Black Internationalist Feminism – A Review
Editor’s note: From time to time, we will run book reviews about topics relating to the struggle for liberation. We are very pleased to print this review by scholar Kimberly Miller of Cheryl Higashida’s book, ‘Black Internationalist Feminism: Women Writers of the Black Left’.
By Kimberly Miller
What is Black Internationalist Feminism?
Black internationalist feminism emerged as a feminist critique in the postwar Black American Left. This tradition challenged heteronormative, masculinist articulations of (black) nationalism while centering national liberation struggles that embodied African American women’s collective social, economic, and political gains for equality. The Soviet Union’s Socialist Republics offered a framework for situating African American women’s plight within oppressed nations in the United States, surrounding social movements for liberation. There were cross-racial alliances made between African American women and “non white” Soviet women. While racialization in the USSR was complex, the USSR provided a transnationalist approach to black women’s collective struggle in the US.
Moreover, solely class based or race based approaches to black women’s plight ignored the unique set of challenges African American women faced such as racialized gendered oppression and exploitation under capitalism. For African American women, their liberation was bound by international forces that would seek to combat hierarchical systems of domination like capitalism, imperialism and colonialism. Furthermore, worldwide proletarian feminism met the special, multi-dimensional challenges faced by black women connecting them to struggles of working class women in the Caribbean, Latin America, Africa, and Asia. This text connects a self-determinant oppressed nations theoretical model in the US with the liberation of the global south.
Influential Black Internationalist Women
Lorraine Hansberry, Alice Childress, Claudia Jones, Audre Lorde, Mya Angelou, are just some radical black feminist writers who challenged the established order that tried to disconnect the black woman from her internationalist comrades. Internationalism was different than pure nationalism that ignored gender and reinforced heterosexist patriarchal constructions of the nation state and our position within the nation. Ethno-nationalism reified disproportionate power dynamics and didn’t acknowledge horizontal oppressions of black women’s experiences. Contrastingly, black internationalist feminism accounted for nuanced understandings of a masculinized state, and what collective freedom from oppression truly embodied. Moreover, black feminist literature helped articulate ‘Black national liberation through experiences of African American proletariat women.’
Socialism, the ‘Negro Question’ and the ‘Black Belt Thesis’
Black internationalist feminism emerged as the Communist Party’s stance on Black nation-hood was being developed. The Black-Belt Thesis, provided by the ideological work of Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin’s theory of self-determination, addressed the “negro question” and asserted it was inextricably linked to the “woman question.” African American female Communist Party USA activist Claudia Jones wrote “On the Right to Self-Determination for Negro People in the Black Belt” South drawing upon Stalin’s interpretation of nationhood. Claudia Jones wrote on the necessity of Marxism Leninism. Marxist materialist feminism served as the basis for Claudia Jones analysis of the dehumanizing ways capitalism exploited black women’s labor.
The USSR, and the ‘Negro Woman Question’
Black women aligned with popular international Soviet front groups like the International Democratic Federation, which would later become the Congress for American Women. These Soviet backed groups would challenge a tenuous job market for black women. Several left organizations solicited black women’s literature and experiences marginalized by both mainstream white feminist narratives and masculinist ethno-nationalist narratives. Ultimately Higashida helps unmask parts of the revolutionary black left tradition to engage radical black feminist discourse and its relationship to internationalism.
Kimberly Miller is a Marxist-Leninist researcher studying black aesthetic consumer choices, and the effect on global political economy and geopolitics.