Black Women, Communism and the USA

Black working class women in the United States face a triple oppression – as workers, as Black people and as women. These particulars are not necessarily ranked in any hierarchy, but it is the combination of all three that create the special oppression faced by this group of US residents. One of the first political formations in the country to recognize and attempt to address this reality was the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA). Indeed, it was the CPUSA’s work on this aspect of the economic and political reality in the US that informed a fair amount of the work by the US Left in the 1960s and 1970s regarding racial oppression. It has been an ongoing trend for many on the US Left to disparage the history of the CPUSA for its failures in theory and in practice. By doing this, these detractors fail to acknowledge its genuinely radical and quite important role in the working class and Black liberation movements beginning between the two world wars of the twentieth century.

A newly published work titled Organize, Fight, Win: Black Communist Women’s Political Writing and edited by Charisse Burden-Stelly and Jodi Dean is a valiant effort to remedy this situation. By highlighting a number of primary sources, today’s reader is able to consider the actual words and thoughts of the CPUSA with minimal filters that might reinterpret the meaning of the concepts being discussed. Burden-Stelly is the co-author (with Gerald Horne) of WEB DuBois: A Life in American History. Jodi Dean is the author of several books addressing communism in the modern era, including The Communist Horizon and Comrade. Their selections in this text include excerpts from various newsletters and newspapers, along with excerpts from CPUSA theoretical papers and meetings and a couple different books.

Given that until recently, the majority of Black women in the United States were employed as domestic workers, a fair number of the pieces in Organize, Fight, Win discuss the nature of these workers’ exploitation and attempts to organize them. A phenomenon known as the Bronx Slave Market is mentioned more than one and there is even one article that details the mechanics of this endeavor. In essence, this so-called market reminded this reviewer of those street corners and Home Depot parking lots where undocumented and other workers congregate today in the hopes a homeowner will hire them. The selections tell of the job seekers underbidding each other in an attempt to earn at least some oney so they can feed their families and males offering them better pay if the women engage in sexual activity. In response to this exploitation, various attempts to organize the domestic workers are discussed, revealing varying limits of success.

One of the writers that appears frequently in this book is Claudia Jones. Jones was born Claudia Vera Cumberbatch in Trinidad, but changed her surname to Jones when she became a political activist. Her entry into the CPUSA began with her work in the campaign to free the Scottsboro Boys, nine young Black men falsely accused of rape in Alabama in 1931. Jones ultimately became the executive secretary of the Women’s National Commission, secretary for the Women’s Commission of the CPUSA and the National Peace Council. In 1953, she took over the editorship of the party journal Negro Affairs. After being charged and found guilty of sedition under the anti-communist McCarran Act in 1950, she served several months in prison. After her release, she was charged under another anti-communist law called the Smith Act. After serving more time, Jones exiled herself to the United Kingdom. Her writing in this collection includes an article on the right to self-determination for Black people in the United States, a discussion about CPUSA’s organization of women workers, and a long discussion about imperialism, militarism and the movement against war written in 1950 as Washington’s intimidation of the popular forces in Korea headed towards all-out war.

Besides showcasing the importance of organizing Black women, Organize, Fight, Win provides numerous examples of not only how seriously the CPUSA took this work, but also how they supported women’s input on this and other questions. It’s not to say the Party was free of sexism, but it does seem to illustrate that the struggle against sexism in the ranks was understood to exist and that the participation of women in that struggle was an important piece if it was to be defeated. The fact this work was emphasized during a period when the Left in the US was under attack in the courts, Congress and the media is testament to that importance. Speaking of the persecution, there is an excerpt from Esther Cooper Jackson’s reflection on her husband James E. Jackson after his arrest for his political beliefs and activism. In that piece, she reflects on the murder of Harry Moore and his wife after racists bombed there home in Florida. Noting that the FBI had yet to find the perpetrators of that crime, she contrasts it to their pursuit of her husband and other Leftists fighting from civil rights and an end to racial apartheid in the United States. Other writers mention the harassment of singer and communist activist Paul Robeson and his prosecution by the US government. The authoritarian police state represented best by the FBI unleashed much of its force against the Black liberation movement while ignoring if not openly supporting white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan.

This text is an important addition to the history of the United States, especially as regards the struggle for Black residents’ freedom and equality. The fact that all of the work included in this book is written by communists is also important in that it proves the important role they played in the struggle during the period represented. However, more than just a look at that legacy, Organize, Fight, Win is also a working textbook for the current and future state of the fight for liberation and against the economic system of capitalism; a system that is the basis of most every other oppression, especially those targeting Black and Brown people.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com