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  • Sisters Outside: Tracing the Caribbean/Black Radical Intellectual Tradition
  • Carole Boyce Davies (bio)

Deported from the United States during the McCarthy period, Claudia Jones, the only black woman to become a political prisoner because of membership in the US Communist Party, was meant to be erased. Making her way to London in 1955, doubly and then triply “diasporized,” as Stuart Hall would put it, Claudia Jones arrived just around the time of the massive influx of Caribbeans into London, which began with the Windrush (1948); Jones was therefore able to have a role in shaping the nature of black community in London. Far from ever abandoning her Marxist-Leninist politics, she found ways to reshape it. As I argue in Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones, Jones’s politics expanded Marxism to account for black women, people of color, and African Caribbean migrants to Europe. So great was her impact that her burial to the left of Karl Marx is as fitting a statement of the nature of her politics as of her life.

A number of scholars have tried to identify the contours of this black radical tradition. Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism perhaps has the most explicit detailing of its historiography, in chapters titled “The Historical Archaeology of the Black Radical Tradition,” “The Nature of the Black Radical Tradition,” and “Historiography and the Black Radical Tradition.”1 Robinson [End Page 217] identifies three intellectuals as illustrative of the black radical intellectual tradition: W. E. B. Du Bois, C. L. R. James, and Richard Wright. In a concluding, general listing of a range of contributors, Robinson also includes Angela Davis, but from a reading of this text one would hardly get a sense that women were a part of any black radical tradition. I see this not so much as a conscious omission as one limited by its time, that is, the absence of gender from the frameworks of analysis in early black or left studies scholarship.

Taking it a step further, Robin Kelley sees the articulation of the black radical tradition as being conveyed through the work of several scholars and activists all trying to figure out the “global implications of black revolt” and to find a way to “usher it in,” generally as “some kind of diasporic sensibility, shaped by anti-racist and anti-imperialist politics of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and deeply ensconced in black intellectual and historical traditions, profoundly [shaping] historical scholarship on black people in the new world.”2 If this is so—that there were “several scholars and activists” involved in this process—then for those who have an intellectual and political interest in full representation, the next question to ask is, Where are the women in this process? This is one of the larger purposes of a work such as Left of Karl Marx.

The “sisters outside” framework—an already-created category developed by Audre Lorde and captured in her book Sister Outsider,3 referring to a particular placement of herself outside of the mainstream heterosexual, feminist, American frameworks—is useful in this consideration of the erasure of Caribbean women from Caribbean radical traditions, as from US civil rights discourse. I also wanted to signal the other evocative meaning of “outsiderness”: a reference for those who have an immigrant identity outside of the nation-state and are referred to as “aliens” or “outsiders.” Indeed there are a series of outsiders even within the Caribbean (for example, other smaller-islanders, like Grenadians, in some larger islands like Trinidad, or poorer Caribbeans, like Haitians, arriving in places like Martinique). But “outsiderness” also has another meaning in the Caribbean family: to refer to children born outside of a traditional European-style marriage, the so-called outside children who do not benefit from family coverage in the homes of their fathers.

In this article’s particular application of outsiderness, black women have become sisters outside the black radical intellectual tradition; Caribbean women, sisters outside the Caribbean radical tradition and US African American civil rights discourse and sisters outside Pan-Africanist discourse. In other words, while there has been, for example, tremendous headway in black women writers claiming a space...


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