In the first decades of the 20th century, there was a New York street market known as the Bronx Slave Market, where domestic workers—many of them Black women—competed to sell their services and were exploited in the process. Each woman hired at the market, after all, was alone. Only she could try to enforce the informal terms to which she agreed. In this, the market was an atomizing place. But it was also, according to Ella Baker and Marvel Cooke in their 1935 essay, “The Bronx Slave Market,” a site that fundamentally reorganized class and race relations between women amid the pain of the Depression. Organized labor at the time was limited in strength, but also in vision: unable to conceive of a laborer as anything other than white and male. But the domestic work on offer at the Jerome and Simpson Avenue markets in the Bronx—according to Black women radicals like Baker and Cooke—clearly resulted from the productive movements of capital elsewhere against which labor fought. As such, the market for domestic work—along with the antagonisms that formed it—were opportunities to challenge capitalism.
Baker and Cooke note that the workers in the Bronx market had formed an “embryonic labor union,” which established price controls for domestic services and demanded increased wages in periods of high demand. This echoed other domestic worker unions and clubs in San Diego, Philadelphia, Jackson, Nashville, and Milwaukee.1 In the face of this organizing, the 1936 National Negro Congress argued that unions of domestic workers should be recognized by the American Federation of Labor and, importantly, sought to create and link these unions to housewives’ leagues, as well as organizations of professional women. On the face of it, this would seem an unlikely coalition. And yet, the concrete analysis of the exploitation of Black women found mutual interests among these groups that had been turned against one another.
Places like the Bronx street markets—where social struggles from different contexts are thrown together, as a consequence of capital’s development—are what Christina Heatherton calls “convergence spaces.” Such revolutionary, internationalist assemblies are the focus of two new books, Heatherton’s Arise! Global Radicalism in the Era of the Mexican Revolution and Organize, Fight, Win: Black Communist Women’s Political Writing, edited by Charisse Burden-Stelly and Jodi Dean. Both examine how such spaces were produced alongside the global expansion of capital within the first half of the 20th century.
Heatherton highlights unlikely coalitions that formed across national borders in the wake of the Mexican Revolution and capital’s related imperial retrenchment. Burden-Stelly and Dean collect theory, strategy, and political possibility developed by radical Black women from the 1920s to the 1950s—including Baker and Cooke’s “Bronx Slave Market”—who convened in or in close relation to the Communist Party USA. Heatherton describes this coalition too, and both books highlight its effort to articulate an understanding of capital attendant to the interlocking oppressions of class, race, and gender. In fact, that same Bronx market is part of what prompted another writer, Louise Thompson Patterson (also collected in Organize, Fight, Win), to put into writing her pathbreaking theorization of the triple exploitation of Black women “as workers, as women, and as Negroes.”
Thus, intellectual necessity and tactical principles, according to both books, form the clarity and vision of left political organizations. This means that the work of revolutionaries exceeds and transforms the conditions and institutions that brought them together, whether the perils of domestic work, the degradation of incarceration, or even the doctrine of the Communist International.
Radical work that challenges the often-mystified foundations of our political order is, unsurprisingly, understudied and difficult to obtain. But less so now. Indeed, powerful connections of local conditions to global histories and practices emerge from and form the basis of coalitions of working people, as well as those kept from working by capital and the state. Arise and Organize, Fight, Win emphasize that organizing need not begin with ideological consistency. Instead, radical possibility can be made by paying attention to the place and conditions of the people who find themselves together. These radical thinkers and organizers emphasize over and again that the process is constitutive of the international context.
“Oh, don’t belittle your hands, child—I think they are lovely,” domestic worker Mildred assures her co-worker, Marge, in 1953. “Yes, I know you get tired of being a house servant … yes, you should have every right to be as much as you can be. But, when you come to think of it, everyone who works is a servant. Why, we couldn’t live without the hands and minds of millions of working people.”
Both Mildred and Marge are creations of Alice Childress, Black playwright and activist, who wrote their stories in a series of columns called “A Conversation from Life” for Paul Robeson and Louis Burnham’s Freedom newspaper.2 For Mildred, workers’ hands are the force behind any object that she sees in the room, from a chair to a tablecloth to the bottle of nail polish and “the miles of pipe running under the ground.” Against capital’s impulse to obscure the social relations that produce these objects, Mildred emphasizes the “power and beauty of laboring hands” to forge social relations within and against the labor process. The “power and beauty” resides in the dynamic between Mildred and Marge: the creation and convergence of an articulation altogether different from the capitalist conditions that pushed them together in the first place.
Childress was not simply spinning fables; she was performing political education. In the bottom right corner of the page on which her September 1953 column was printed is an advertisement for classes at the Jefferson School of Social Science on the subjects of Africa, African American history, and Black literature. About six months before the column was published, Childress finished a radical class she herself took there called “Seminar on Africa.” She celebrated the end of the class—along with other influential students, like Lorraine Hansberry—at 31 Grace Court in Brooklyn. The party was held at the home of their teacher, W. E. B. Du Bois.
Du Bois had long written about Africa, a continent where people either were under direct colonial rule or found themselves “menaced and policed by European capitalism.”3 In Africa, wrote Du Bois, expansionist state policy intersected with capital’s disciplinary logic; this, in turn, produced an imperial project of accumulation, which obscured wider conditions of exploitation among the working people of the world by sharing the “spoils” of conquest with the white working class.
This is what Du Bois called the “New Imperialism,” which Heatherton concurs is the “emergence of a distinct form of geoeconomic power.”4 New Imperialism marked capital’s power to shape the world in its image. But, as Heatherton makes clear, the order of New Imperialism is also what enabled uprisings, such as the Mexican Revolution, to impose widespread consequences on the world stage. That is, forcible shifts of capital led those exploited by capital to develop new arrangements with one another, like at the Bronx street market but on a vaster scale.
Another example of such new connections took place just three miles due north of Du Bois’s Brooklyn address, at the Jefferson School itself, which had become a hub of Black left feminist activity in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Just about all of the writers active during this period whose work Burden-Stelly and Dean collect had a connection to the institution, including Claudia Jones, Yvonne Gregory, Louise Thompson Patterson, Lorraine Hansberry, and Dorothy Hunton. These Black women and others mentioned by Heatherton—Gwendolyn Bennett and Elizabeth Catlett—had been crucial to establishing the Jefferson School and similar institutions in Harlem, as centers for the education of working people and for the development of pathbreaking political thought.
Nowhere was this dual purpose clearer than in the classroom of the artist, sculptor, and activist Elizabeth Catlett at the George Washington Carver School in Harlem. In 1945 and 1946, Catlett taught a course called “How to Make a Dress” with a highly practical outcome: “each student completes at least one garment.” And yet, Heatherton explains, Catlett found ways to “teach Marxism making a dress” by engaging her students in conversation about the world around them. According to Heatherton’s account, the class came to be a “unique space for exploring the complex relations that went into the commodity of the dress, the commodity of the labor power of these women, and an understanding of capital, not as an abstraction but a practice, a determinate set of social relations in which the inseparability of racism, patriarchy, and class could be understood.”5
Catlett and her students were organizing and theorizing, as many Black women had in domestic labor contexts during the era of New Imperialism. In 1936, about 85 percent of all Black women working in the US were employed as domestic laborers. This would shift dramatically during the war. Even so, for decades thereafter, Black women would continue to be dangerously exposed in unregulated, exploited spheres of low-wage service work—and as Louise Thompson Patterson had realized, triply exploited. The women making dresses in Catlett’s class developed a similar analysis, explains Heatherton: a dress symbolized class position and eligibility for sex work in the market for domestic work, and the stitching and fabric of a dress in this context required a thorough understanding of these political economic conditions.
The coalitions that formed within convergence spaces sought to transform clear antagonists: prisons, capital, the state. But they also pressed on the organizations that claimed to represent a left international.
Classes like Catlett’s, domestic markets like the Bronx: places like them are the “convergence spaces” named by Heatherton, so crucial to her book.6 They were international alliances forged by struggles across race, gender, nation, and context more broadly. The coalitions formed because of the happenstance of how capitalists, and the states that supported them, sought to accumulate wealth by violently collapsing space. But what made this happenstance enduring was the ingenuity of the radicals who sought to make something of capital’s churn. They repurposed the collapsed space, where so many exploited were forced, as a new platform on which to build.
The richest example of a convergence space in Arise is Leavenworth federal penitentiary. The passage of the Espionage Act in 1917 led to the incarceration of war dissenters, labor organizers, foreign agitators, and those working for Black liberation; many of these people ended up at Leavenworth together.
Among those incarcerated were Earl Browder, who would chair the Communist Party USA during the Second World War, as well as wobblies, socialists, anarchists, and radicals from Bulgaria, India, and Mexico. Perhaps the most famous was Ricardo Flores Magón, the leader of El Partido Liberal Mexicano and the writer and publisher of foundational anarchist texts connecting struggles for tierra y libertad in Mexico and around the world. Heatherton compares Magón’s thinking on liberation education to that of a contemporaneous prison writer, Antonio Gramsci. Anticipating Gramsci’s diagnosis of the ties of “traditional intellectuals” to maintaining the present social order, Magón understood that in order to make working-class intellectuals, one had to radically change the conditions in which the people of that class lived and worked. Similarly, he saw that this project was impossible without upturning the racist divisions and antagonisms that capital inflicted on working people.
The radicals incarcerated at Leavenworth agreed with the government on only one thing: the feds referred to the institution as a “university of radicalism,” while an article from a prisoner referred to it as a “school for revolution.” Prisoners participated in book groups, printed a newspaper, and even took courses taught in various languages in mathematics, Marxian economics, and automobile mechanics, among other topics. These forms of organization led to collective actions, including strikes and a 1919 May Day celebration, in addition to the development of visions for political education beyond the prison.
Leavenworth was far from the ideal quarters for thought. Yet the prison proves fascinating for Heatherton, because the people incarcerated there forged bonds across their divisions in the most pressing circumstances. The makeshift lecture halls formed from cell blocks, the libraries built of furtive book exchanges: these demonstrated that internationalism could be an instrument of revolutionary struggle, rather than a colonial strategy for accumulation.
The coalitions that formed within convergence spaces sought to transform clear antagonists: prisons, capital, the state. But they also pressed on the organizations that claimed to represent a left international. Black communist women took on the CPUSA, as Burden-Stelly and Dean point out, as often as they did institutions of capital. And these were not purely ideological battles. The party’s forms and positions had to be pressed and negotiated to meet the needs of its membership.
Claudia Jones, for instance, took on former Leavenworth inmate Earl Browder’s removal of the Black Belt thesis, which defined Black people in the American South as an oppressed nation, from the CPUSA platform. Her argument suggested that self-determination—the principle on which this idea was built—did not foreclose other modes of struggle, including what Jones viewed as “an energetic struggle for concrete partial demands,” what some might refer to today as “nonreformist reforms.”
The pursuit of “concrete partial demands” thus brought the arguments of Black communist women to domains that may have appeared to align with certain state interests, rather than radically break from them. For instance, in a 1942 address to the All-Southern Negro Youth Conference, Esther Cooper Jackson argued for various military policy changes, particularly granting Black people pathways to officer training and better GI benefits. Changing the terms of military service for Black soldiers would have had significant effects. Discriminatory policy restricted access to the redistributive suite that would form the basis for the golden age of a white middle class. Even though the military was fundamental to US imperial hegemony, making substantive changes to its operations arguably could create the conditions to unravel its power.
This type of organizing and theorizing is messy. But none of us, including radical political organizations, is clean in the world we’ve inherited from the New Imperialism.
Coalitions don’t always work; sometimes they aren’t worth maintaining.
“Capital is never scrubbed free of its past crimes,” Heatherton writes in Arise. “To believe otherwise is to enlist the faith of a money launderer, hoping that by changing form, wealth can be absolved of all its past incriminations.” This irrevocable entanglement—as seen in both Arise and the work collected in Organize, Fight, Win—is something that must be grappled with rather than shied away from.
Take the Carver School, where Catlett taught “How to Make a Dress.” The school wouldn’t have existed without buy-in from white liberal education faculty at New York University, who granted the institution legitimacy by sitting on its board. But it was those same reformers who catalyzed the school’s slow demise. They resigned en masse in 1943, decrying the place of communism in an institution devoted to educating Black people, as well as the lack of white instructors in classrooms.7 Coalitions don’t always work; sometimes they aren’t worth maintaining.
There are other entanglements too. The Jefferson School would not have been able to support the project of Black radical education had it not been funded by a $150,000 gift from Frederick Vanderbilt Field. Field was a leftist, certainly, but his wealth came from his great-great grandfather Cornelius Vanderbilt, as well as his ancestor Samuel Osgood, the first president of the National City Bank of New York (now Citibank), which took many deposits reaped from Mexican war bonds, slave production, and the theft of Indigenous land. These anecdotes reveal the power of Heatherton’s wider thesis: capital’s imperial expansion produces lots of things, including the international conditions for capitalism’s ruination.
Such moments can only be seized with brilliance, elbow grease, and resolve, as revealed in Heatherton’s gripping history and Burden-Stelly and Dean’s essential collection. This organizing and theorizing occurs in classrooms and political spaces, but need not be confined there: such convergences can happen in informal markets, during military service, and even in prison, wherever people bond with one another.
- As Esther Cooper Jackson reported in her M.A. thesis, “The Negro Woman Domestic Worker in Relation to Trade Unionism” (Fisk University, 1940). ↩
- The bulk of those columns were collected and published in 1956 as Like One of the Family: Conversations from a Domestic’s Life. According to Trudier Harris, who wrote the introduction when the book was reissued in 1986, Mildred could “violate all the requirements for silence and invisibility” with a sharp analytical wit akin to Langston Hughes’s Jesse B. Simple. Trudier Harris, introduction to Like One of the Family: Conversation from a Domestic’s Life by Alice Childress (Beacon, 1986), p. xx. ↩
- W. E. B. Du Bois, “The Hands of Ethiopia,” Darkwater (Verso, 2016), p. 37. ↩
- She sharply observes that Du Bois’s New Imperialism anticipates what Giovanni Arrighi would later identify as the beginnings of the US cycle of capital accumulation. ↩
- The course affirmed Catlett’s commitment to making culture for Black working people and synchronized it with the aims of a Mexico City artist collective, Taller de Gráfica Popular. The solidarities and connections forged across these spaces left a significant imprint on her powerful series of linograph prints produced in Mexico, known now as The Black Woman. ↩
- Another such space is the Soviet embassy in Mexico, where Alexandra Kollontai, a Soviet diplomat who had argued for “a collectivization of previously individuated social functions,” had a brief stint in 1926 and 1927. Yet another is relief councils in Los Angeles that, due to the efforts of Dorothy Healey, enmeshed the interests of migrant workers with those of the unemployed. ↩
- Brian Dolinar, Black Cultural Front: Black Writers and Artists of the Depression Generation (University Press of Mississippi, 2012), p. 49. ↩