- In the Cause of Freedom: Radical Black Internationalism from Harlem to London, 1917-1939 by Minkah Makalani, and: Black Internationalist Feminism: Women Writers of the Black Left, 1945-1995 by Cheryl Higashida
These are two well-documented and timely works, one in history, the other in literature, that advance our knowledge of radical black internationalism in complementary ways. One deals largely with the major players, the mostly male protagonists in black left movements; the other accounts for the contributions of women writers who were also activists and major contributors to those movements. One focuses on the early years of the twentieth century (1917-1939); the other, the latter years (1945-1995). By these means, we end up covering the entire century and are provided with the kind of gender balance that makes the full story of black radicalism reveal itself. We are in a period in which the archival material is available because of the distance in time from these movements, the availability of materials via the Freedom of Information Act, the post-Cold War sensibilities that provide the space, without fear, for a reassessment of the black left. Additionally, the fact that there were several omissions in African American historiography regarding the contributions of Caribbean and women activists who were critical members of the black left, is remedied by both of these works.
Makalani’s Freedom works with the critical period spanning the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and the succeeding Great Depression of the 1930s. What was often overlooked, as this work demonstrates, is that this period (not fully limited to the 1920s) was filled with intense political activism and organizing, and prepared by activists like Hubert Harrison, who actually named a New Negro Movement, as his biographer, Jeffrey B. Perry, documents. Harrison, who died in 1918, is identified as the father of Harlem radicalism. Makalani’s work fills in the period after Harrison’s death and details what radical movements contributed during the era of Marcus Garvey. Makalani examines the black radical international movements, socialist in orientation, that critiqued the nationalist/capitalist orientation of Garvey and led to the creation of the African Blood Brotherhood (1919). Subsequent organizations, like the International African Service Bureau (1937), had the explicit purpose of achieving socialist revolutionary change, even if they were precipitated by events such as Mussolini’s attempt to depose Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. As we also know, writers like Claude McKay traveled to Moscow to attend Communist internationals, and addressed these gatherings with the intent of highlighting the African American condition in order to create an international awareness to end oppression. What is also interesting about Makalani’s work is that it provides the historical background for the participation of Caribbeans like Richard Moore, Cyril Briggs, and Otto Huiswoud, who would become radicalized within the context of U. S. antiracist struggle.
Freedom is organized into seven chapters that capture the Black Atlantic movement that Gilroy misses, as the subtitle From Harlem to London indicates. The titles of [End Page 459] chapters are evocative of the inherent tensions that existed between movements and often within the movements themselves. Chapter one, titled “Straight Socialism or Negro-ology?” captures precisely the tension within nationalist movements like Garvey’s UNIA, and actually clearly reveals an internal tension within the broader left movement. The project sought to reconcile this dichotomy particularly within these organizations as well as develop an understanding of the various meanings of racism. As Makalani writes, what is often not accounted for is “the fact that their radicalism arose from their attempts to reconcile their experiences with the racial logics and systems of the Caribbean with a much different U. S. racial hierarchy, especially as it was experienced in Harlem’s unique diasporic community” (25). While Harrison had already advocated a notion of “race first” as a means of advancing black interests in...