SocialistWorker.org asked me to write about what I read this summer. This was published a few days ago along with the responses from several other people here. My reply is below.
THE FIRST book I read this summer was Erik McDuffie’s Sojourning for Freedom: Black Women, American Communism, and the Making of Black Left Feminism. McDuffie explores the lives and politics of Black women who were in and around the Communist Party in the first half of the 20th century, including: Audley “Queen Mother” Moore, Louise Thompson Patterson, Thyra Edwards, Bonita Williams, Williana Burroughs, Claudia Jones, Esther Cooper Jackson, Belulah Richardson, Grace P. Campbell, Charlene Mitchell and Sallye Bell Davis.
McDuffie traces their personal stories and life trajectories, and shows their attempts to develop radical organizing projects that would be relevant to the lives of Black women. Needless to say, this wasn’t always easy. Between male chauvinism in the Communist Party, ideological rigidity among their comrades, sexism in the party and in society at large, the Cold War and government repression, they faced tremendous challenges.
In their personal relations and their activism, these women were often breaking gender and racial molds in many parts of their lives at once. Importantly, McDuffie explores their attempts to theorize this work, building on (or, for some, breaking from) the Marxist tradition.
At times, I wish he had let us hear their own words a bit more. By his own admission, McDuffie paints them all with a “Black Left Feminist” brush, despite the different ways these women defined themselves. Still, Sojourning is a must-read for those who want to understand the historic contributions of Black women to radical and communist thought, activism and organization in the U.S.
Next, I read Gary Younge’s latest book, The Speech: The Story Behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream. America mostly remembers King through the prism of his “I Have a Dream” speech because that way he can be safely portrayed as a wise leader who guided the nation through troubled times. But there’s much more to the story.
This book is a brisk and accessible read, full of important insight about what King’s speech in that moment really represented, and what it didn’t represent. Another fascinating aspect of the book is that Younge shows how the ideological seeds of racism in our era were already being sown in 1963.
For example, he recalls that a fleet of limousines whisked the march’s leaders to the White House immediately following Dr. King’s speech, and after a photo-op, President Kennedy proceeded to lecture King and the others about how Black people need to adopt greater personal responsibility!
Read this book now, while the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington is still fresh, and if you missed them, watch Gary’s three short videos based on the book, and his talk at the book launch.
I also read Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life by Barbara J. Fields and Karen Fields. In a provocative series of essays examining modern politics, media the study of history, medicine and more, these scholars (who also happen to be sisters) dismantle common sense ideas about race. Barbara Fields’ classic article, “Slavery, Race, and Ideology in the USA” is re-printed in Racecraft, and worth re-visiting.
Fields describes how historians can, quite literally, trace the act of colonial Virginians inventing the concept of race as a necessary solution to the problems they faced employing African slaves in plantation labor:
Probably a majority of American historians think of slavery in the United States as primarily a system of race relations, as though the chief business of slavery were the production of white supremacy rather than the production of cotton, sugar, rice, and tobacco.
The term “racecraft” is meant to evoke “witchcraft”—and by comparison, explain how rational people have come to believe (to this day) that race—which has no foundation in genetics or biology—can cause things to happen in real life.
The authors point out the common sense phrasing about lots of everyday occurrences—such as police violence, for example—often don’t make sense. People say, “They shot him because he was Black.” But there’s nothing about brown skin that attracts bullets!
"Disguised as race," the authors write, "racism becomes something that Afro-Americans are, rather than something racists do." Thus, the reality is that it was the application of a double standard to the victim that explains the violence. Racism explains what race, alone, cannot. Further, the Fields sisters argue that it is racism that causes race—as a concept—to exist, not the other way around!