who were sex workers, or otherwise "undesirable citizens," were lynched as well. (183-184)
In the final chapter of her book, titled "The Gender and Racial Politics of the Anti-Lynching Movement," Feimster brings together the parallel themes of Wells and Felton, the way their lives in some ways mirrored, and in other ways repelled each other, to discuss the culmination of both their life works. In 1922, both Felton and Wells (with Wells accompanied by a "delegation of black clubwomen" (212) traveled to Washington, D.C. The Dyer Bill, the first anti-lynching law to reach the U.S. Senate, was being voted on, and Wells had traveled with her fellow clubwomen to try and convince President Warren Harding of the bill's importance. Felton, however, spoke out against the bill in no uncertain terms. Using her connections and social standing, Felton continued to speak in favor of lynching, deeming it necessary for the protection of white women in the New South. Felton was active politically, even going as far as to serve as the first female senator in the history of the U.S., albeit for only one day. Along with others who shared her views, Felton fought to have the Dyer Bill fail, and surely enough, it failed to advance in the 67th Congress.
This, however, was not the end for the anti-lynching movement that Ida B. Wells-Barnett put into motion. Despite Felton and others like her fighting against their calls for justice and ceasing of violence against the black community, many women in the south, black and white alike, would continue to fight against lynchings in the New South. The foundation of the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching in 1930 signaled the beginnings of a shift in the social structure of the south. Women of all races came together to continue the legacy that Wells had put into motion, and they rejected the notion that protection of white women was the reason to carry on lynchings. The Association declared, "Public opinion has accepted too easily the claim of lynchers and mobsters that they were acting solely in defense of womanhood. In the light of facts, we dare no longer permit this claim to pass unchallenged We solemnly pledge ourselves to create a new public opinion in the South, which will not condone, for any reason whatever, acts of mobs or lynchers." (231-232) This legacy of working towards justice would carry on, and finally, in June 2005, decades after the lives and deaths of both Rebecca Felton and Ida B. Wells, the 199th Congress would pass a resolution apologizing for lynching, the lack of failure on their part, and the treatment of black men and women in the New South. They also apologized for not passing legislation to protect black communities sooner.
In conclusion, although the lives of Ida B. Wells and Rebecca Felton resulted in differing values, opinions, and manners of thought, Feimster weaves these two disparate lives together in a way that makes it possible to see how they worked together, even in ways unseen at the time, to build a future in which lynchings would be decried and punished instead of supported. One cannot, however, study this history without meditating on the present.
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Marian Phillips on Surmounting the Barricades: Women in theParis Commune, by Carolyn J. Eichner
Throughout history women have played
integral roles in the development and establishing of revolutions and insurrections
against long-standing patriarchal structures of government. Notably, on March
18, 1871, revolutionary women of Paris assisted in inciting the Paris Commune
when they laid their lives on the line as French troops sent by Thiers attempted
to remove artillery from Montmartre. Historians have conducted extensive research
on the Paris Commune but have noticeably minimized the efforts and participation
of women in the revolution. Carolyn Eichner provides a social history that seeks
to represent these revolutionaries that have been excluded. Utilizing print
materials and correspondence of specific women, she discusses the presence and
development of feminist socialism before, during, and after the Commune. In
this historical account of the 72-day revolution, Eichner complicates the history
of the Paris Commune by adding feminist socialism to the discourse.
Detailing the lives of André Léo, Elisabeth Dmitrieff, and Paule Mink, Eichner argues that each of these women exemplifies "a particular strand of communarde feminist socialism" (2) and explains the plurality of feminist socialisms that were part of the revolution. I find it important to note that Eichner focuses on women that have a background in the bourgeoisie and have or have not experienced a shift in their status or a complete loss of it. As these women were and have been cited as bourgeois, they had access to opportunities to leave a paper trail, whereas working-class women would not, or rather could not, have a similar benefit. Despite their ascriptive status as bourgeois, Léo, Dmitrieff, and Mink advocated equality for working-class women, bourgeois women, and communardes, as well as anti-clericalism, and women's right to political involvement and education. These women spoke for themselves and women as a whole in their activist efforts. Eichner finds that these women were successful in their revolutionary activism through their ability to publish literature, receive an education, and form organizations; to put it simply, their success was possible thanks to benefits available to them as members of the bourgeoisie.
By detailing the feminist socialism articulated by these women before, during, and after the Commune, Eichner paints the picture of the continuing desires women felt for a revolution in Paris. For instance, Léo wrote various novels during the 1860s that questioned the gendered divisions of labor and the inequalities of marriage, while asserting the importance of women's education; in short, expressing her commitment to women's equality prior to the rise of the Commune. During the revolution, she utilized "traditional concepts of womanhood to promote female access" (104), acknowledging the appeal it would have for those that wouldn't have listened otherwise. While relationship problems dominated her life in the aftermath of the Commune, she returned to writing novels to that advocated social change, such as La Commune de Malenpis: conte, written in exile. Utilizing André Léo's specific social history, Eichner frames the desire for social change as unwavering, despite the obstacles that her subjects faced after the Commune.
The reader is confronted with outliers. These book's subjects were astute in their knowledge of politics and how to navigate patriarchal society--Eichner makes this clear--but the book does not discuss the masses of women who had no choice but to return to an unchanged working-class environment when the Commune fell. Historian Gay Gullickson takes definitive note of working-class women's contributions in the revolution, whereas Carolyn Eichner focuses on bourgeois women as foundational in the development and the deployment of female activism and organizations. The result is diminishment of the roles and presence of working-class women. Surely this is not her intent, as she recognizes that Léo, Dmitrieff, and Mink did not have "typical" bourgeois opinions on the Commune based on their personal experiences of gender biases, inequalities in seeking education, and their recognition of the impact of poverty. Eichner discusses their experiences in order to generate a conversation on the presence of feminist socialism and socialists, which her subjects presumably represent. She states that many historians have steered away from the recognizing feminist socialism in the Paris Commune, yet she evades recognizing the women she studies as having more means than others in developing their political beliefs.
This is not to say that Eichner's work is in vain. She provides information that hints at the impact the Commune had on all women. For instance, she provides lengthy accounts of Dmitrieff and Mink, two women who are mentioned very little by Gullickson. If not for Eichner's highlighting these two women, their histories might have remained in the margins. We learn from the social history she reconstructs that Dmitrieff was sent by Karl Marx to Paris, and upon arrival, combined her knowledge of Marxism and feminist socialism to form the Union des femmes. Eichner informs the reader of the diverse backgrounds of the women her research focuses on, taking note of the anti-clerical activism Mink participated in which resulted in her week-long imprisonment, and her continued radicalism that led to her serving eight-months in jail. She complicates the revolutionaries of the Commune by recognizing their diverse backgrounds that resulted in multiple strains of radicalism.
Each of the three women Eichner studies defined her own set of objectives for the revolution based on her prior experience and knowledge, and used her position of privilege to assist the revolution's growth. These women, most notably in the case of Mink, did not fear placing their lives on the line for the Commune. They spoke out on the political and societal injustices placed on women and the Communardes, while provoking others to join in the revolution, whether as allies or participants. Eichner navigates this history in a different way from other historians. While most would use Louise Michel as the focal point of a social history women in the Commune, she chooses to historicize three interconnected feminist socialists that are not as famous Michel, not only to strengthen not only her argument about feminist socialism's presence, but also to establish the presence of these three women. While providing an in-depth analysis on the Paris Commune, Eichner firmly establishes feminist socialism as an important part of the revolution, her focus on Léo, Dmitrieff, and Mink allow us to see the complex diversity of Commune participants and their forms of activism.
In focusing on the histories of these revolutionaries before, during, and after the Commune, Eichner demonstrates that the desire for social, political, and cultural change was omnipresent. Her three subjects exemplify a never-ending desire for revolution. In Mink's case, she notably traces this desire to her subject's childhood, when she witnessed her father's separation from wealth that led to his involvement in socialist groups that advocated women's emancipation. Mink recognized herself as the "daughter of a rebel" (23), her father deeply impacting her future involvement in the Commune. Once the revolution came to a halt, she ran for political office, and became a notable advocate for women's suffrage. The heart of the revolution never stopped beating for Mink. She continued to promote a form of revolution as a public speaker to groups of women. In short, Eichner asserts that, to understand the Commune, we must consider the full histories of individuals that participated in it, and whose efforts did not cease even when the revolution seemingly did.
Eichner ultimately provides the reader with an immense breadth of knowledge on Léo, Dmitrieff, and Mink, establishing the revolutionary commitments of these women throughout their lives. These women started fires, and continued to fan the flames of revolution before, during, and after the Commune. What these histories provide, while illuminating, still leave something to be desired. Bourgeois backgrounds benefitted these women, as they were educated and knew how to navigate the Paris political terrain. Eichner's neglect of working-class women does a disservice to the social history she offers, as it inadvertently perpetuates bourgeois perspectives on events in which working-class women played an integral part. While there is some mention of working-class womanhood, Eichner's research relies heavily on women whose privilege enabled them to leave paper trails; what emerges from these sources is a revolution created by bourgeois women for the working-class woman, and bourgeois women speaking for the working-class woman.
Social histories such as Eichner's study of the Paris Commune are necessary in order to unpack social, political, and cultural revolutions as they provide information on specific impacts made by individuals, as well as the larger ripples they create. Eichner's focus on bourgeois women produces a specific social history told by the bourgeoisie and may perpetuate the overabundance and dominance of bourgeois individuals in histories that seek to encompass diversity in womanhood. One should not base social history solely on the paper trail of the bourgeoisie, but instead question the structures that permitted some women to leave a trail while others did not. To conduct a full-fledged social history on women, it is imperative to include the working-class women and recognize their absence from most of the written record that has found its way into libraries and archives. Keeping this in mind, I will end with this question; if the voices of working-class women are absent, are these social histories of revolutionary bourgeois women able to speak for all women in the revolution, and how do we challenge history that composed of dominant voices such as these? As historians and scholars, we must answer this question as we, like Eichner, participate in constructing historical analyses based on sources in which some voices are much louder than others.
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O'Brien on Lucy Parsons: An American Revolutionary, by Carolyn Ashbaugh
Carolyn Ashbaugh opens her book, Lucy Parsons: An American Revolutionary, with the prefatory statement: "Lucy Parsons was black, a woman, and working class-three reasons people are often excluded from history" (6). These words hint at a book very different from the one Ashbaugh has written. Despite censuring the editors of Notable American Women for excluding Parsons from their three volume publication on the grounds that she was "largely propelled by her husband's fate" (6), Ashbaugh spends the first half of her text dealing only nominally with the life of Lucy Parsons. Instead, she focuses on Parsons's husband, Albert. With Albert's death two thirds of the way through the book, Ashbaugh is forced to take up the subject of Parsons's life more directly, but even so, she manages to betray her stated aims and largely avoid discussing, in any nuanced or at all comprehensive way, the roles race, sex, and class played in Parsons's personal and political lives. This book stands in contrast to Nell Painter's portrait of Sojourner Truth, for example, which painstakingly establishes the full subjectivity of a woman to whom this was denied in both her own time and in the historical record.
I'll start by discussing the inadequacy of Ashbaugh's initial sketch of Parsons. We meet Parsons, then Lucy Gathings, only after she has met Albert in Waco, Texas at age nineteen. We never conceive of a Lucy separate from Albert. "Little is known of Lucy's origins" (14), Ashbaugh explains, yet she fails to acknowledge the gaping holes this creates in her text. For example, Parsons's radical agenda focused on overthrowing capitalism. She believed this was the only way to establish racial and gender equality, and up to the end of her life she stood with the most oppressed members of society: foreigners, sex workers, and child laborers. Hercommitment is admirable. That a person would feel drawn to end hunger and injustice is not inconceivable. But the question still looms, why?
One prominent element of the excerpts from the writings of revolutionary Russian women Barbara Alpern Engels collects in Five Sisters: Women Against the Tsar is the connection between class and education. Only two of the five women whose writing she includes in the collection, Vera Figner and Olga Liubatovich are born into unambiguously bourgeois families. Yet all five women are far more educated than virtually all members of the rural and urban working classes whom they attempt to radicalize. Even Elizaveta Kovalskaia, born a serf, ultimately fails to productively radicalize the urban workers of Kiev owing to an unbridgeable difference in worldviews. She recounts with disbelief that the workers were certain the assassination of the Tsar, carried out by her revolutionary cohort, was actually committed by fellow members of the ruling class. The gulf between the revolutionaries in this particular context and the working class seemed to exist due to class difference, partially, but also differing levels of education. In Russia the term for radicals like Kovalskaia and others was revolutionary intelligentsia-these people renounced whatever material wealth they were born with and chose instead to study and spread revolutionary ideas.
Was Parsons a member of the American
intelligentsia? Ashbaugh argues she was not. She stood on the practical side
of revolutionary lines, prizing action above theory. Yet it is notable that
the Russian women in Engel's collection strive to locate the origin of their
identification with the working class either in witnessing the mistreatment
of serfs, being on the receiving end of such mistreatment, or desiring a more
adventurous life than that afforded to women at this time. The women disentangle
their relationship to class structures through an analysis of their own interactions
with class. Since we don't know who Parsons's parents were, it is difficult
to situate her within the American class structure. We know she was highly educated;
dark-skinned, yes, but not automatically a member of society's lowest strata.
Consider, for instance, the differing public receptions of Ida B. Wells, and
Sojourner Truth in their respective historical contexts.
Lucy Parsons was, however, married
to a white son of the bourgeoisie. Like most of the women in Engel's collection,
Albert was born to a wealthy and politically prominent family. Also like them,
he renounced his wealth and took up a working-class job as a union typographer.
When Albert devoted himself entirely to spreading revolution, Parsons opened
shop as a dressmaker to support the family. Though the couple always lived in
working-class neighborhoods, the nature of Lucy Parsons's work, conducted from
home and for wealthier clients, stands in contrast to the work of sewing girls
in sweatshops. Parsons could charge $20 for the same cloak that factory workers
would make for $0.75 tobe sold in stores for $12. Parsons never did "go
to the people" in the Russian sense of this term, but this might be because
while her level of education set her apart from the workers she hoped to radicalize,
the color of her skin sometimes placed her in a separate category from educated
Ashbaugh seldom touches on this.
She points out that Emma Goldman, also a woman and anarchist, "could study
in Europe and travel in educated circles, opportunities which Parsons' dark
skin precluded for her" (200), and that Parsons was forced to work alongside
openly racist radicals at newspapers, and to deal with unions seeking to exclude
Black people and immigrants. Parsons denied being Black herself, but stood up
for the rights of Black Americans on principle throughout her life. Ashbaugh
attributes this to the racism of her time. However, so many questions remain
about the possible ways in which race and class informed Parsons's revolutionary
It is worth noting that Parsons does
not belong in the same category as the revolutionary women we have studied this
semester. Those women fought bitterly against intense opposition for ideas that
were ahead of their time, gender and racial equality. Their right to speak at
all was questioned, they were ridiculed and critiqued, but aside from Louise
Michel, they never feared death or unlawful imprisonment as the result of their
activities. Parsons did not just call for revolution; she called for violent
revolution. "Dynamite," she said, "was the only voice the oppressors
of the people could understand" (66). Parsons's husband was sentenced to
hang for a crime there was no proof he committed. His radical belief in propaganda
of the deed is what landed him on the scaffold. If the court weren't convinced
of women's inherent inferiority, Parsons likely would have hung, too. The stakes
were incredibly high.
And something more was at play, something that continues to disproportionately affect Black Americans to this day: police corruption and brutality. In her memoir, Russian revolutionary Vera Figner recalls dreaming of a Russia with a democratic government and freedom of speech, as in the United States or Switzerland. The extent to which revolutionary activity needed to be hidden using well orchestrated conspiratorial practices was astriking feature of all of the recollections in Engel's collection. Yet placing Engel's book alongside Ashbaugh's there's some irony in Figner's idealization of American democracy. Parsons fought first and foremost to overthrow capitalism, but much of her leg work was done on the battlefield of free speech.
It is true, her husband went to his death a man who was not proved guilty. But this was not the worst or most pernicious result of police corruption in Chicago. In the decades following the Haymarket massacre, Parsons was arrested dozens of times before speaking engagements. She was also arrested twice for selling anarchist pamphlets. Capitalists were paying the Chicago police to oppose labor organizing violently-unions and anarchists bore the brunt of this. Police, acting independently of the government, squashed peaceful demonstrations routinely. This was not the America Vera Figner dreamed of. But at this point the repression of the anarchists was not state sponsored. That came later. The 1903 Anarchist Exclusion Act made opposition of all governments a federal offense.
Perhaps the brutality of the Chicago
police alone was enough to spur Parsons to violent action. It is clear from
Ashbaugh's narrative that the oppressive hand of the state was more aggressively
present in Parsons's life than it was in the lives of many of her counterparts.
Even upon her death in 1942, her 5,000 volume library was seized by an FBI that
refuses to admit it did this. We are left with little information about Parsons's
life. This might have been her own doing. Parsons felt that "the life of
the reformer was totally insignificant" (30). And, indeed, a lifetime of
revolutionary actions speaks for her. Yet she spent a good portion of her life
peddling a volume of her husband's collected writing. Were someone to rigorously
examine Lucy Parsons's life in the context of the race, gender, and class constructions
that stood in her way and shaped her world, we might learn a lot about how to
find intersections and cross boundaries building the revolutionary organizations
of the future.
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Maydha Kapur on Red Virgin: Memoirs of Louise Michel
Louise Michel was an anarchist involved
in the Paris Commune. Her biography details her life, starting with her childhood
in the secluded Haute-Marne. Michel does not make explicit what originally influenced
her ideas towards republicanism and eventually anarchism, but comments at great
length about how she always found the plight of animals under humans to be despicable.
She also throughout her book refers to herself as a school teacher, and her
earlier experiences teaching clearly influenced her humanistic impulse. The
origins of her nickname started early when she acquired her first teaching job
in Chaumont, and was called a 'red' for her republicanism. Michel's biography
is shot through with exclamations of "Long live the revolution!" but
her revolution is never explicitly defined, other than in the vaguest terms
of liberation for the people. Though Michel did not explicitly come to anarchism
till her deportation to New Caledonia, these exclamations, as well as her beliefs,
as are backfilled into her memories making tracing the origins of her anarchist
thought hard to detect. The introduction notes Marx "dismayed" her,
but Michel also did frequent work with striking workers throughout the second
half of her life in France. These contradictions and re-rememberings of her
memoir make the explicit tenets of Michel's ideology hard to pin down, but her
actions illuminate her beliefs. In her memoir, Michel uses a contemporary anarchist
manifesto, authored in part by Kropotkin, to enumerate her objectives as a revolutionary,
but rather than defining her through her contemporaries words, it is best to
see her actions through their own clear legacy. Michel defined anarchism through
the commune, her marches and lectures as democratic rule of the people, the
end of poverty, gender equality, anti-imperialism, and the end of the tyranny
Michel's ideology, so vague around
the parameters and mostly defined by actions comes at contradiction to her Russian
nihilist contemporaries. They explicitly embraced both feminism and socialism
in women's groups. Usually they were explicitly influenced by Kropotkin, Bakunin,
and other notable contemporaries. Michel too embraced a kind of proto-feminism
throughout her life, proclaiming women ought to take their equality and despairing
at men who pathologized her success as singular for her sex. Michel declares
in her memoirs "As the proletarian suffers, so double does his wife."
Michel urges men to "calm down," stating women are too smart to want
to run things, showing Michel's clear egalitarian impulse in her work for sexual
equality. The Russian nihilists described in Five Sisters would come
to abandon feminism as they had practiced, seeing it has too highly individualistic
a pursuit for the communality of the revolution.
Michel had a pragmatist's view towards
political violence in the first half of her life. She declares in her memoir
she would not shed a tear to see any of the oppressors of the people assassinated,
and indeed at one of her first trials after the end of the Commune, her applauding
the death of the state's generals is recounted. She was involved in violent
struggle against the monarchy directly through her attempts to protect and perpetuate
the Commune. In her later years, after her return from New Caledonia, in one
of her welcoming speeches in Paris she declared violence had seemingly failed
and that "No longer do we wish vengeance through blood. To shame those
me is enough." This comes perhaps in stark contrast the nihilist revolutionaries
whose explicit goal was the targeting of specific government officials to assassinate
in order to bring upon destabilization of the government. The nihilists indulge
in violence that could sometimes lead to the killing of soldiers or bystanders,
but Michel took the view of excess violence as being personally saddening if
justifiable. They both did not believe in reformism in the slightest, with Michel
at one point stating how integrating women into the society as it was would
not end society's fundamental unfairness. As anarchists, they were united in
their feelings on the tyranny of the government over the people. They also shared
common goals in their detestation of the bourgeoisie--Michel at one point relates,
dressed as a man, who she chases a respectable French gentlemen down the street,
terrifying him, much to her own amusement. Both Michel and the Russian anarchists
dedicated their acts of violence to the people, believing that these acts were
necessary to bring a better future for the common man.
While the Russian anarchists made
dedicating one's life to being both a worker and in being physical service of
the people, so too Michel supported the working class through different acts.
She led a march through Paris for a march against the states tyranny, and when
questioned by the court on the stated purpose of the march, she proclaimed her
desire for jobs for the people and bread for all. As was her custom in trials,
she was totally honest about her actions and did not lie about any acts she
did commit, as she felt this was part of her responsibility to the people. Michel
worked to support those had been impoverished by their fight for the end of
the monarchy upon her return from New Caledonia and supported women's strikes
with speeches. Michel's life was too a testament to the worker, but structured
around different acts.
Michel is notable for her strong
sense of solidarity with oppressed people even when abroad from France. During
her time of deportation in New Caledonia, she worked as a teacher with the Kanak
people, and supported them in their desire to remove the white man from their
land. Michel delights in the attempted rebellion of the Kanak people, and compares
it to her own lost revolution of the Commune. Michel's contemporaries in advocating
socialism, from Marx to Bakunin can be noted for their vitriolic language around
race. Michel works to teach the Kanaks about the outside world, not without
some condescension about how the people were "like a blank slate"
but ultimately viewing her teaching practice as a communal exchange of ideas,
between a society she saw as corrupted but with large amounts of knowledge and
one with little knowledge but that was uncorrupted. Michel extended her ideals
about anarchism out to those in the periphery of the French state-the colony.
Thus Michel's ideology included the important element of internationalist solidarity,
anti-imperialism, which she recognized as another inherent oppression of the
Michel perhaps would have sympathized
most with Elizaveta Kovalskaia, a serf who organized factory workers. Michel
too organized with various groups depending on the time an where she was located,
and like Kovalskaia, she resisted the sectarianism of picking specific factions
or groups to split off with. Michel's work for the commune and her marches was
less directly engaged with workers than Kovalskaia, but desire to better the
material conditions of the worker through direct action was at the heart of
Michel's work as well. The other Russian anarchists, wedded to the propaganda
of the deed, were perhaps more at contradiction with Michel, who felt the workers
would themselves rise up against the bonds of the government at any moment,
though she does not suggest a catalyst or how it would come about.
Louise Michel and the Russian anarchists arrived at their anarchism through very different paths, but ultimately were united in their vision for a post class world that ended the tyranny of the monarchy over the people. Both groups saw real equality would only be realized not when every citizen was given rights through the state, but rather when the coercive mechanism of the state itself, which makes the people beg for rights, was stripped away. Ultimately, the views of Louise Michel and the Russian nihilists were very similar, and they worked towards similar visions of the future.
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Mytyka-Chomsky on Defying Male Civilization: Women in the Spanish Civil War,
In Spain today, Catholic traditions and gender norms permeate modern life, as anyone who's lived there for even the shortest period of time can attest to. In her book Defying Male Civilization: Women and the Spanish Civil War, Mary Nash discusses the historical fights against these norms and traditions, and how they contributed to the build-up, and duration, of the Spanish Civil War. Nash writes about the social and legal situation of women before the war's start, the development of the various organizations designed to support those women, and the outcome of the Civil War's effect on all the work which had been done. In her book she searches for a modern context for these efforts, and the lessons which can be learned from them and applied to the future.
In the introduction Nash begins by pointing out the importance in women's collective role in civil antifascist resistance against Franco, and his rise to power. She argues that women came together and broke from the gendered stereotypes they lived under in the face of fascism and became involved in unprecedented collective rebellions over the course of the civil war that combatted the tenets of fascism. Spain had not previously seen gender equality. Women were legislated to depend entirely on a man, be that father, brother, son, or husband, from finances, to gaining permission to be involved in various activities.
Despite their lack of true freedom, "women's
work" was not considered trivial as it sometimes is in other places. Taking
care of the home and family [was] left entirely to women, was seen as vital
work in society. Although the domestic work was important, it was never an option
for a woman to do anything but that. Instead it was wholly expected of a woman
to perform domestic work for as long as she lived; and, having no real opportunities
for work outside of it, remained mired in doing so. In part this comes from
the Catholic hold over Spain. An incredibly religious country - although during
the Second Republic (1931-1936) there was some room for religious exploration
- a women's role in society was very closely tied to what the Vatican said that
role ought to be. Additionally it was believed that a woman's intellectual capacity
must be stunted; as they were so focused on being good wives and mothers, there
naturally was "no space" for them to understand how to do anything
else. They were not necessarily believed to be below men in society, "simply
different." That did not mean women in pre-civil war Spain were intentionally
viewed as inferior, but the concept of different does lead to one side being
the inferior, and often that was women due in part to their restricted place
in society, despite the "vital" work they did.
Another important aspect of Spanish life that
Nash addresses early on is the regional differences in the economy and its effects
on women's mobility. Northeastern Spain was industrialized, while western and
southern Spain (especially Andalucía) remained agrarian. These regional
differences and their consequential economic differences had not only an impact
on the part that women could play in the workforce, but a huge impact on Franco's
rise as well. In the industrialized north, especially Cataluña and around
Madrid, women had more options earlier on, many appearing during the course
of the Republic, even before the civil war. Those industrialized areas were
primary homes to supporters of the Republic, and were where the antifascist
and anarchist organizations were first started. Women were a part of these organizations
from early on, but in most of them, women still felt pushed away by the traditional
hierarchy and many ignored women's issues.
Both Nash and Martha Ackelsberg in her book
Free Women of Spain: Anarchism and the Struggle for the Emancipation of Women
go in to detail on how women grew frustrated with the limits of the antifascist
and anarchist organizations and built their own. Often finding themselves stuck
below men, regardless of effort and the time through which they'd been involved,
women decided to organize themselves. They did not feel supported in the original
organizations and wanted to pursue additional agendas, often regarding gendered
issues which otherwise had little to no exposure, like women's health or education.
Ackelsberg spends much more of her book discussing this, while Nash simply uses
it as another example of women combatting the control of men and leaving their
traditional place in society as the civil war developed.
These organizations were so regionalized that
the north of Spain, at its highest point had twice as many organizations that
women were involved in as the south. Although here I'm not referring strictly
women's organizations, but organizations that women were a part of, the difference
is still striking. This is due in part to wide spread support of the Republic
in the north, and a trend towards anarchism as well as women's emancipation,
which happened in the north at a much higher rate due to industrialization.
An though Nash does not discuss this, it was also probably in part a result
of the control Franco had over the agrarian south even before the war began.
The civil war gave women room to partake in
society beyond this traditional hierarchy and beyond their traditional roles.
Unlike Ackelsberg, who primarily discusses the women-run Mujeres Libres anarchist
paper, Nash focuses on the context of that paper, explaining women's places
in the bigger picture of the Civil War. Throughout her discussion of women's
involvement in the Spanish Civil War she references the importance of these
organizations, both the ones that women found limited their ability to mobilize,
and the ones started and run by women. Her attention however is driven towards
the ways in which women did and did not leave their gendered place in society
and how the civil war built those opportunities.
Women were involved in the war in many ways,
and in ways that had not been available to them before. Women fought physically
on the frontlines, and as the economy changed, and was pushed to its limit,
stepped into men's traditional jobs as well. When social welfare had to become
more readily available later on, women gained more independence, and any real
social status as well. As the control women had over their own lives grew so
did their own work, and their success with and means of feminist anarchist propaganda
driven by papers like Mujeres Libres. This type of literature improved
the attention on women's education, sexual and reproductive health, and freedom.
Just because they were gaining control over
their societal position did not mean they were welcomed everywhere entirely.
The place of women on the battlefield was unique and controversial. In some
places and for portions of the civil war, the milicianas, as they were
called, were shown dressed in an Orwellian style albeit before the publishing
of 1984 (they appeared quite industrial in a mono azul, or overalls in
English), as a symbol of the republic. At other times the milicianas
were blamed for the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and infections through
barracks, even referred to as prostitutes. A contrast to the first image of
the miliciana which was more patriotic and noble.
It was not just the men who had an interpretation
of women fighting different from their own. To the women their place was unique
as well. As Nash aptly points out, for the women, the fall of the Second Republic
and potential control of the country by Franco would mean a limit to the few
pieces of freedom the Republic had allowed. For women discovering new liberties,
returning to the traditions and restrictions of before was not a bearable option,
so the war was for more than just holding on to the republican government. It
was about moving forward into the future rather than back to the Spain in which
their freedoms had been so severely limited.
Although still very reliant on traditional
values, there had been small religious freedoms allowed throughout the Republic
which did lead to small grants of freedom for women. This was largely because
not every aspect of their lives was run by the Catholic Church, nor were those
values being continuously imposed in the same way. For women, the Civil War
was defensive. They were fighting to keep the freedoms they had found growing
during the Republic, and to continue to move forward rather than fall backwards
into the previous societal set up.
As could be predicted, by the end of the Spanish
Civil War, as Franco took control of the country and it entered into the dictatorship,
there was a hostility towards female emancipation and an aggressive return to
the traditional values of the Catholic Church, and the Spain of before the Republic.
Nash only addresses this at the very end, but in her search for how the lessons
of the antifascist and anarchist women of the war can be relevant today. I think
this is an important point. These values still have a fierce hold on the Spanish
population, especially in the South. Nash does state that the loss of the war
to Franco meant, for women, a loss of the freedoms they had found during the
war, and any possibility of testing new freedoms, as neither Nash nor Ackelsberg
truly address the extent to which people found to be insubordinate were very
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Nick Thompson on British Women and the Spanish Civil War, Angela Jackson,
War is nominally assigned to men, and there's
a great deal of historical material that correlates with that association. But
at each instance of war, women and children figure prominently in the actual
experience of organized, competitive state violence. They can be a fig leaf,
where "protecting the women and children" serves to protect the war
itself. They can be collateral damage, the accidentally slain, the scenery of
senselessness. But all of these demarcations do a double disservice in flattening
both women and war into one-dimensional objects with static, predetermined processes
and definitions that don't help to advance our understanding of either. In Angela
Jackson's British Women and the Spanish Civil War, the very political
personal experiences of British women are closely conveyed, and their own voices
are given pride of place in a work that illuminates the underappreciated work
put in for the Republic (with a few notable exceptions) by its British supporters.
That the very title of the work seems to present the reader with a puzzle speaks
to the way in which historical understandings of war severely devalue anything
that doesn't happen at the front line, high command, or the respective capitols
of the warring parties. Jackson's work is an important contribution towards
a real understanding of women in the Spanish Civil War, but also a redemption
of the work that goes on behind the front lines that is so crucial to victory
The political atmosphere of the 1930s is significantly
different from our own, drawing on different points of reference, and elaborating
a specific sensibility from this context. This is clear in a sampling of letters
from Spain, written by British women volunteering at refugee centers. Francesca
Wilson, working with the Quaker Society of Friends, describes how the refugee
children were okay, but their mothers "shrieked and gesticulated,"
filled cups with boiling oil and fought each other because they feared the Friends'
supplies would run out (119). In a palpably British conclusion of the incident,
she reports "It was not a breakfast - it was hell." Wilson isn't being
cherry picked as a rude visitor by any means. Frida Stewart, a volunteer ambulance
driver by request of the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief (NJC),
describes the refugee population with literary reference: "ragged people
sitting and leaning in the doorway, the filthy bony little children crawling
about in the darkness of the interior. It was all like something out of Dickens
at his most sordid, hardly believable that it could exist in 1937." (119).
While the sense that brutal deprivation has no place in this calendar
year is still familiar to contemporary readers, there is a frankness to these
descriptions that grates against the contemporary expectations of global citizenship,
as the words display no particular sensitivity to the lived experiences of the
shrieking women or ragged leaners they describe. The significance of this observation
is not that it's fine to be casually rude about people-in-crisis, but that internationalism
depends more on actions and organization than on a perfectly informed appreciation
of the other, or a scrupulous compliance with theory.
The 1930s were also a very promising time
for socialism, something many were happy to see actually existing in the form
of the Soviet Union. Mary Docherty compares the British and Soviet social systems
from her perspective as a child with tuberculosis. She describes her youth in
the British social system bleakly, essentially neglect with a "brick for
a doll." When she and twenty-eight other children are selected by the Young
Communist League (YCL) to visit Moscow in 1929, Mary Docherty is able to take
in the arts and culture that she was utterly priced out of in her own country,
and even experiences food stability for the first time in her life. These experiences
of a materially different and more dignified life for working people were formative
for Docherty, "While I was there [Moscow] also belonged to me as a worker."
(36). To top it all off, the Soviets extended her stay to include a successful
treatment of her tuberculosis at a sanatorium near Yalta. Not too shabby.
Setting aside glowing reviews of the Soviet
Union, the mass support for socialism at this time had something to do with
the prevailing mode of political engagement and with the institution (party,
church, etc.). The difference between the 1930s and the twenty-first-century
mode of engagement can be seen pretty starkly in Celia Baker's political coming-of-age
story. To the credit of the British Union of Fascists (BUF), Celia Baker identifies
encountering their members in person as the event that solidified her anti-fascist
politics. What she does with those anti-fascist politics is the crucial bit,
because it would seem odd, today, that she proceeds to join the Communist Party
on the strength of that revulsion. Today, this could become a deeply held opinion
("I really hate fascists") to share with like-minded or politely quiet
friends. For Celia Baker, anti-fascism means joining the Communist Party and
developing the rest of her political views in that context. The strength of
institutions as durable structures within social formations at this time was
not limited to left wing political movements, which were fragile relative to
incumbents like the church.
From the perspectives that Jackson documents,
it's clear that institutional affiliation carried more weight, but it wasn't
something that necessarily crushed individual identity. The situation of Catholic
communists speaks to that point, as this lucky bunch would go to church and
hear sermons demonizing communism, then go to party meetings and hear speeches
slamming the church (26). This equation will not add up until the offerings
of institutions are factored in. Mutual membership in two organizations that
despise one another, ideologically, makes sense when the social and material
offerings are tallied up - there are two social networks, two calendars of events,
and so on. In general, a larger share of social life, of stuff to do, was provided
within the context of these institutions.
Seen from this perspective, the British movement
for Spain can be understood as a coherent assemblage of actions by groups that
were ideologically or otherwise incompatible. In organizations like the National
Joint Committee (NJC), Isabel Brown, a well known communist organizer, and Katherine,
Duchess of Atholl and Conservative MP, were one example of the odd couples created
by this shared concern. The two got into a brief dispute during a speaking tour
when Katherine observed that the Spanish Republic was "not even a Red government"
(48). Brown's speeches kind of relied on the Republic being Red, and when she
raised this objection, the Duchess of Atholl yielded the point, since she was
already being referred to as "The Red Duchess." This cooperative politics
is also discernable in fundraising practices Jackson documents, which included
both modest contributions from notoriously poor neighborhoods and collections
targeting certain populations, like people gathered at winter sports centers.
Gender was utilized both in the purpose of the collection, such as "Milk
for Spanish Mothers," and in the act of collecting, often performed by
"high browed young women" (126). The Committees that formed in support
of the Republic did not manage to sway the position of the British state, but
they did become a space that encouraged the political contributions of women,
moved the public position, and most importantly managed the substantial flow
of aid to the battered Republic. Their work has been undervalued, or even dismissed,
but taking care of something is harder than caring about it, especially as it
tends to get belittled contemporarily and cut from the historical record in
Regarding boots on the ground, there's little
that women were not involved in. The iconic miliciana, wearing nothing
but a rifle, coveralls and other equipment, is perhaps a bigger symbol of the
Spanish Civil War today than she was at the time. The brief interval in which
women were encouraged (or permitted) to enlist in the militias terrified column-writing
men across the world, who lamented, "all that womanhood stands for is being
denigrated" (127). In military terms, this was one of many examples of
erratic behavior along the road to defeat in 1939, a clear case of fixing the
unbroken. The result was many small ordeals, as practically every woman already
at the front had the support of her comrades against the official decree. A
1936 picture of an armed woman in a militia unit appeared in the British press
and drew a lot of attention to women in the war. This "Blonde Amazon"
(128) received a great deal of specific and negative commentary about Spanish
women that turned out to be mostly moot when she was revealed to be a British
schoolteacher who had been working in Spain when the fighting broke out.
Jackson is critically aware of the tendency
to legendize wartime heroism, so while she does include the fairly mythic story
of Felicia Brown, killed in an attempted raid on a munitions train, she largely
focuses on the efforts of British women working in Spain as nurses, refugee
support, and significant others to men in the International Brigades (IB). Her
focus on these less visible but no less vital functions is commendable for filling
in blank spaces in the history of the Spanish Civil War. This history of British
women's involvement with the war shows the reader "what international solidarity
looks like," as opposed to a description of what it is or ought to be.
The focus on nursing and refugee care turns
up some very substantial developments achieved by or with the influence of British
volunteers. While Frida Stewart, ambulance driver with the NJC, described the
suffering Spanish population indelicately, she went on to be involved in the
transferring of cutting-edge British medical practices to the Republican Spanish
medical community. Early arrivals were alarmed to find that "there was
no nursing tradition in Spain similar to that of Britain. Nuns carried out some
nursing duties, but the general care of a patient was usually the responsibility
of the family... Standards of hygiene and asepsis were low" (90). Over
the next few years, the Republican healthcare system improved dramatically,
making advances that were not reflected in the Fascist controlled territories.
The triage system that develops on the Republican side was in part a consequence
of the indelicately expressed British dismay at the material conditions of Spanish
If through a foreign and sometimes privileged
lens, the abhorrence of suffering that compelled the British women to action
was clearly sincere, their support welcome, and their achievements substantial.
Nancy Cunard's observation that "Spain is not 'politics' but life,"
(138) is as succinct a summary as the world might ever get of the politics surrounding
the Spanish Civil War. In a sense, the history of the Spanish Civil War will
probably always be charged with promise and potential, even as we know who wins.
Its place in history is certainly large, but it's also somewhat occluded, often
reduced to a prelude to the Second World War.
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Nebila Oguz on Le Ly Hayslip, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places
In her memoir, When Heaven and Earth Changed
Places, Le Ly Hayslip narrates her return to Vietnam after fleeing to America
during the Vietnam War. The timeline of the memoir is not linear, she jumps
from her childhood and early adulthood in Vietnam to her recent and brief visit
in 1986. She covers quite a bit of ground in 368 pages, writing about her childhood
helping and working for the Viet Cong in her native village of Ky La, to her
life in Saigon and Danang where she worked a variety of jobs, from housekeeper
to black market seller, to barmaid and waitress at various bars (including those
that were on the US Army base). Hayslip has lived a very eventful life, and
describes her experiences in a sensitive and thought-provoking way. Her situation
is an interesting one, as she grew up in a small village as Viet Cong supporter,
but through her experiences with Americans and her eventual move to America
she became sceptical and staunchly anti-communist. I enjoyed most her memories
from her time before moving to the US, as opposed to her writings on her return
back after being away for many years. I noticed in Hayslip's writings on her
return a tendency towards a sort of self-orientalism. She always assumes that
those around her would give anything to live in America instead of Vietnam.
Le Ly Hayslip was born in the small village
of Ky La, Vietnam, the youngest of many brothers and sisters. Her eldest brother,
Bon Nghe, leaves to study in Communist North when she is quite young, cementing
her families close relationship with the Viet Cong. She describes herself as
a young girl who did not know any better than to support them. Her perspective,
when writing of the past, is of someone who has totally renounced what they
once believed in, and sees their former political militancy as a product of
their youthful naivety. I do not write this to attack Hayslip for changing her
political views, but it is important to note the angle with which her memoir
is written. As we learn about her childhood, we are also introduced to her older
self, a Vietnamese women trying to visit to her home-country after being away
for many years, and unsure as to whether she will be arrested upon entering
or not. On one hand, we have Hayslip's childhood in colonial Vietnam, on the
other, we have her trying to enter communist Vietnam in 1986. This is definitely
an interesting juxtaposition, and it is at times difficult to believe that in
both narratives we are reading about the same person as Hayslip's younger self
was much more adventurous than the elder.
As a child, Hayslip was almost a Viet Cong
poster girl. After she risked her life to inform the Viet Cong soldiers that
Republicans were entering the village, a song was written about her bravery
and printed on tiny pieces of paper to be distributed around the village. Her
relationship with the Viet Cong changed quickly as the war became more vicious.
She fell out of favor when her mother had begged for help from a Republican
relative to let her out out of prison. Her speedy release It is here that everything
changes, as she is forced to flee her village with her mother, leaving her father
behind to tend the fields and look after the altars of their ancestors. First,
they move to Saigon, where after moving from one relative to the next, they
are taken in as mother-daughter housekeepers for the wealthy family of Anh Hai.
Here Hayslip becomes pregnant with Anh Hai's son. Hayslip is not a virgin when
she starts her work there, she has been raped twice by Viet Cong soldiers in
her village following her falling out with the party, but she has never had
consensual sex with anyone before Anh Hai. She falls in love with him, but is
forced to leave once the wife learns that she is pregnant with his child. The
mother-daughter pair move to Danang, where after a few unpleasant living arrangements
they finally have their own place to live. After giving birth to her son, Le
Ly works as a vendor on the black market, going to American bases and asking
GI's to buy her goods that she then sells for a higher price. It is here that
Le Ly becomes very well acquainted with the Americans. After earning a very
large amount of money for a simple sex act with a GI Le Ly gives up being a
black market vendor and begins working at an American hospital. After dating
a few American men, with each one beginning in a lovely manner and ending unpleasantly,
Le Ly decided she's had enough and swears not to date anymore. One day, while
leaving the bar at the American Army Base, a co-worker comes up to Le Ly asking
if she will be the mistress of a very lonely old American GI. Le Ly refuses,
but then accepts on the condition that she will run away once her friend gets
the money from the exchange. They both run, but the GI, Ed, finds Le Ly's home
and waits for her in front of her door. He does not leave until she invites
him in, and he does not leave her house until she accepts having dinner with
him. Although he is old, Ed manages to charm the young Le Ly.
Ed eventually proposes to Le Ly that she become
his wife in America, and this is how she ends up moving. In this way, the memoir
goes through a full circle. Her story begins at the end, with her in America,
and we are given the full narrative as to how she was able to get there. It
is quite honestly an amazing story, and by the end of it the reader feels a
closeness to the author. I felt the authors pain when she was leaving her family
after her short visit, not knowing whether she would see them again. The emotional
texture that her descriptions lend to her story make the book almost read like
a novel. Especially when describing her youth, she manages to keep the reader
with her all throughout her dealings with the Viet Cong, the torture at the
hands of the Vietnamese government, and her love affairs with various American
What I found most strange about this memoir
were the bits and pieces of pro-American "propaganda" that were strewn
across the narrative. She carefully distinguishes herself as The American all
throughout her back-home visit, always assuming there is a large gulf between
herself and those now living in communist Vietnam. I found this quite strange.
On page 100, when visiting a customs office in Vietnam, she asks herself "How
much would that old man and his teenage assistant give to trade places with
me for even a day [...] just to enjoy the taste of America?" This sort
of self-orientalism disturbed me, not to say that the old man and teenage may
have actually given up everything to go to America, but the assumption that
everyone living in the Third World just wants to go to the West is one that
is based in the Eurocentric assumption that life is inherently better the closer
to Europe and America one can get. I say self-orientalism because Le Ly Hayslip
is Vietnamese herself, and not a white spectator.
When asked whether she lives in a Vietnamese
ghetto on page 264, Le Ly responds that she does not, and that there are no
ghettos in America. She explains that people live together because they choose
to, and not because they have to. I was quite sceptical of this statement, considering
the legacy of segregation in America and the difficulties faced by Native Americans
living in reservations. Near the end of the memoir, Le Ly again shows how much
she loves America by telling her brother that she hopes one day those living
in the communist "dark age" will get the "light they need"
from those living in the United States. She asks her brother why he thinks the
"Statue of Liberty holds up a torch and not a money bag or a pistol?"
In these dialogues, Hayslip shows a remarquable ignorance of the inequalities
and injustices that are rampant in the United States. Whether this is a conscious
ignorance or not, I was quite taken aback as to how she is so willing to see
the problems in her home-country, and not in the place that she now calls home.
Overall, Le Ly Hayslip presents a very powerful narrative in her memoir. She has lived through history and survived to tell the tale. Through writing this memoir she gives a face to the other side of the Vietnam War that is seldom talked about in the United States. Le Ly tells a powerful tale of someone who sacrificed everything for a better life for her children. She was not in love with Ed, but left with him because she was afraid of Vietnam's uncertain future, in which she now had a stake because of her children. It was a pleasure to read Hayslip's story.
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Amy Hong on Carole Boyce Davies, Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones
Carole Boyce Davies's Left of Karl Marx:
The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones aims to recuperate Jones
as a radical Black female subject whose "intellectual-activist" work
situates her within the intellectual traditions of Caribbean, African American,
and Black international radicalism (8). Boyce Davies also locates Jones within
a feminist tradition, seeing Jones as a predecessor for Black communist women
like Angela Davis; Jones's theory of the "superexploitation" of the
Black female worker influenced Davis's logic of the "triple oppression"
of race, class, and gender faced by Black women (30). While some theorists have
claimed the position of women reflects their society's degree of overall freedom,
Jones replies that equality should be measured by the status of Black women
specifically; and inversely, the liberation of Black women will mean the liberation
of all people.
Motivating this study of Jones is Boyce Davies's academic interest in "migrating subjects" who "negotiate borders in assertive ways, challenging the entrenched meanings of those in intact locations, crossing and recrossing them, making them sites of transformation" (21). As Jones immigrated to the U.S. from Trinidad as a child, was unable to acquire U.S. citizenship because of her politics, and was eventually deported to Great Britain as an adult, she is a fitting example of such a subject; her migrations and resulting "statelessness" influenced her international politics. Jones's international tendencies also stemmed from her understanding of African Americans as an oppressed nation within the U.S.; by positing Black Americans as subject to internal colonialism, this perspective united the Black diaspora with all other oppressed peoples.
Claudia Jones was born Claudia Vera Cumberbatch
in Trinidad in 1915. She later adopted the name Claudia Jones to protect her
identity; it took the FBI at least five years to connect the two names. Jones's
family moved to the U.S. when she was eight years old. Her mother, a garment
worker, died at age thirty-seven from the effects of overwork; this would later
inform Jones's emphasis on working-class Black women in her activist work. Shortly
after, at eighteen, Jones was hospitalized for nearly a year from tuberculosis,
which she contracted from poor living conditions; health issues would continue
to plague her for the rest of her life, resulting in her premature death at
forty-nine. Jones's father was also a significant influence on her career; he
worked as a journalist for a Black newspaper in Harlem. Jones herself entered
the field of journalism at a young age; from 1935-36 she wrote a column called
"Claudia's Comments" for a Black newspaper and became involved in
Scottsboro Boys organizing. In 1936 Jones joined the Communist Party; she would
later serve as Educational Director of the Young Communist League and the Women's
Commission Secretary of the Communist Party USA.
Journalism constituted a key part of Jones's
praxis as it was an effective tool for spreading political education and organizing
readers. Her early 1950s column published in the Daily Worker, "Half
the World," aimed to raise the political consciousness of American (especially
Black) women; her Marxist-Leninist ideology was reflected in her understanding
of women's subordination as a function of capitalism that would only change
under socialism. As Boyce Davies accurately sums up, Jones's premise was that
"no attempt to move society forward is possible if half the population
remains unaccounted for" (79). In "Half the World" Jones educated
readers on the "woman question" and also publicized campaigns such
as Sojourners for Peace and Justice, an organization of Black women addressing
social, political, and economic equality of Black men and women.
Jones's work in journalism and organizing resulted in three arrests between 1948 and 1951, which culminated in a 1953 conviction under the Smith Act and a 1955 deportation order. Boyce Davies reads Jones's deportation more broadly as an attempted "deporting of the radical black female subject from U.S. political consciousness" (2); she defines the "radical black subject" as "one that constitutes itself as resisting the particular dominating disciplines, systems, and logics of a given context" (5). Here deportation, in addition to (and in place of) long-term incarceration, is weaponized by the state to "construct the citizenship [it] desire[s]" (133); this is a trend Boyce Davies notes has continued past the McCarthy-era persecution of communists into the present. While the purported reason for Jones's deportation was her advocating violent overthrow of the government, the articles presented during her trial in fact used rhetoric that "worked peacefully toward the creation of a new and egalitarian society" (212). Boyce Davies views Jones's linking of disparate struggles, including women's peace movements, anti-imperialism, anti-capitalism, and African American opposition to racism, as the true motive for her deportation; the possibility for a "unified movement for social justice" to arise would create "a politics more radical than communism," posing an even greater threat to existing structures of power (210, 217).
Boyce Davies also notes that this deportation
shifted Jones's work more towards Caribbean issues and pan-Africanism. Upon
her 1955 arrival in London (a location preferred by Jones for her ailing health,
and by Great Britain because the independence-agitating Caribbean seemed a riskier
alternative destination), Jones received a "lukewarm reception" from
the Communist Party Great Britain (CPGB); her struggle with the party's racism
and sexism ultimately led to alienation from it, and an increasing emphasis
on the growing Caribbean community.
Jones founded the West Indian Gazette in 1958, shortly after her beginning her exile in London. She worked on this newspaper until her death, using her experience and politics to address the culture and consciousness of the Black British and Afro-Caribbean community and meet its specific needs (84). The Gazette was "anti-imperialist in orientation, pan-Africanist in politics, [and] feminist in its leadership and concern for women"; it addressed British racism while acknowledging imperialism as its root cause (86-7). Jones herself described the newspaper's editorial stand as "for a united independent West Indies, full economic, social and political equality and respect for human dignity for West Indians and Afro-Asians in Britain, for peace and friendship between all Commonwealth and world peoples" (88). This attention to international solidarity and liberation from colonialism is also reflected in the Gazette's role in organizing the Afro-Asian Caribbean Conference in 1961, which led to the founding of the Committee of Afro-Asian and Caribbean Organisations. The West Indian Gazette would also later become the West Indian Gazette and Afro-Asian Caribbean News, indicating a broadening definition of Britain's "Black community" (92). The inclusion of the South Asian community in the British definition relates to British-specific migration patterns and racism, but also denotes a broader attention to international struggles of oppressed peoples.
The Gazette had an important role in the creation of the Caribbean diasporic community in London. Its offices were located in the center of the Caribbean community in south London above a Caribbean record shop; it consequently served as a creative space for Caribbean artists and cultural workers and promoted their activities. After Jones organized the first London Caribbean Carnival in 1959, the carnivals (and other cultural events) were also publicized through the newspaper. These celebrations took pre-Lenten carnivals in the Caribbean as their model. These social and cultural aspects of the newspaper and Jones's work were also political; Jones considered culture, as "a series of normative practices" (175), a vital tool for educating and increasing self-awareness of Black British communities: according to Jones, "a people's culture is the genesis of their liberation" (177). This cultural affirmation fortifies resistance against "otherwise alienating conditions of life" abroad for Caribbean migrants (176).
Boyce Davies is a scholar and professor of African-New World studies as well as English at Florida International University. Her background in literature is evident in Left of Karl Marx; in addition to her special attention to Jones's poetry, many of her analytical moves are reminiscent of literary criticism. Some of these poetic moves, while elegant and subtle, seem less useful to me. Boyce Davies's understanding of Jones's significance essentially arises from a literary reading of various archives, including Jones's personal writings and the FBI's declassified files. Boyce Davies's attempted recuperation of the FBI's surveillance, whose suppression was violent, resulted in forced exile, and possibly contributed to Jones's early death, as a method of reconstituting Jones as a subject seems somewhat callous, despite the undeniable "usefulness" of its information for research purposes (207-8). I also felt that Boyce Davies's distinction between deportation and exile, while meaning to bestow agency upon Jones's decision, somewhat departs from the reality of her situation. As a chronically and seriously ill individual, Jones was essentially presented with just one option: to depart the U.S. "voluntarily" in order to access the healthcare she required to survive.
However, Boyce Davies's biography succeeds at presenting a nuanced view of Jones's influence on and position within the U.S. and the world-at-large, illuminating her radical engagement with the "transnational as it interacts with the local" (22). Jones's emphasis on the intersections of race, class, and gender, and international solidarity of oppressed people, was so threatening to the prevailing order that the U.S. government ordered her deportation. Perhaps Claudia Jones's radical transnational politics and education initiatives suggest a direction for contemporary activism and liberation struggles to return to.
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Maya Wilson on Angela Davis, Angela Davis: An Autobiography
Angela Davis, arguably one of the most well-known black revolutionaries still living, was only twenty-eight years old when she wrote her four hundred page autobiography. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1944, Davis has known blatant discrimination and oppression her entire life. During her most formative years, Davis held the knowledge that she was considered barely human by the white people in her community, as well as experienced the very prominent self-loathing among her black peers. Sick and tired of what she calls the "provincial life" in Birmingham, at age fifteen she applied to different programs and schools in order to find a place where her curiosity would be encouraged and intellect challenged. This was the beginning of a lifelong educational journey for Davis. At her school in New York, Davis became more thoroughly introduced to communism as well as other political and economic philosophies that later inspired her to travel and study in Germany among people with the same or similar ideologies. After studying in Germany for two years, she finally decided to dedicate her life to the black liberation struggle and moved to Southern California. Davis's struggle, intellectual curiosity, and strong dedication are extremely prominent throughout her writing, and very much inspired me as someone who hopes to see and possibly effect change in the future. Even though I am able to more or less differentiate and categorize these aspects of Davis's life as a revolutionary, all three seem to coincide with one another and fuel each other. It is worth noting that, even though Davis has seen a great deal and accomplished a great deal, she has been very privileged in terms of the education she received compared to other black and/or working-class people. As I am discussing Davis in the context of the question; "what can young modern day revolutionaries learn from her experiences?", throughout this paper, I may mention Assata Shakur. Although their autobiographies contain a great deal of parallels, Shakur suffered fairly more as a victim of poverty. Her experiences and accomplishments are a bit more tangible, and therefore achievable to the everyday activist. I do not say this to mean that Davis's contributions are any more or less valuable than Shakur's, but this was a difference that very much stuck out to me while reading both works, so I believed it to be worth mentioning.
Davis grew up on a very strange block in Birmingham, Alabama. One side of the block was exclusively made up of homes owned by white families, and slowly more and more black families began moving to the opposite side of the street. This obviously infuriated the white property owners and the black property owners were greeted with the blatant hostility that we all know to be expected during the height of Jim Crow in the South. If a black family dared to move into a house on the white side of the neighborhood, the house was often burned down or bombed. During Davis's childhood, some her most formative years, she was constantly surrounded by oppressive rules, boundaries, and barriers. Instilled in her and many other black children was a "them versus us" mentality that Davis later evaluates and reshapes. The black children that surrounded Davis in her upbringing, as well as Shakur, were taught not only to hate white people, but also to hate themselves. "Black" was considered an insult, and black people, especially women, would go out of their way to look less black through various "beauty" treatments for skin and hair that brought immense damage to their bodies and minds. This creates a chaotic situation. Hate seems to surround the black community, the reciprocal hate of white people, as well as hate of ourselves. A major part of the black liberation struggle was recognizing black as beautiful, and Davis mentions multiple times throughout her writing that as understandable as it is for black activists to write off and fight all white people, it is a bit misguided. Arguably, most white people hold racial prejudice, but instead of viewing all white people as the enemy, Davis and her comrades recognized that it is useless to blame the individual. An activist must fight against the system as a whole, for it is the system that created this prejudice and continues to use it as a tool to oppress not only black people, but all working-class people and other minorities. This is the way a revolutionary must think.
Davis was surrounded by oppression for her entire life, which without a doubt contributed to why she later became a strong activist and revolutionary. However, we obviously cannot credit the Birmingham school district with Davis's education. In schools across the United States, history is taught through a white, capitalist, colonialist lens. Even though black history was a more prominent subject in schools for black children in the South compared to the North, Davis recalls the great limitations of education in the South. As she grew up, and felt the pressure of gender roles and increased harassment from cops and white neighbors, Davis decided it was time to get out of there. She moved up to New York through an experimental program through the American Friends Service Committee which provided black students the opportunity to study at integrated schools in the North. She lived with a white family and attended a majority white school, and was therefore exposed to a very different world. As political activity began to develop in Birmingham, Davis was anxious to return home, but her family would not let her. Although Davis received an exceptional education, I had the feeling throughout that she would have rather been on the frontlines of the activism occuring in the South and in other black communities across the country. Other revolutionaries, such as Shakur, received most of their education on communism and political ideology through books and discussion among somewhat like-minded people. Even though the ways in which these two revolutionaries were educated are quite different, the bottom line seems to be that knowledge is power. Davis had and still seems to have a very strong and admirable intellectual curiosity, always wanting to know more and always questioning. Both Davis and Shakur seemed to think "what's next?" after each step of their education was complete, even though again, they were vastly different. Throughout her writing, Davis talks about how important it is for a movement to be constantly evolving, learning, and adjusting with the times. Adaptability, curiosity, and empathy were three traits that stood out to me in both Shakur and Davis. It is important to bring out these traits in yourself and also encourage these traits in your comrades when it comes to creating a movement and affecting change. Davis criticizes a few of her comrades including Stokely Carmichael (or Kwame Ture) for their rejection of communism for being more or less the "white man's thing."
Even though she was active in different groups and organizations while pursuing her education in Germany, as the black liberation movement gained more and more momentum, Davis returned to the States and joined the frontlines of the struggle in Southern California. She continued her studies at the University of California, San Diego where she again became involved with many student groups. Davis was active in countless groups in Southern California, such as the Che-Lumumba Club, the SNCC, the Black Panther Party, and of course, the Communist Party. Davis had dedicated herself to the movement, and throughout her writing emphasizes the importance of dedication when it comes to political work and effecting change. Davis describes activism as a lifetime commitment. Both Davis and Shakur have put their lives on the line multiple times for the movement and for their comrades. Along with being on the frontlines, both women also dedicated a great deal of their time and energy into educating others on the movement and political ideology, especially children. Passing on knowledge and information is incredibly important in activism, since most of population is taught through a very white, colonialist lens. It is also important to a movement, so as to create successors.
Throughout her autobiography, Davis puts a
great emphasis on the importance of community, love, understanding, and knowledge.
Both Shakur and Davis did a great deal of work on themselves through education
and undoing the self-hatred and oppression done unto them by society. It is
important to have a well-rounded understanding of the world and not necessarily
look at education in terms of subject matters. It is important to see your value
as an individual and make contributions based on that; however, when it comes
to effecting change it is key to understand that blaming an individual will
only take you so far. One must criticize and dismantle the system through knowledge
and outreach achieved through open ears and dedication
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Ja Bulsombut on Thyra J. Edwards: Black Activist in the Global Freedom Struggle, by Gregg Andrews
Gregg Andrews opens his book, Thyra J. Edwards: Black Activist in the Global Freedom Struggle, with an introductory chapter titled "The Spirit of Aframerican Womanhood." In 1938, a black newspaper in Houston had described Thyra J. Edwards as the embodiment of this spirit: at the time, she had established herself not only as a social worker, labor organiser and civil rights activist, but as a result of her extensive travels around Europe had also made a name for herself as a lecturer and journalist with a global perspective. "A popular interpreter of international events to African-American audiences," her analyses of world affairs "articulated an anti-imperialist, antifascist and Pan-Africanist critique from the perspectives of race, class and, gender." (179) The variety in her political work grew out of an understanding that labor, poverty and economic and racial exploitation were interconnected problems, and that the struggles at home were part of the larger movements happening abroad against fascism and imperialism in the first half of the twentieth century. Because her political scope was so diverse, Edwards had a wide social circle: her friends ranged from Chicago's most prominent white social workers to the artists and literary figures of the Harlem Renaissance. Foremost among these was Langston Hughes who kept up a correspondence with her until her death. Edwards was also close to her sisters Thelma and Anna Bell, both of whom were activists as well. Andrews draws quite generously from the letters she sent her friends and family and is ultimately concerned not only with Edwards's "political activism and intellectual growth" but also the "personal and fuller social context" in which they grew and changed over time. (5)
Among the notable influences in Edwards' life was her maternal grandmother, Eliza Johnson. She had escaped slavery with her husband via the Underground Railroad and "the story of their bold stroke for freedom" served as an important source of inspiration for Edwards's civil rights activism. (8) It also comforted her during the turbulent years of her childhood. Born in 1887, Edwards grew up on the mean Jim Crow streets of Houston. On the way to school, she'd find herself caught up in racial turf wars, and while at home, she lived under "the tyranny and explosive temper" of her strict father. Although she chafed under his authority as a young girl, she later came to realise how formative he was to her political work: not only did he instill in her and her sisters "feelings of 'class democracy'and a hatred of 'moral snobbery'"; he also set a precedent for activism in the family by serving as vice president of Houston's NAACP chapter. (13) After graduating from high school, Edwards's social and political consciousness broadened further. She took on a position teaching elementary students and witnessed first-hand the inequalities that plagued Houston's "separate but equal" educational facilities. Additionally, she formed ties with the city's first local union - formed by black longshoremen - which deepened her understanding of the connections between labor and civil rights.
In 1919, Edwards and her sister Thelma moved to Gary, Indiana to pursue social work. There, she briefly worked as a teacher before becoming a probation officer and was involved in many civic initiatives aimed at improving race relations. Among her early achievements was the establishment of Gary's first Interracial Commission in 1924. Under her direction it oversaw efforts to create better housing conditions for African Americans in the city. Later, she worked on the YWCA's interracial committee, served as secretary of the Community Council and was elected vice-president of the City Welfare Association. By 1928, Edwards had become one of the most widely-known social workers in the country. However, she came to be disillusioned by interracial activism when she saw how the Great Depression had devastated black working-class families. Her activism and intellectual interests turned increasingly to matters of labor and unemployment and this facilitated her move to Chicago where she would find the labor education she wanted. Invaluable to such an education was her involvement with the all-black Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) which promoted "an aggressive civil-rights unionism." (35) Through her involvement, she became very close to the BSCP's socialist president A. Philip Randolph who became her lifelong mentor. Edwards's relationship with him secured her opportunities to study at a labor college in NY and later at the International People's College in Denmark. By that time, she had already begun working as a freelance journalist for papers like the Chicago Defender, Claude Barnett's Associated Negro Press and the American Association of Social Workers.
After Denmark, Edwards visited Austria, Germany,
Poland and the Soviet Union and continued to submit articles about her experiences
to Barnett's press and other journals and newspapers. When she returned to Chicago,
she was highly sought after as a speaker, writer, and labor publicist in community
organisations and coalitions. More significantly, encouraged by her recent experiences
in the Soviet Union where she had taught briefly and marched in the May Day
parade, she began working more closely with the Communist Party. In the mid-
to late 1930s, the Communist Party USA had decided on a shift in strategy to
build a Popular Front in an attempt to stop the global rise of fascism. Edwards
endorsed and participated in such coalition-building, "helping to birth
the newly-formed National Negro Congress (NNC) which pushed the civil-rights
agenda to the left." (71) During this time, she grew increasingly frustrated
with moderate black leaders, who she blasted for bowing to the paternalism of
their employers rather than working to educate and organise workers who believed
in them. However, her activities with the NNC and the Popular Front soon diminished
as her focus became increasingly oriented towards international affairs. The
rise of Nazism in Germany, Italy's invasion of Ethiopia and the outbreak of
the Spanish Civil War "reinforced Edwards's determination to link civil
rights at home to the struggles against imperialism, theories of racial supremacy,
and fascism in Europe." (88) She began conducting educational travel seminars
overseas with focus on the serious economic and political problems facing the
world and "in particular, set out to make clear what was at stake for African
Americans in the hate-filled political machinations of fascist dictators."
(88) Edwards' also visited Spain to volunteer and report on the Loyalists. Upon
her return, she devoted much of her time to fundraising and promoting support
for their cause until they were overthrown in 1939.
The defeat of the Loyalists alongside the outbreak of the Second World War, the dissolution of the Popular Front by the Soviet Union, and Edwards's ever-worsening health problems made 1939 a particularly difficult year. To rejuvenate herself, she decided to go to Mexico where she could reevaluate her personal life and possibly write an autobiography in addition to gathering material for articles on Loyalist refugees. However, America's entry into the Second World War threw her back into political work where her activities revolved primarily around the Double V campaign - "the fight for victory against fascism abroad and victory in the war against Jim Crow at home." (144) During this time, the FBI had opened an investigation she was summoned for questioning by the FBI regarding her alleged Communist activities. Edwards, in sworn testimony, had denied any allegiances. Andrews seems to believe she was true to her word: "she [had] never laid out a clear articulation of her political philosophy." (180) Yet, her sympathies with the Soviet Union and activities with the Communist Party heavily indicate leftist leanings, if not "a broadly defined, nonsectarian Communist philosophy." (4) Most likely she said what she did to avoid imprisonment and deportation. During the postwar period, Edwards reduced her political activities, partially in order to seek treatment for rheumatoid arthritis, a debilitating illness that left her bedridden and in pain for days at a time. But she was also heartbroken by the state of affairs at home where "inequalities still persist[ed], sanctioned by law, by custom, by inertia in the North as well as in the South." (165) Yet, despite the low profile she kept, the FBI continued to investigate her and paused their activities only when they discovered she had also developed breast cancer. When her condition did not improve, Edwards remarked that "she was satisfied that she had lived a full life." (177)
Mai'a Williams's activism as recounted by
herself in This Is How We Survive: Revolutionary Mothering, War, and Exile
in the 21st Century perhaps echoes that of Edwards: both are international
journalists traveling to volunteer for and report on revolutionary movements
across the world with the political philosophy that all struggles are interconnected.
One of Williams' core principles is that of "revolutionary mothering,"
which aims to direct attention not only to what it means to be a marginalized
mother but also to a new definition of "mothering" that includes the
work of building community and ensuring survival. Yet although Edwards's work
may fit into such a definition, whether or not she would've thought of her activities
as "mothering" is an altogether different and complicated question.
Much of her early political work can be inscribed as "maternal" -
her forays into activism began as a teacher and social worker. However, these
were careers she ultimately decided to leave. At one point in the book, Andrews
notes that she did not enjoy teaching young children and preferred doing organising
work with older students instead. Additionally, Edwards staunchly rejected the
socially prescribed role for women in conventional marriages and it was for
this reason that she divorced her first husband. All of this points to a context-specific
understanding of what "mothering" or "motherhood" means.
It is not implausible to believe that she would have associated "mothering"
with domesticity. As such, she would have perceived motherhood and revolution
as contradictions, whereas for Williams motherhood constituted revolutionary
work. Thus, although I hesitate to attach to Edwards's work a designation she
might not have chosen for herself, I do not think her life and activism are
at odds with Williams's philosophy. She redefined what a revolution could mean
through her commitment to making connections - between communities and movements,
people and ideas.
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