Sojourning for Freedom by Erik S. McDuffie

Sojourning for Freedom creates “new” history and new perspectives of Black women that epitomizes them as the trailblazers and warriors they rightfully deserve to be.

     To many African-Americans, Communism has long been associated with a domineering government, McCarthyism, and fear. Miniscule comprehensive information is given to readers regarding how Communism relates to their cultural experiences. Eric McDuffie’s Sojourning for Freedom: Black Women, American Communism, and the Making of Black Feminism provides a detailed account of the achievements, struggles, and significance of Black female Communist warriors and their often discounted contributions to the black liberation movement. McDuffie utilizes personal papers, civic club records, historical papers such as The New York Age, The Messenger, and the Atlanta Daily World, and interviews to argue “the Communist Left provided a theoretical and empirical template for appreciating how the international Left served as a key site where black women in the United Stated forged an innovative radical black feminist politics during the early and mid-twentieth century” (McDuffie, 3).  McDuffie’s text seeks to recover and define “Black Left Feminism” – “a brand of feminist politics that centers working-class women by combining black Nationalist and American Community Party positions on race, gender, and class with black women radicals’ own lived experiences” (McDuffie, 3). Bringing light to lesser known Black Left Feminists, such as Louise Thompson Patterson, Thyra Edwards, and Grace P. Campbell, and the triple oppression they faced from black men and members of the CPUSA, this text serves as a “conceptual framework” to the identity politics of Black Left Feminists during the twentieth century (McDuffie, 3). McDuffie has several intentions for this book. His first goal is to illustrate the Black communist woman’s relationship to Black radicalism during the Old Left Period. He also aims to define the Black communist woman and how she influenced feminists of the 1970s and 1980s. Lastly, McDuffie emphasizes the familial, mental, spiritual, and internal pains Black women endured as activists in the communist movement.
The Sojourners, the Black Left Feminists McDuffie honors in his text, not only predate, but also craft many of the ideas associated with black feminism of the 1980s. Claudia Jones’s 1949 essay “An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Woman” is a pinnacle accomplishment of Black Left Feminists that includes several arguments made by later and more known feminists groups such as the Combahee River Collective. Claudia Jones essay outlines the “triple oppression” black women face regarding race, sex, and class during the Cold War era. This triple oppression permeated majority of the grassroots efforts led by the Sojourners during the twentieth century. Through literary works such as Jones’s essay, Black Left Feminists sought to force their visibility not only to the CPUSA and the white population, but their black male counterparts as well (McDuffie, 167). Jones’s theory of triple oppression would later evolve into Kimberle Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality in the late 1900s. McDuffie characterizes the work of these specific women as “community feminism”. One can appropriately utilize Ula Taylor’s definition of community feminism to describe McDuffie’s Sojourners. Taylor contends community feminists are “women who may or may not live in a coverture relationship [. . .] their activism discerns the configuration of oppressive power relations, shatters masculinist claims of women as intellectually inferior, and seeks to empower women by expanding their roles and options” (Taylor, 64). These women continued to break barriers with their activism engaging in activities not commonly paralleled with women: from joining men in the stepladder circuit to leading “The Revolt of the Housewives” demanding the prices of meat decrease (McDuffie, 40 & 1). Through these heroic acts, Black Left Feminists served as examples of progressive leadership in their communities while disrupting power relations and demystifying gender roles. Additionally, their communities included more than the inner city of Harlem. Black Left Feminist leaders traveled internationally, broadening their scope of community to include everyone who believed in their values and were willing to fight for their cause. Trips to Spain and the Soviet Union, in some cases unsupervised, illustrates the determination of the Sojourners to expand the opportunities for women, even outside the United States.
McDuffie’s text introduces critical concepts and perspectives in the ever-evolving and fluid Feminist discourse. The integration of community feminism, black female radicalism, and “oppositional consciousness” are all relevant to current black socio-economic movements. With an increase in coverage of police brutality and focus on identity politics in the LGBTQ community, black women and their struggles are often lost in both academic and community liberation efforts. Sojourning for Freedom provides not only historical context, but action-steps black women can take in their own communities to increase political visibility and efficiency in activism. It is particularly essential that scholars utilize each other’s definitions to create consistency and validity in theories and definitions. McDuffie’s integration of Ula Taylor’s definition of community activism increases his text’s scholastic relevancy and the ability to cross-reference feminist strategies in future research. While the research for this specific text is very thorough and highlights several unknown Sojourners of the Communist movement, it leaves readers wondering what other unknown Sojourners lie in the crevices of historical movements. McDuffie suggests there is always a group of people who serve as outliers in every movement and new research must be done to bring them to the surface. This fact highlights why there are few texts on the subject of black female communism or communist movements. Black Communists Speak on Scottsboro: A Documentary History by Walter Howard brings light to a smaller subsection of this text concerning Black Communists involvement in the Scottsboro Boys case. Black Internationalist Feminism: Women Writers of the Black Left, 1945-1995 by Cheryl Higashida can serve as a complementary text to Sojourning for Freedom, however, contextually, there are few texts that focus on Black Left Feminists.
The biographical information and the level of research it took to develop the lives and work of these women for such an extensive amount of time, is much appreciated. Biographical sketches assist readers in contextualizing the actions and thinking of an individual in a much more comprehensive lens. With Feminist scholarship on the rise, McDuffie’s biographical sketches add historical context to the characteristics and work ethic of Black Feminists. Feminism does not belong to a certain ethnic or racial group, a specific portion of the world or socio-economic status.

 

Jalyn Gordon

Afrocentric Organization adviser

To purchase this book please click link below:

McDuffie, Erik S. Sojourning for Freedom: Black Women, American Communism, and the Making of Black Left Feminism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.

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