The Obscured and Forgotten History of Black Communist Women

The Obscured and Forgotten History of Black Communist Women

The Obscured and Forgotten History of Black Communist Women

A new anthology edited by Charisse Burden-Stelly and Jodi Dean highlights the legacy and enduring relevance of Black communist women’s political activism in the early 20th century.


At a time when organizing by leftists, particularly Black women, faces numerous challenges in politics, public schools, and the media, it can feel as though a dark history is repeating itself. Concerns about the rising alt-right, police violence, anti-trans legislation, book banning, and the erasure of “uncomfortable” histories are colliding with reinvigorated anti-racism and pro-labor movements. This year alone, we saw what Amazon union organizer Chris Smalls called the “Hot Labor Summer”: an ongoing wave of strikes and unionization efforts from giant corporations such as Starbucks, to museums, rail yards, and coal mining facilities. While seemingly newly urgent, the fights for racial justice, gender equity, and workers’ rights began decades ago. A new collection of Black women’s writing—Organize, Fight, Win—brings to light to the theories and tactics activists used to build successful coalition movements at the beginning of the 20th century, and their enduring relevance in today’s political climate.

The anthology, compiled and edited by Charisse Burden-Stelly and Jodi Dean, professors of Africana studies and of political, feminist, and media theory, respectively, collects and celebrates the work of radical Black women who organized for political and labor-related purposes. Many of the women featured in the book were key members of, or connected to, the Communist Party of the United States, working between the Red Summer of 1919, when racist and anti-communist riots swept through major US cities, and the beginnings of the Red Scare in the 1950s. For these women, communism represented an opportunity to build interracial, gender-inclusive, and working-class solidarity in the face of metastasizing fascism and segregation. However, because of the US government’s attempts to tie communism to disloyalty, much of these women’s work went unrecognized in mainstream histories of Black activism, particularly in the decades before the civil rights movement.

Organized chronologically, Organize, Fight, Win serves as a historical catalog of significant political writing, journalistic investigations, union organizing, and protest work Black women engaged in despite constant threats to their safety and livelihoods. The anthology is composed of articles, speeches, and reports produced by well-known activists, organizers, and writers such as Louise Thompson Patterson and Claudia Jones, who remained politically active well into the 1960s, as well as lesser-known women such as Maude White Katz, one of the first Black women to study abroad in the USSR.

Burden-Stelly and Dean frame the collection as both a corrective for American history’s mistakes, and as a call to action for activists in our present moment. We talked about the making of their book during the pandemic, how to broaden sites of knowledge production, and the impact of intellectual McCarthyism, then and now. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

—Morgan Forde

Morgan Forde: In your introduction to Organize, Fight, Win, you talk about organizing this project during the early days of the pandemic. How did you connect and what was your collaboration process like?

Jodi Dean: Charisse and I met at Red May, which is a kind of communist extravaganza held in Seattle every year, organized by Philip Wohlstedder. Then I was teaching a course on socialist feminism and one of my students was looking for a text by Louise Thompson Patterson from the 1930s. She couldn’t find it, and then I started to look around and I also couldn’t find it. So I contacted Charisse, because Charisse has copies of everything—really an amazing archive—and it turns out she didn’t have it. Charisse started asking people and nobody had it, and at this point, it seemed like: OK, not only do we have to find this, but it shouldn’t be this hard. It shouldn’t be this hard to find writing by these really important Black, female, communist organizers. This needs to be a collection.

When Covid hit, that was the opportunity to really start getting the work done. I didn’t even know where to start looking. I knew a few names, but Charisse really knows this stuff backwards and forwards. So, we started compiling a list and looking for the documents. We were getting microfiche from libraries, and copies of documents from other scholars in Charisse’s network who gave us things that they had.

MF: Charisse, I’d love to hear from you. When you were sourcing and pulling all these pieces together, who did you know you wanted represented in this collection?

Charisse Burden-Stelly: We wanted to offer a primary document collection that complemented many of the great secondary works that were coming out about many of the women that we have in the book. That includes Eric McDuffie’s Sojourning for Freedom, Minkah Makalani’s In the Cause of Freedom, Dale Gore’s Radicalism at the Crossroads, as well as some of the great biographies like Carole Boyce Davies’s book about Claudia Jones, Left of Karl Marx. So we wanted to have the primary document corollary. The women featured in Organize, Fight, Win are a combination of those who were actually in the Communist Party of the USA or were adjacent to it.

We chose a combination of women who ran the gamut between the first iteration of the Communist Party in 1919, up to 1956, when there [was] this moment of attrition of the CPUSA (after details of Stalin’s regime came to light). We have some women like Louise Thompson Patterson who were present and working throughout that time period and others like Williana Burroughs and Grace Campbell who are representative of the early phase, and Dorothy Hunton and Lorraine Hansberry who appear much later on. We also wanted to pick women who were of different class positions and people who were at different levels within the Communist Party. Claudia Jones was a very prominent leader and Esther Cooper Jackson was married to a very prominent leader in the CPUSA. None of them were exactly rank and file per se because many of them had some sort of outward facing profile, which is why we know what we know about them.

MF: Your own writing in the beginning of the book centers both the importance of reclaiming the value of communist organizing and the history of left-wing Black radical organizing. How can modern movements learn from the communist, or communist-adjacent women you discuss?

CBS: One thing I think that Jodi and I would say [up front] is join an organization. All of these women were in organizations. They were in the CPUSA, but also other types of parties. They were constantly building institutions and entities, whether it’s Freedom Magazine, an organization like Sojourners for Truth and Justice, [or] the multiple legal defense committees organized for William Paterson (Louise Thompson Patterson’s husband) or W.E.B. Du Bois. They [were] constantly organizing and building spaces to do theoretical, political, and organizing work.

We’re in a racial capitalist society [and] a patriarchal society, so contradictions are going to persist within even left-wing organizations. But what these women show is that they struggled within the organizations that they were in; they were critical of them when they felt like “Negro work,” or Black women’s work was being marginalized or there wasn’t enough effort being put into unionizing Black women, and they pushed back. Importantly, they did that not only because of some identity reductionism, whereby they said, “I’m in this Black woman’s body, so listen to me.” [They also] did analysis, wrote reports, and debated with their comrades. I think that that’s one of the broader lessons to take away. I hope that Jodi will talk about patterns, because that is something amazing that she wrote about and identified in the introduction.

JD: One of the things that’s important for us in the whole book is that the organizers we collected emphasize patterns of oppression and patterns of winning and victory, across the board. But one of things that concerns me sometimes, with the current very-online left, is everything is treated like it’s brand new, or that it’s unique to the United States or to their small social circle, rather than recognizing that there are patterns in, for example, police violence, dating from the slave period to the horrors of the 1919 Red Summer when there was mass violence against Black people and Black soldiers coming back from WWI. These are long-standing oppressions, and the practices of resistance to them are [also] long-standing. Black communist women found patterns and we need to see those patterns today historically and globally. One of the things that that does is it lets you link the struggles. This is one of the things that I find most compelling. As they organized, they worked on building unity.

CBS: We start the introduction [by] talking about the National Negro Labor Council, which was founded in 1951. That’s at the height of McCarthyism, right? This is at the height of repression, after organizations like the National Negro Congress and the Council on African Affairs had already been under attack. Yet they organized on behalf of Black workers. I say that to say, we’re in a moment, if you will, of extreme repression. But that is a time for more organizing, not less. It’s a time for a more steadfast commitment to building a mass movement. It is hard, it’s scary, [and] it’s dangerous in many ways. Our book is called Organize, Fight, Win, because we always have to guide with this dogged belief that we’re going to win, you know? So I think that’s a really important thing this generation can [and] should take away as well.

MF: I’m curious where you see some of these connections for contemporary media as well, because, as you mentioned, the book includes a lot of articles published in the Black press. How do you see the Substacks or independent magazines that are popping up as a continuation or a departure from what these women were doing?

JD: That’s a good question. On the one hand, today there are a lot of podcasts, right? People are doing all different kinds of media. So that is a kind of organizing. It organizes the people who are producing it, their guests, and their audiences somewhat. How effective that will be remains to be seen.

CBS: One thing that I’m thinking about is the way that the women we profiled were committed to their periodicals and journals and newspapers. They were not only writing articles, but they were [also] helping with editing. They were part of the venues in which they were publishing and I think that’s important as well because that’s what helps to link organizing and journalism. The other thing is that it’s not just articles, right? We have all sorts of different types of writing in this collection. I think what these communist women help us to do is rethink the sites of knowledge production. They were writing position papers and reports in their organizations and in their parties. They were putting out pamphlets. They show how the sites of knowledge production are expansive and that we can think beyond the monograph and the peer-reviewed journal article or the think piece. There are other ways to produce knowledge that we need to pay attention to.

MF: You mention that some of the women featured in this book wouldn’t have necessarily considered themselves feminists at that time because they viewed the movement as more of a white, bourgeois construct. I’m curious if you think the current debate around white feminism and “The Girlboss” is an extension of the theorizing about feminism that Black communist women were engaged in the ’30s, ’60s, and ’70s?

JD:The debate around the “woman question” was a big deal among the European socialists and for the Bolsheviks as well. They did not think that feminism was the same thing as the question of organizing around women’s issues and organizing working-class women. So, if within the history of socialism, early feminism was understood as a bourgeois category, I think the continuity with the present is, yes: any feminism that’s only worried about the wealthy people getting ahead in a system that [favors the wealthy] is not going to be a feminism that exists for most people. There’s also the continuity of capitalism, and the fact that some people want to get ahead within capitalism, rather than bring it down.

One of the things that I think is super crucial about the writing that we’ve collected here is it lets you see that communist organizing is organizing around anti-racism and against white supremacy. It is organizing around the concerns of working women and families. It makes us stop having this view that: “Oh, here are these are white men who only take orders from Moscow and only think about an industrial labor force.” That’s just not accurate with respect to the party that was being built in the United States.

CBS: I think that it’s important to know that it’s not that these women would not have identified as feminists later on. It’s not that they’re hostile to feminism as such. I think our point is [that] there’s a way in which intersectionality is foundational to feminism, which is central to Louise Thompson Patterson’s concept of “triple oppression”—that experienced as Black people, as women, and as members of the working class. Hopefully people don’t get hung up on this question of whether or not they’re feminists. In fact, some of them often have been read as internationalist feminists or Black internationalist feminists or socialist feminists. But too often, that feminism can overdetermine their praxis to the point where their Marxism or their communism, their anti-imperialism, or their peace activism becomes secondary. And we both feel that that is a historical mistake.

MF: When you talk about erasure, you note that it’s almost done to “protect” these women’s legacies because of the way America has turned communism and socialism into controversial words. You link this to the way the reactionary line against Black Lives Matter, or other forms of progressive advocacy, maligns these movements by calling them “too radical.” Can you talk about this narrative?

JD: I find this really helpful in recognizing the impact of intellectual McCarthyism on the production of knowledge, which still affects us now. The exclusion of the communist aspect of people’s politics, and drawing that out, just seems more and more important these days.

CBS: This is why currently critical race theory and “wokeness” or cultural Marxism are red-baited. On the one hand, there’s the more liberal anti-communism that erases the diverse voices that helped create a communist movement in the US to make it seem like it was just this sort of white chauvinist thing. But then you have the right-wing anti-communism that saw race mixing, integration, and now “woke-ism,” CRT, and transgender rights as this socialist project. So communism just becomes this synecdoche for everything that challenges conservative Americanism, broadly conceived.

MF: I want to end on a question about archives with respect to African American history and marginalized people in general. What are your thoughts on the most appropriate ways to approach these women’s work while being cognizant of their political context?

JD: First, I think keeping communism in play has got to be crucial rather than trying to pretend that they weren’t really communist, or that their criticisms of the party make them less of a communist even though those same criticisms were published in leading party publications. That’s how they understood being communist.

I also want to say, I think that we had at least two things in mind when we put this together. One is for people who want primary sources, as a supplement to all of the important monographs and biographies that have been done. Now you can read the women’s writing in their voices, read their own speeches, [and] read their own memoirs without having to read solely about them. So that’s a scholarly contribution. But it is also a contribution for activists and organizers to see the concerns of people organizing in practice. What are some of the tactics they used? What were their commitments? So there’s almost a handbook aspect in this for organizers that I think needs to be held up and recognized.

CBS: For me, I think there are a lot of things that are missing in the archive, and there are a lot of things there that are dusty, neglected, and marginalized because these are not the women we care about, right? When people say “listen to Black women,” or “believe Black women,” it’s not all these Black women who were in or around the Communist Party, right? It’s not the Black women who were rooting for Black liberation. And that gets back to intellectual McCarthyism.

We have to really rethink, and some historians are doing this, the “long civil rights movement.” There is such an emphasis on the 1960s, as “the moment” of radicalism. And that is true, but then there’s also the 1930s. There’s also the immediate post-WWII moment when these people are struggling against impending fascism in the US So when we look at these communist women, it expands our historical timeline as it relates to the struggle for democracy, citizenship, liberation, and socialism. With this volume, their work is even more accessible, but it wasn’t impossible to find these things. We just had to do it. We just had to see that it was necessary.

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