U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Black Communist women and "Black Left Feminism"

Last week I shared about an article I was shopping about the New Deal. I’ve decided to leave that one on the shelf and instead focus on Mabel Byrd’s support for the Communist Party. In 1932, she covered the Communist Presidential Convention for the Associated Negro Press and then wrote an article in support of the Communist candidate for president in The Crisis. There has been a lot of recent scholarship on black women Communists in the “Old Left” period (before the 1950s), particularly Lashawn Harris‘ dissertation and article, Erik McDuffie’s book, Sojourning for Freedom, and the collection edited by Dayo F. Gore, Jeanne Theoharis, and Komozi Woodard.

As usual, I’d like to use this space to ask a question. In McDuffie’s work, his tightly argued thesis suggests that black Communist women articulated a “black left feminism” that showed that one kind of oppression could not be isolated from another–that racism, misogyny, and capitalism all had to be fought at once. As I try to push the thesis for my Mabel Byrd article into a more significant and relevant space, I am wondering about this argument. Byrd does not write about gender or women at all in her few extant articles. She also does not praise the Communist Party for their ideology, but rather for the leadership space given to African Americans. She says that the education, political protest, and wealth accumulation have failed (hence criticizing the YWCA, the NAACP, and Booker T. Washington with each category), and so the Communist Party should be given a chance because it is the only political party that actually acted on its rhetoric. My article will chart her movement from advocating education as a way to transform individuals’ ideas about race to advancing the Communist Party as the only solution. I argue that this movement is indicative of a larger transformation from a focus on interracial education in the 1920s to the focus on labor in the 1930s.

Is it problematic for the significance of my article, or interesting and leading to relevance, that Byrd does not discuss the triple oppression of black women or women’s oppression at all? Other than noting its absence, is there a way to include gender analysis? Would the Journal of the History of Women or the Journal of the Study of Radicalism be a better journal?

Mabel Byrd’s story has not be told and I think she is important in and of herself, as a unknown leader in the Harlem Renaissance, an unknown black communist (none of the above scholars mention her), and a vocal presence at the Second Amenia Conference. But is my argument about her movement from education to communism significant, and the way it reflects a larger transformation in society, enough?

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  1. I’d start with JWH and no I don’t think it is a problem that she didn’t articulate an intersectional feminism. I think it may be a form of presentism to expect her to sound like we do 🙂 The fact that other people argue another line offers you the perfect historiographical niche

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