- Radicalism at the Crossroads: African–American Women Activists in the Cold War by Dayo F. Gore
Thanks to Innovative Scholarship Since 1990, we now know that both black and women activists were significant presences in the American Left during the Cold War. And, although this point should by now be obvious, it bears repeating: some of these activists were both black and female. How does the story of mid-twentieth-century American radicalism change if black women are placed at the center? A new generation of scholars has taken up the task of answering this question, resulting in a growing and much needed body of work. Radicalism at the Crossroads is at the forefront of this group, and presents a compelling account of just how significant black women radicals were in shaping the civil rights and feminist issues that the Left engaged with.
Dayo Gore’s offering takes the form of what she calls a “collective biography” of both well-known and obscure Communist Party (CPUSA)–affiliated women, chiefly Louise Thompson Patterson, Maude White Katz, Marvel Cooke, Claudia Jones, Vicki Garvin, Yvonne Gregory, and Thelma Dale Perkins, though others occasionally walk her pages, including Beulah Richardson (Bea Richards), Alice Childress, and Lorraine Hansberry. Most of the women were located in New York between the 1930s and 1960s, although most of them also came from somewhere else, either in the southern United States or abroad (Gore tantalizingly mentions the presence of Caribbean women such as Jones but does not explore diasporic connections further). Some of these women left [End Page 80] behind collections of papers, but reconstructing their community also required Gore to seek them in the published and unpublished records of organizations that they participated in (she lists twenty-nine in the helpful list of acronyms in the front matter). Too, she relied on leftist periodicals, since many of her subjects published their intellectual output there. Finally, she conducted a series of interviews with several of the women herself, and consulted others’ oral histories.
For Gore’s purposes, “radical” means “CP-affiliated” or “leftist, since there was great political overlap and cross-fertilization” (167, n. 7). Gore very specifically targets black women who were involved in some way with CPUSA because, she argues, scholars must look to women there, beyond Mary McLeod Bethune’s National Council of Negro Women and Ella Baker’s intrepid and wide-ranging career, to find a cohesive community of knowledge producers at the crossroads of the major social movements. In the case of Radicalism at the Crossroads, placing black women at the center leads to several discoveries that disrupt conventional wisdom about the Left’s fortunes during the Cold War.
First, Gore’s analysis shows that the supposed nadir of the Left in the midst of postwar anticommunism was actually a moment of opportunity and expansion for black women’s activism. Although Gore is careful to say that black women did indeed experience the effects of persecution, including losing their livelihoods when employment was tied to leftist organizations, she also points out that the purges left behind leadership openings that they were able to fill. She calls the activities of black radical women—in defending black womanhood, in labor, and in international solidarity—“pockets of resistance” (102), within which, she argues, they were able to shape the direction of the civil rights and labor movements. She documents the intellectual threads within black women’s writings in leftist publications such as Freedom and the later Freedomways, as well as their words spoken before left-leaning audiences. She also describes direct actions and lobbying taken on behalf of Rosa Lee Ingram, a woman imprisoned after killing her white landlord in self-defense, and the students conducting lunch counter sit-ins in 1960. Such a flurry of activity compellingly suggests that black women radicals were far from cowed in the anticommunist years after World War II.
Second, the Left’s connections to both civil rights and women’s liberation are much clearer and more direct in Gore’s telling...