Transcript: 93. Carole Boyce Davies on Claudia Jones

Interview guest Carole Boyce Davies joins us to talk about the radical ideas of Claudia Jones.

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Peter Adamson: Maybe we can start out by setting some context for the work of Claudia Jones. So can I first ask you to say something about the approach that communists in general in the United States during Jones's time were taking to what was then called the Negro Problem?

Carole Boyce Davies: From all the work that I've done so far, one does not get a fixed logic of participation in a communist movement only on the basis of class. One consistently gets a conjunction in which race and class operate simultaneously. And that's the logic context, which in many ways now in today's context, people use language like intersectionality and so on, but for them, it was not so much that, as a way of accounting for all of their subject positions that were oppressed at the time. So one hardly finds a class-only position. One does find a race-first or race-only position in the logics of Garvey, which is a kind of diminution of what Hubert Harrison intended, but the logic of race first dominated that time. So the conjunction of race and class would be significant. What Claudia Jones adds is of course a question of Black women's rights as far as those two categories are concerned. So the logic context is that one. And what I love is that some of the earlier work on Claudia Jones presented her as a sort of singular figure, but actually there was a movement, there was a cadre of people doing intellectual work, doing activist work at the same time. And she was a part of that. So one has to be very clear that there were communist women ahead of her in the Communist Party USA and Socialist Party of America, but also other Caribbeans. So there's that whole context as well, which we have to really bring forward. For example, ahead of her or along with her would be people like Richard Moore, Otto Huiswoud, Cyril Briggs, and Grace Campbell. And these are identified interestingly to make the point more concrete in what was called the African Blood Brotherhood at the time. So actually naming an organization with that language, while they also are in socialist- or communist-related organizations, indicates the extent to which their logic had to do with bringing together those two primary positions and political interests as well.

Peter Adamson: Do you think that that's something that was accepted by white communists? I mean, some members of the Communist Party who were not African American, do you think that they were also convinced by the time of Claudia Jones that race and class had to be kind of handled as a double oppression? Because I know that earlier, like around the time of World War I, that was not yet the case.

Carole Boyce Davies: Well, this is one of the things that Harry Haywood said about Claudia, that she consistently inserted that and put those positions on the table at the various conventions or pre-convention meetings, as position papers and so on. So as you know, as you would understand, all of these negotiated positions consistently and even today, although it's less difficult argument to make given so much feminist work, but even today one still finds at times in certain contexts that there's a discussion which says class precedes any kind of discussion of race or gender, or that those don't even matter that class is the primary factor of analysis if it's coming from left position. So I have to say then that for somebody like Claudia, and for her group of activists, it would have been a process of consistent negotiating to make sure that those issues stayed central to any kind of CPUSA activity. And from what I've read, she did end up having allies in the leadership of the Communist Party and also in a variety of other people who helped her make that argument or supported that argument as she made it in various ways.

Peter Adamson: Something you've already alluded to is the way that she brought gender into this discussion. And she used a couple of very famous phrases or terms for this, she said that African American women workers were super-exploited. That's one word that she used. And maybe even more famous, she said that they were triply oppressed. So I mean, obviously the point there is that these are people who are Black women and working-class. But can you say more about that, and maybe compare the point that she was making here to what other Africana feminists have been saying?

Carole Boyce Davies: When she makes this point in several different ways, which I love. One of the things I think we should say first is that for a long time, she would argue the logic of women constituting half the world, half the nation, she would say. And therefore, these are half of the world's resources or access to these resources. So I have argued in a book that I'm working on now – that actually is at the press now, on Black women's rights – that she's actually ahead of the UN and other subsequent definitions of this sort of logic of women being half the world, which now one finds very easily in UN documents. But Claudia was making that argument consistently. And throughout the time, from 1948, when she became secretary of the Women's Commission of the CPUSA, onward, this would be like a byline, half the world or half the nation. So Claudia is already clear about women's rights. She does never use the word feminist, which is really important to say. When she does use it actually is critically. She has in a couple of essays mentioned bourgeois feminists, but she never really talks about feminism as a defining identity for her. However, she definitely uses that language of the triple oppression of the so-called Negro woman, the language they would use back then. And later on, you would have this same framework being used by Angela Davis in Women, Race and Class. The argument is that Angela gets assigned that position, but this was an earlier position that was coming from the Communist Party that Angela was articulating and voicing. But for a long time, doing any kind of left scholarship remains sort of outside of the frames of intellectual work, even working on Black subjects. So she makes the point about super-exploitation in a couple of different ways. The first of them is that essay called An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Woman. And she wrote at that time and lectured on this question in an attempt to go through the United States on behalf of the Communist Party and create chapters of the Women's Commission along with Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. So she actually traveled through a number of states in the United States. And from some accounts, more than 15 states, they went to do this kind of work. So basically, she has a number of different places where she does that. And in a collection of her essays that I edited called Beyond Containment, one can get access to all of them in the same place. So she begins this with a piece called For New Approaches to Our Work Among Women, which was an internal discussion piece to start this new initiative in the CPUSA. This is 1947, and in 1948 she will be Secretary of the Women's Commission. And she would also be involved in a Black women's organization called Sojourners for Truth and Justice. So all of her subsequent essays, I'm arguing, on women's rights stem from this beginning point and take different aspects of this issue forward. So in this position, and you were asking a natural question, she challenges the CP hierarchy on the question of race and gender as an attempt to really look at its whole discussion of creating a sort of peace framework. Her argument is that if you want to build a national mass movement that has to do with peace, then one has to take Black women seriously. And this is where she gets to half the world or half the nation beginning argument. So from this For New Approaches to Our Work Among Women, that's the first one I'd recommend in 1947, the next major piece would be An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Woman, which is probably the most popularly anthologized of her essays. And she wrote this when she was, as I indicated, Secretary of the CPUSA. And basically she's arguing there that any kind of political movement, any kind of analysis, any kind of construct, which is looking at Black experience, or women's experience in general terms, has to really pay attention to the fact that the neglect of the Black woman means that it's an incomplete discourse. So this is where she does that. And in that essay, she has a section called Key Issues, which is an important summary of some of her positions, where she talked about the questions of employment for Black women, that the Black women were still relegated to domestic work in most contexts, and that there's a tendency not to really see them as leaders in the Communist Party. And I found that interesting. And this is how I use it in my other work, my forthcoming work, because she's actually talking about leadership as well. Now we talk about Black women getting to political leadership in different kinds of contexts. But she's already saying that if you're having any kind of political movement, how can you not have Black women in it? We do get that super-exploitation thesis more fully worked out in her piece called We Seek Full Equality in 1949, which is interesting, which pushed the idea of the rights of half the nation has to be equal, participation of Black women, and women in general in all frameworks. There she outlined the theoretical position of women in the CPUSA, but also in the larger community. And this super-exploitation thesis becomes really important because she's arguing there that Black women, just as you have in Marx's analysis, the exploitation thesis worked out. She's saying that there's still a huge gap as far as Black women are concerned because they are also exploited by other class fractions in the same context. For her then, the economic conditions of women workers really are fundamental to this question of super-exploitation. And we still have this idea of course that Black women end up making, today it's about 60 cents or 64 cents, but for a long time, Black women were making something like 53 cents of every dollar that a white man made. So actually doing extra work or more work with receiving less money. So for her, the super-exploitation of the Black woman is revealed in that as a woman, she receives less than equal pay for equal work with men, but that the majority of Black women also get less than half the pay of white women as well in the time period that she's writing that particular argument. So she took then the classic Marxist theory of super-exploitation and extends it to include the Black woman's condition, articulating how this works in the person of the Black woman located as she was in society. And I would argue still is among the most exploited and underpaid of workers. The one whose labor is exploited consistently. The Black woman's labor then is multiply extracted, she wants to say, and is never remunerated in any way comparable to her labor of power, nor the labor she's assumed to deliver in and out of the home. So for me, that's where this whole logic of the full emancipation of Black woman comes into play.

Peter Adamson: Right. Yeah. And as you say, the statistics bear out the fact that this is still an issue. Generations after she was writing about this.

Carole Boyce Davies: Yeah. At many locations. I was doing a presentation for Caribbean labor organization and that issue came up as well, that women, even in Trinidad, the activist women doing work in labor organizations, the question of the logic of women getting equal pay for work is still pretty much an issue that is consistently raised. One finds what is happening now, interestingly, and this is where class comes in, I suppose, is that you have certain women in certain classes, let's say medical doctors or bank managers or so on, able now to reach the level where they can have some sort of financial parity with men. But when you go down the ladder to look at laboring women, women working in restaurants, women working as domestic workers in agricultural work and so on, there's still a huge glaring disparity. So we do have some class movement of certain fractions of Black women. And this happens, of course, as well in the United States for sure. But you have people who are able to make it in. If you don't disaggregate and you look at the larger spectrum then of where women are located financially, because of that disparity, you still have a lower reference point for how much money a Black woman make in general in relation to men and how much money Black women make in relation to men.

Peter Adamson: You actually just talked about a whole bunch of her essays. And I wanted to ask you about one of the other essays that is actually in the anthology that you edited, which is called On the Right to Self-Determination for the Negro People in the Black Belt. And I mean, the point of the essay is right in the title. So I was wondering if you could just tell us what she meant by self-determination in this context. Should we literally imagine that an independent political state is going to be founded within the United States? Is that the goal?

Carole Boyce Davies: Not really. Basically, she is working with the idea that Black people in the United States constitute an oppressed nation. And that oppressed-nation thesis would run in a few different directions. People like Malcolm X would make that argument as well subsequently. It's a kind of internal colonization discussion that comes up in this context. And that's pretty much where she's going with that argument. But basically, she's saying that Black people in the South at that time had no kind of control over their labor. They were still being lynched. So the question of terrorism against Black people was still being raised. They were not able to vote, as you know. And the question of voting is, again, so prominent. We brought forward, again, in the ways in which the right-wing states in the South and Midwest United States are still really activating some of those older positions. So we see how close we are still to some of those questions of disenfranchisement. This is actually talking about all of those things. She was looking at ways, then, that Black people in the South, should they really be happily continuing in the way that they were, or should they have a way of really articulating what their position should be? Because she was actually going for, she said, not such a simplistic argument as far as self-determination is concerned, in other words, creating a state for Black people in the South, which, of course, in the group Nation of Islam, that was a point of assertion at a particular point in time. But she says, basically, are Black people satisfied with the way that they're treated in the United States? What about the Black Belt that has to do with Black people's positioning in American society that is significant? And then how can we ameliorate that? So she says, in one of the quotes, integration cannot be considered a substitute for the right to self-determination. And national liberation, I'm reading a piece from it, is not synonymous with integration. Neither are the two concepts mutually exclusive. So she said, this doesn't mean a merger, or an assimilative process that takes place in general sense, a struggle for integration, which today by the Negro people is directed at achieving equal rights, economic, political, and social. So she said, the question is, do Black people not have a right to articulate their rights to full participation in the United States? And the question of the United States being a democracy, while at the same time exercising this sort of inequality as far as Black people are concerned, remains a very prominent issue and remains still in 2021, 2022, a really critical issue as far as Black people's rights are concerned. So she says, the Black Belt problem then has to really wipe out the political and social survivals of slavery and move towards some sort of enforcement of equal rights. This question that equal rights for equal people in the Black Belt can be achieved, she said, only through enforcement, through the exercise of the right to self-determination. So the question is, Black people needing to decide how they want their lives to be run, and what kinds of social and economic and political conditions lead them to their full participation in the United States. I find it a really interesting essay and probably one that people should probably spend more time looking at, given the current arguments around the questions of democracy. Actually, she begins the essay by talking about the fact that the US claims to be a democracy while at the same time maintaining this sort of glaring inequality as far as a number of other groups are concerned. So she wants then some sort of energetic struggle, she says, not just for partial demands, but a full struggle for democracy. It should not overshadow, she says, working-class struggle against exploitation. Actually, it's an aid to it. So not so much looking only at the questions that, as you mentioned earlier, of how class operates as far as Black people are concerned, but really looking at how Black people's rights have to be put really fundamentally part of this. And I was listening to W. E. B. Du Bois's Black Reconstruction, and he really struggled with those arguments, trying to see how to talk about this question of what are the rights of Black people. Does one have to wait then for all workers' rights to be ameliorated before Black people get some sort of place within the economic spectrum, or does one not have to consistently look at the ways in which white workers tend to still operate with an assumption of racial oppression as far as Black people are concerned?

Peter Adamson: Maybe we can move on now to thinking more about her later career and in particular what happens in her thought and her writing after being deported from the United States in 1955. She lives in England, she also visits the Soviet Union and China. How did that change her approach, or did it change her approach?

Carole Boyce Davies: I believe it did. It's interesting to look at it from a number of angles. For sure she ends up getting not just the US national stage, but an international audience. It's interesting to think about that because even while she was doing her work in the United States, she was, of course, coming to the attention not just of the US authorities, the surveillance system, but also the people in various locations around the world. For example, she did have connections with an organization called the Women's International Democratic Forum, which was an international group of activist women leftist in orientation but looking at women's struggles and rights around the world. She would receive newsletters and communications from them and so on. The interesting member of that group was the mother of Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, which is interesting. Another point. When she goes to London, London becomes then another site of struggle for her. Because when she gets to England, the CPGB does not really understand the power of the woman they have in their midst. She felt somehow that she was never able to get back to the full central position she had in the CPUSA before she left the US and went to the UK.

Peter Adamson: Just sorry to interrupt, but just to say that you mean the Communist Party of the United States of America and the Communist Party of Great Britain are the CPUSA and the CPGB?

Carole Boyce Davies: CP, CP, right. In fact, one of the interviews I did with a woman who met her and she met her in Hampstead where they lived and said, wow, you must be so much in demand. She said, no, they don't even care that I'm here. So she actually felt totally marginalized when she got there and actually runs into the British form of racism, which is just as virulent as the American one, not as crude probably as the American version, but a version of it nonetheless. So two things are going on. That is happening, and this really clears the way then for her to be fully active in her community in ways that really were fundamentally necessary. As you know, from the work Left of Karl Marx, she ends up becoming really one of the forerunners of what is defined as a sort of Black British political identity by forming the newspaper, by being active and working with the so-called Windrush generation, which had come there beginning in 1948, and actually beginning to create institutions and communities that would accompany the Black population in London, the Caribbean population, largely Black, of course, and of course Asian growing as well in London. Two things are signaled there. One is the formation of the West Indian Gazette And Afro-Asian Caribbean News, but it starts off as the West Indian Gazette. Later on, because of her relationship with Manchanda, Abhimanyu Manchanda, who was a partner and Indian Maoist, it ends up becoming a broader construct to bring in then this question of Afro-Asian communities. So she's one of the people then in this period who begins to define Black as it is or was for a long time in England as not just African descent, but a variety of peoples of color that would be coming as migrants, formerly colonized people to the UK. So it gives her, and she has a broader scale. She creates this organization to run the West Indian Gazette, but along with it, a committee called CAACO, Committee of Afro-Asian Caribbean Organizations. So it's a kind of interesting model that she uses. Sadly, and this is the saddest point about this whole thing, is that she dies before a lot of this is realized. She travels to  China, meets Chairman Mao, and she's gradually moving away then, from this sort of hardline communist position she would have had in the United States. And becoming much more of a Pan-Africanist, much more of an internationalist in another sense, able to see and work with how culture operates as she does with the Caribbean Carnival, able to really work and use her experience of dealing with racism in the United States to really ameliorate the really hard-core racism that Caribbeans are beginning to encounter as they get to the UK, this sort of motherland that doesn't become much at home. So I think all of those things are happening, and it's quite an exciting period for her. Sadly, she dies in December 1964.

Peter Adamson: One thing you've also pointed out in your book on Jones is that after her death, she kind of falls out of the story a little bit, and to the extent that scholars like yourself have had to really recover her and point out her importance. But how big was her impact around the end of her life after her death? And why do you think that she didn't have more of a lasting legacy immediately after her death? Is it just because she died so young?

Carole Boyce Davies: I think a couple of things. One, and I'm really clear about this one, the idea from the US surveillance authorities, the FBI and so on, was that she should be erased. So my point was that this whole question of recovering the Black subject that I use in different ways in Left of Karl Marx is pretty much to argue that the logic was that she should be erased. My point is that it's not just Claudia who is erased, it's a whole generation of other Black left intellectuals and activists at the same time. So one still had then a sort of residual Cold War politics operating even in Black communities, which as far as I know for a long time did not really pay attention to or look at a range of Black left individuals. So if they were there, they tried to normalize them as just really doing Black work. So until you get to the work of Gerald Horne, who really talks about this question of Black and Red and really looks at the labor history and the labor questions, you don't really get a full – Robin Kelley as well, who does some of that work – you don't really get a full assessment then of the extent to which a left position was also fundamental to Black experience. One gets largely the cultural nationalist position or the Black racial position. But again, as I started, Angela Davis ends up being seen then as a lone figure, but not as somebody who was part of a larger historical context and social movement, which included a lot more other people than the ones identified and known. So what is really wonderful in this period is that you have another generation, post-Cold War generation of young scholars who do a lot of work to find and examine and create works to study the various Black figures who were left out. So my point is that this was deliberate.

Peter Adamson: Yeah, that would be a great point to end on, but there's one thing I feel like I just have to ask you, because you've done a lot of work with actual physical archival records, even Jones's personal papers. And I think our listeners would be fascinated, and I would be fascinated, to hear what it's like to work with materials like that. And as an intellectual historian, what is it like to actually get to deal with the physical objects that Claudia Jones was writing on with her own hand and so on, as opposed to just doing what I've done, which is to read published books about her by people like you.

Carole Boyce Davies: Right. I'm really proud that you call me an intellectual historian, because I don’t define myself as that, but that's okay. Thank you. It's a kind of labor of love and joy. It's like discovery. In this process for me, finding the material, and each discovery of her elevated her importance to me in so many different ways. In other words, the more one studies her, the more one studies Claudia Jones, the more one finds material that lets you know that this woman was so significant. So in other words, I started with an even lesser view of her than I left with. So the archival work, it's like filling in the blanks, giving you pieces of a puzzle, adding information, finding backstories. And I imagine that there are so many more pieces to this that younger scholars will find out. For example, when I was doing my research, Gerald Horne kept saying, I'm sure there's a lot of stuff in archives in Moscow on her. And of course, I haven't had a chance to do that. One of my grad students is working on Claudia Jones in China as part of his larger project about Black women and internationalism in China. So Zifeng Liu is his name, so look out for his work later on. But so you have a number of people who are beginning to go back in and find more material. And I'm suggesting then to young scholars and readers and the listening audience that there's a lot more work to be done, that do not assume that the scholarship that one receives is finite. The archival process always turns up more material. In fact, when I was finished writing, I was pleasantly surprised to get additional more material. Somebody sent me a poem that Andrew Salkey wrote about Claudia Jones, which then has the whole question of a rock and water, which became the title of the Pinnock play later on. So it's an ongoing process, all kinds of bits and pieces of material, archival material is available in these different locations. The ones that I've worked with are going to go to the National Library of Trinidad and Tobago, because I thought that because of her birth in Trinidad and Tobago, there should also be some materials there as well. So we need to be careful about maintaining archives and also finding materials and doing the work to uncover as much as we can.



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