From the Writings of Raya Dunayevskaya
Black dimension in women’s liberation
The following essay by Raya Dunayevskaya, originally delivered as part of a lecture to Union W.A.G.E. (Women’s Alliance to Gain Equality) in 1975, deals with an issue that is central to any commemoration of Black History Month and Women’s History Month--the interconnection between women’s liberation and the Black dimension, both in the U.S. and internationally. The essay was originally published as chapter 7 of Dunayevskaya’s book WOMEN'S LIBERATION AND THE DIALECTICS OF REVOLUTION: REACHING FOR THE FUTURE (Detroit: Wayne State University Press: 1985).
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To grasp the Black Dimension is to learn a new language, the language of thought, Black thought. For many, this new language will be difficult because they are hard of hearing. Hard of hearing because they are not used to this type of thought, a language which is both a struggle for freedom and the thought of freedom.
Take the question of the language of activity in the Underground Railroad where Harriet Tubman was one of the greatest conductors. She didn’t just escape from the South. She returned 19 times, and she brought out 300 people--and there is more. In a few books you will find her name and they will acknowledge that she was a conductor and a great one. But do they speak of all the creativity that goes into being a conductor of the Underground Railway, that you become a guerrilla fighter as well as a conductor, that you’re a leader of men and women? Just look what it means to know your country, the South, so that you not only bring out Blacks, but are the leader of a battalion of whites.
When we move to the period after the Civil War when slavery was abolished we see that even such greats as Frederick Douglass--who had been with the women in their battles before this struggle for the 14th Amendment--now were willing to drop the demand for the inclusion of the vote for the women; and we find that Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman separate from Frederick Douglass. They insist on continuing the struggle for women’s liberation.
Listen to the poetry of Sojourner Truth’s prose: “I am coming from the land of slavery.” This is AFTER the Civil War was won by the North. She turns to her own Black people, appealing for continuation of the struggle for women’s vote: “I hate to see my Black man being as bad as the white man.” Then turning to the greatest of them, who are stepping aside, she says that it is “short-minded” to stop the struggle at getting the vote only for Black men.
AMY GARVEY AND WOMEN’S MOVEMENT
In the concentration on the struggle for freedom, the Black dimension in women’s liberation extended the whole philosophy of human liberation. Now if we jump to the early 20th century, we find the same thing. A much underrated woman in that sphere is Amy Jacques Garvey. She wasn’t just the wife of Marcus Garvey. She both edited the women’s page in Negro World and edited Garvey’s works after he died, giving to them a great name--PHILOSOPHY AND OPINIONS OF MARCUS GARVEY.*
Here she is, writing in 1925: “A race must be saved, a country must be redeemed, and unless you strengthen the leadership of vacillating Negro men, we will remain marking time...
“We are tired of hearing Negro men say, ‘There is a better day coming,’ while they do nothing to usher in the day. We are becoming so impatient that we are getting in the front ranks, and serve notice on the world that we [she is talking about Black women] will brush aside the halting, cowardly Negro men, and with prayer on our lips and arms prepared for any fray, we will press on and on until victory is ours...
“Mr. Black man, watch your step! Ethiopia’s queens will reign again, and her Amazons protect her shores and people. Stengthen your shaking knees, and move forward, or we will displace you.”
AFRICAN FREEDOM DIMENSION
Or take the African continent where, again, it was not the educated men, but illiterate women who added a new page to history, when, in 1929, the British imperialists in Eastern Nigeria decided to tax the women. They got so furious they went on spontaneous strike--which was, of course, called a “riot.” The great Aba riots. It was not only spontaneous, it was against all the advice of everyone, including the educated males. It was not only against British imperialism, but against their own African chiefs, who had not defended them. Above all, they crossed all tribal lines. And they won, though not until after 40 women were killed and countless others injured.
What happened right here in the U.S. in 1960? It is true it was the wonderful North Carolina youth who sat in at a restaurant lunch counter and started the magnificent Black Revolution. But the fact is that, FIVE YEARS YEARLIER, one solitary woman, Rosa Parks, a seamstress, refused to give up her seat on a bus and got arrested, and the incident so aroused the youth that the entire Black population behaved in a different manner than they had ever dreamed of. They decided they would all go to the courthouse; they organized their own transportation and boycotted all the buses; they inspired Rev. King to be with them, and they kept all decisions in their own hands by meeting three times a week. The new stage of Black revolt began there.
Right up to our own period we find there is a double rhythm in revolution. The overthrow, what is called the first negation, is saying NO to what is. But the second negation, the creation of the new, is harder, because you want to have entirely new human relations. In addition to all the great Black women I have mentioned, there is another in the new Women’s Liberation Movement, Doris Wright, who raised exactly this question when she said, “I’m not thoroughly convinced that Black liberation, the way it’s being spelled out, will really and truly mean my liberation. I’m not sure that when it comes time to ‘put down my gun,’ that I won’t have a broom shoved in my hands, as so many of my Cuban sisters have.”
She was not putting the question down as a condition--“I will not make a revolution unless you promise.” She was posing the question of what happens AFTER. That is what we have to answer BEFORE, in the practice of our own organizations, our own thought and our own activity.
*In 1983 the University of California Press published the first two volumes (1826 August 1919; Aug. 27, 1919-August 1920) of a projected monumental ten-volume survey, edited by Robert A. Hill, under the title, THE MARCUS GARVEY AND UNIVERSAL NEGRO IMPROVEMENT ASSOCIATION PAPERS. It is the most scholarly research ever undertaken on Marcus Garvey.
Published by News and Letters Committees