Sojourning for Freedom: Black Women, American Communism, and the Making of Black Left Feminism

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    Erik S. McDuffie

    Publisher: Duke University Press

    Year: 2011

    Format: Paperback

    Size: 328 pages

    ISBN: 9780822350507

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Sojourning for Freedom portrays pioneering black women activists from the early twentieth century through the 1970s, focusing on their participation in the U.S. Communist Party (CPUSA) between 1919 and 1956. Erik S. McDuffie considers how women from diverse locales and backgrounds became radicalized, joined the CPUSA, and advocated a pathbreaking politics committed to black liberation, women’s rights, decolonization, economic justice, peace, and international solidarity. McDuffie explores the lives of black left feminists, including the bohemian world traveler Louise Thompson Patterson, who wrote about the “triple exploitation” of race, gender, and class; Esther Cooper Jackson, an Alabama-based civil rights activist who chronicled the experiences of black female domestic workers; and Claudia Jones, the Trinidad-born activist who emerged as one of the Communist Party’s leading theorists of black women’s exploitation. Drawing on more than forty oral histories collected from veteran black women radicals and their family members, McDuffie examines how these women negotiated race, gender, class, sexuality, and politics within the CPUSA. In Sojourning for Freedom, he depicts a community of radical black women activist intellectuals who helped to lay the foundation for a transnational modern black feminism.

What People Are Saying

“Erik S. McDuffie argues persuasively that while other scholars have rightly traced the roots of contemporary black feminism to women's clubs and church activism, a coterie of black communist women are also key to this history. . . . Sojourning for Freedom is a valuable and impressive work that contributes to multiple literatures and sheds light on one of the less understood arenas of American history.” William Jelani Cobb, Journal of Southern History

“In his meticulously researched and engaging book, Sojourning for Freedom, Erik S. McDuffie makes a vitally important contribution to our understanding of twentieth-century American feminism.” Kate Weigand, Mobilization

“It is surprising how little we know about the history of African American women and communism, on the one hand, and, on the other, their contribution to Black feminism. Erik S. McDuffie provides a pioneering excavation of some important burial grounds, where obscure histories have rested undisturbed for decades. The result is an engrossing book, and one that makes a wide interdisciplinary contribution to the study of women, African Americans, and the revolutionary left.” Bryan D. Palmer, Labour/Le Travail

Sojourning for Freedom is a fine scholarly work... McDuffie’s eloquent, but succinct, prose allows for easy reading… the book should spur penetrating discussions in undergraduate and graduate courses devoted to history, politics, women/gender studies, and sociology. Indeed, Sojourning for Freedom affords endless opportunities for students and professors alike to articulate interesting view-points about the black feminist ideology and American communism from the early through the middle twentieth century.” Brenda I. Marshall, The Griot

Sojourning for Freedom is a groundbreaking monograph, especially for a historian’s first book. Based on impressive archival research as well as forty oral histories conducted by the author, this book will change the way historians conceptualize black women’s activism in the Old Left and the New Left.” Anne Meis Knupfer, Journal of American History

Sojourning for Freedom is an excellent primer on the communist party and the Cold War in the United States as it relates to the eye-opening participation and motivations of black left feminists. It should be required reading in undergraduate and graduate courses covering this content area, as well as appealing to a general reading audience.” Dolita Cathcart, History: Reviews of New Books

“[I]lluminate[s] the ways that gender, race, and class intersected to shape the American Left.” Andrea Friedman, American Historical Review

“By the end of Sojourning for Freedom, black left feminism appears not as a reaction to Moynihan and masculinism in the 1960s, but as an intergenerational radical tradition that forged critiques of gendered racial capitalism in the previous century, before providing an influential framework for thinking about the interlocking of oppressions for our own era. But enough of this review. Go and read this very valuable book for yourself!” John J. Munro H-1960s, H-Net Reviews

“Radical black women had to challenge both the CP's sexism and its racism, and McDuffie provides a judicious and finely tuned analysis of black women's complicated relationship with the Party. . . . One of the great breakthroughs of McDuffie's book is his careful examination of personal testimonies, which like any narratives, demand analysis.” Mary Helen Washington, Women's Review of Books

"The most thorough study to date of black women of the Old Left, McDuffie compellingly challenges familiar historical narratives that overlook the Communist Party in tracing the origins of black feminism to the civil rights, Black Power, and second-wave feminist movements." Cheryl Higashida, Science & Society

"A well-researched and compelling narrative that traverses five decades of the Black Freedom struggle from the Russian Revolution in 1917 to the late 1950s. . . . Sojourning for Freedom joins other pioneering studies on Black women within the Black radical tradition." Jasmin A. Young, National Political Science Review

Sojourning for Freedom inserts Communism into the historiography of black women’s activism. Providing a bridge between the black women’s club movement and Pan-Africanism, and later civil rights and black feminist activism, Erik S. McDuffie speaks to the historical continuity of protest strategies and concerns, such as internationalism. Drawing on his thorough research and original interviews, he makes a significant contribution toward a more complex history of black struggle.” Kimberly Springer, author of Living for the Revolution: Black Feminist Organizations, 1968–1980

“Erik S. McDuffie does more than introduce us to a fascinating group of black left feminists in the U.S. Communist Party. He also provides a genealogy of intersectional thinking on the workings of race, class, and gender by uncovering the predecessors of black women’s movements of the 1960s and 1970s.” Eileen Boris, co-editor of The Practice of U.S. Women’s History: Narratives, Intersections, and Dialogues

“The portraits in Sojourning for Freedom do no less than reconceptualize the roots of Black radicalism in the period 1917-1956. Erik S. McDuffie’s book will be required reading in undergraduate and graduate courses in Black Studies, Gender and Women’s Studies, and History, as well as courses on the African Diaspora, social movements, and area studies.” Ruth Wilson Gilmore, author of Golden Gulag

“With penetrating insight, meticulous research, and beautiful writing, Erik S. McDuffie has produced an exceedingly important book that simultaneously makes wholly original contributions to women’s studies, black studies, and the history of the U.S. Left.” Gerald Horne, author of Race Woman: The Lives of Shirley Graham Du Bois

About the Author

Erik S. McDuffie is Associate Professor of African American Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Abbreviations xiii

Introduction 1

1. Black Communist Women Pioneers, 1919–1930 25

2. Searching for the Soviet Promise, Fighting for Scottsboro and Harlem's Survival, 1930–1935 58

3. Toward a Brighter Dawn: Black Women Forge the Popular Front, 1935–1940 91

4. Racing against Jim Crow, Fascism, Colonialism, and the Communist Party, 1940–1946 126

5. "We Are Sojourners for Our Rights": The Cold War, 1946–1956 160

6. Ruptures and Continuities, 1956 Onward 193

Notes 221

Bibliography 261

Index 297


Co-Winner, 2011 Letitia Woods Brown Book Award, presented by the Association of Black Women Historians

Winner, 2012 Wesley-Logan Award, presented by the American Historical Association and the Association for the Study of African American Life and History

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