“Socialism is the preparation for that higher Anarchism; painfully, laboriously we mean to destroy false ideas of property and self, eliminate unjust laws and poisonous and hateful suggestions and prejudices.”–H.G. Wells
[Pictured above, members of an African-American acting troupe who journeyed to the Soviet Union to star in a film in the 1930s. The group was led by the young Louise Thompson Patterson and included amongst them the poet Langston Hughes]
“Steampunk will never be afraid of politics,” declared writer and Steampunk Magazine editor Margaret Killjoy in a well-read 2011 article. In it, Killjoy pushed back against any notion that steampunk was merely about brass buttons and brassieres–though it’s that too. Tracing the long history of political thought, and political radicalism, in the genre, she pointed to the early works of Jules Vernes and H.G. Wells, and the more modern anarchist tendencies of Michael Moorcock and Alan Moore. Killjoy went on to declare steampunk as even inherently anticolonial; in its re-imaginings of our historical past steampunk was “antithetical” to colonialism, the latter being “a process that seeks to force homogeneity upon the world” while the former “is one of many, many movements and cultures that seeks to break that homogeneity.”
Indeed, steampunk (beyond even its literary creations) has sparked numerous discussions and debates on race, slavery, colonialism, gender, class and sexuality. More than any other genre of speculative fiction, it forces us to confront our more immediate past, and has an active cadre that launches criticism upon anything that appears to fantasize, apologizes or fails to acknowledge the disparities and inequities of these by-gone eras. It makes steampunk a fractured genre, where the donning of a simple article of clothing or a decision to write about some obscure bit of the past, can spark debates or whole blogs on racism, cultural appropriation, gender inequality and [insert-your-privilege-here]-splaining. And that’s a GOOD thing.
Throughout the interwebs this has created entire forums expressly designed to discuss, celebrate, unpack and bring to light these more “radical” expressions–“radical” if only in their break with the normative. Steampunk Emma Goldman names itself as “a blog about inspiring activist figures from the 19th century” dedicated “to occasionally talk about past and future political actions inside and outside the steampunk community.” Miss Kagashi’s Multiculturalism for Steampunk seeks to create a source book of culture for steampunk, featuring “a collection of costumery, tutorials, history, whimsy, and recipes,” in the hopes of putting “a little global flair” into an overly Eurocentric and Victorian vision of steampunk. The aptly named Beyond Victoriana headed by Ay-leen the Peacemaker, “focuses on non-Western cultures, underrepresented minorities in Western histories (Asian / Pacific Islander, Middle Eastern, First Nation, Hispanic, black / African & other marginalized identities), and the cultural intersection between the West and the non-West” within the steampunk genre. Balogun Ojetade’s Chronicles of Harriet places a strong emphasis on what it deems “Steamfunk,” an African-American perspective and history of the steampunk phenomenon.
Steampunk is political because our past, especially our recent past, is steeped in the political. Our very “rememberings”–or silences–on that past is political. And there’s no escaping that. Steampunk forces us to think of our past in inherently political ways, and to have some understanding of that past if we wish to recreate and re-imagine it. Naturally, this brings me to Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. Yes, I said naturally.
Last week, Sen. Paul made an ill-fated trip to the historically black Howard University, part of a larger “outreach” program to minorities by a GOP desperate to find a path to diversity. During a speech that drew more grumblings and gasps than applause, Sen. Paul quizzed Howard students on just how much they knew of black history. In what the Chicago Tribune writer Clarence Page calls a clear act of “whitesplaining,” the GOP senator asked smugly if students knew that the founders of the NAACP were Republicans.
Of course, what Sen. Paul tried to pull is an old-hat trick of modern conservatives–tying themselves to the era of Abraham Lincoln and Radical Republicans, and the Democrats to the party’s shameful past of racial demagoguery, Jim Crow and anti-black terrorist violence. In this exploitable past, black people (who today vote majority Democrat) are dim-witted dupes who don’t even know who our true allies are.
What’s left out in this tidy revisionist story is the part where that hyper-racist strain infecting the Democratic Party re-branded themselves Dixiecrats by the late 1940s and, in the wake of Democratic overtures to the Civil Rights Movement by the 1960s, left that party and double re-branded themselves as Republicans–utilizing peculiar “Southern strategies” and helping to spark that whole GOP Conservative movement. Turns out we silly Negroes (the majority anyway) were well aware of who our enemies were, whatever they decided to call themselves.
Sen. Paul should hop on the interwebs and read more steampunk.
Still, that was only a minor part of the senator’s blunder. In his evoking of the NAACP, he clearly seems to state with some sense of pride that its founders were Republicans–hoping this will strike a chord with the young black audience. But the founders of the NAACP can’t be placed into neat partisan categories. In fact, many were much more radical than either major party of the day. A good number were even strongly affiliated with radical thoughts and ideologies, including the one Sen. Rand Paul and the modern GOP hurl as an epithet. It lurks behind the unhinged fears of old white guys like Chuck Norris and Ted Nugent. The rabid wide-eyed fanaticism about the government, “coming to take our guns!” The terror that causes heads at FOX News to explode when anyone talks about something as innocuous as wealth inequality or healthcare. It’s what makes Glenn Beck cry. It is the dreaded “S” word. Yep, you guessed it. Some of the founders of the NAACP weren’t just Republicans. They were *gasp* SOCIALISTS!
The NAACP was founded in 1909 in the wake of the heinous Springfield Race Riot of 1908. Its precursor was the Niagara Movement begun four years previous, a multiracial gathering of reformers who came together to protest Booker T. Washington’s more conciliatory “Tuskegee Machine.” Like the Niagara Movement (which was forced to meet on the Canadian side of the border due to the hostile racial American climate), the men and women who gathered to form the NAACP were considered the “militants” and radicals of their day.
Many of the NAACP’s white co-founders were involved with socialism, such as Mary White Ovington, a suffragette and life-long socialist. William English Walling, descended from a slave-owning family, was both a Republican and socialist. Lillian Wald not only endorsed socialist candidates to run for office, but associated with noted anarchists like Emma Goldman. Charles Edward Russell would run for political office in New York, both the governorship and for the US Senate, as a socialist. Florence Kelley was a follower of Karl Marx and a friend of Friedrich Engels; she would translate his influential work The Condition of the Working Class in England, to English.
The most famous black NAACP founder, W.E.B. Du Bois, moved in and out of socialism–and would only strengthen his ties to socialist doctrines in later life, eventually renouncing his US citizenship. And while other black co-founders, Ida B. Wells and Archibald Grimké, were not declared socialists, their writings appeared frequently in socialist and radical newspapers, and they moved in similar circles. Suffice it to say, the modern GOP (including the Libertarian leaning Sen. Paul) would run screaming for the hills were they to meet some of these early NAACP founders–and their brand of “Republicanism.”
While this may be a bit puzzling to Sen. Paul, anyone trying to write steampunk, or dieselpunk for that matter, has to be versed and well aware of the political radicalism that was part of the American landscape of the late 19th through early 20th centuries. It’s everywhere: in the major figures of the day, in the struggles and everyday lives of activists, reformers, thinkers and workers. It’s part of what makes steampunk so damn exciting! If there isn’t some form of political or social radicalism alongside your dirigibles, your re-imagined world of steam is (pardon the pun) just a lot of hot air.
This intermingling of radical thought and African-American social reform in the late 19th and early 20th centuries should not be a surprise to anyone–unless like Sen. Paul you just cram the “crib notes” to black history before the big test. The abolitionist Frederick Douglass had indeed warned black America, “the Republican party is the ship, and all else the sea.” But that was during the hopeful days of Reconstruction, before the GOP traded away its new black voters in the Compromise of 1877–which formally ended the era of Radical Republicanism, pulled federal troops out of the defeated Confederacy and left former slaves to the whims of a vengeful South. By the time of the founding of the NAACP, the United States had entered what African-American historian Rayford Logan referred to as the “nadir” of race relations and politics–an era where Jim Crow held sway, segregation had spread throughout the country and lynching and anti-black violence reached fever pitch.
Finding few allies in neither party, many African-Americans turned inward–relying on black civic organizations and self-created politics like black nationalism and Pan-Africanism. Others however sought refuge in the more radical political movements of the day, from anarchism to socialism.
The American Socialist Party was founded in 1901, during a moment of working class labor politics brought on as a reaction to the excesses of the Industrial Age. It found adherents from the immigrant slums of New York to factory and farm workers in the Midwest. It also gained some traction among African-Americans. Prominent figures like W.E.B. Du Bois, Chandler Owens, A. Philip Randolph and W.A. Domingo all claimed membership in the party at some point. And some white socialist leaders like Eugene Debs spoke out against racism and urged black involvement.
Still, socialists didn’t drop from the sky. Like the rest of white society many remained ambivalent to black causes, unsympathetic or openly hostile. Even well-meaning white radicals like Debs downplayed the role of race in black oppression, claiming “the class struggle” to be “colorless.” Du Bois complained of what he saw as a paternalistic streak among white socialists, whose lack of sustained outreach likely accounted for its small showing among the black masses. The West Indian born Harlem radical Hubert Harrison, who withdrew from the Socialist party by 1914, put it bluntly in a 1920 article: socialists put the white “race first, and class after.”
Still, there were some luminaries of color in these more radical movements, among them Lucy Parsons. Born Lucy Gonzalez in Texas, a slave of African, Native American and Mexican background, she married Albert Parsons, a former Confederate soldier, in 1871. And this most unlikely couple set upon a life of unlikely political changes. Beginning as Radical Republicans, by the 1880s the Parsons had moved to Chicago and become associated with socialism–writing for The Socialist and The Alarm, journals of the International Working People’s Association, an organization they in part co-founded. In 1886, both become involved with the growing anarchist labor movements in Chicago, and in the wake of the Haymarket Riots, Albert Parsons was arrested as part of the alleged conspiracy; he was executed by the state in 1887.
Parsons however, did not stop her radical activism, writing for Freedom: A Revolutionary Anarchist-Communist Monthly by the 1890s and continuing with other radical movements till her death in 1942. Though Parsons would come into conflict with the likes of Emma Goldman on her (Parson’s) insistence on labor over gender politics, and she only gave passing commentary on black causes (Parsons never actually self-identified as black), her role as a woman of color placed her in the midst of a history of political radicalism.
There was nothing so ambiguous however about the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB). Founded in 1919 by the Afro-Caribbean (Nevis) born Cyril Briggs, the group (made up primarily of Afro-Caribbeans) advocated socialist causes with a black agenda as its central focus. Briggs, who by then was a journalist in New York City, created the organization out of dissatisfaction with both capitalism and the limitations of the larger mainstream socialist parties. The ABB was born in part out of a growing interest among African-Americans with communism, which itself was gaining strength in the United States following the 1919 Russian Revolution.
This was also the year of a record-breaking amount of anti-black race riots, that left scores of African-Americans dead, culminating in the infamous “Red Summer” of 1919. All of this was fed in part by the return of black soldiers from WWI, who showed open dissatisfaction with racism and Jim Crow. Briggs founded the ABB as a self-defense organization for blacks to face these threats, and imbued it with his growing socialist radicalism.
By the 1920s, Briggs had made contacts with blacks who joined the larger Communist Party USA (CP), which had begun to openly recruit African-Americans as well in the wake of the 1919 riots. Among these was the Jamaican born poet Claude McKay and the Suriname activist Otto Huiswoud, who persuaded the Comintern to set up a Negro Commission to unite blacks across national boundaries to fight colonialism in Africa and the West Indies.
Both the ABB and figures like McKay worked prominently within fellow radical Marcus Garvey’s UNIA, which saw mass African-American and Afro-Caribbean involvement. This relationship remained strained but workable; on the other hand, the ABB and other black socialist-communist members/groups distanced themselves from the NAACP and A. Philip Randolph’s Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters–who by the 1920s they deemed more accommodationist than militant. The ABB in fact would merge with the CP in 1922, in part due to a split with Garvey’s UNIA following the latter’s failed Black Star Line and infamous ill-advised meeting with the Ku Klux Klan.
From the mid 1920s through the Great Depression, the CP in the United States continued its attempts to recruit African-Americans, creating groups like the American Negro Labor Congress and pushing into the Southern “black belt.” The CP also found heavy recruitment of African-American women, who saw within the party a forum for their political activism. Women like Maude White, Esther Jackson, Louise Thompson Patterson, Audley Moore and Eula Gray all found a voice in the CP, and used it as a platform to create alternative strategies to meet the challenges of the black community. The Trinidadian born journalist Claudia Cumberbatch Jones joined the CP and managed to marry black nationalism and Marxism in the 1930s, using it to advocate for issues of race and gender. The most high-profile involvement of socialists and communists in black causes of the era was likely the International Labor Defense (an associated legal grouping) who came to the aid of the nine Scottsboro Boys in 1931.
In the 1930s black CP member Louise Thompson Patterson encouraged her troupe of black would-be actors (a mix of students, social workers and others) to travel to the Soviet Union to create a film about “Negro” life and racism in America. Her good friend and colleague the poet Langston Hughes journeyed with them. Though not a member of the CP, Hughes expressed admiration for the Soviet style of government, and his writings certainly reflected socialist causes and influence. For many others who made the journey, the utopian vision of race-relations offered by the CP and the USSR was alluring. And indeed, at least early on, troupe members marveled on their treatment in the Soviet Union–so seemingly different from the hostility of Jim Crow America. Though the trip was not all they had hoped, many returned to the United States with a more radical vision–becoming instrumental in protesting segregation and working within the National Urban League, NAACP and other organizations. One member of the troupe, Ted Poston, even became part of FDR’s unofficial “Black Cabinet.”
Of course, radicalism came with its risks–namely political repression. Add in race, and it was a volatile mix. The African-American community was as influenced by Red Scare tactics as anyone else, and there was a deep black anticommunist strain that surfaced in the 1920s and 30s, reappearing strongly in the 1950s. In 1931 NAACP leader Walter White denounced African-American women in the CP as “ignorant and uncouth victims who were being led to the slaughter by dangerously bold radicals.” Even former sympathetic socialists like A. Philip Randolph voiced concerns over the communists role in the black movements. The ABB and black CP members found themselves under increased scrutiny by the FBI, much as Garvey’s UNIA. Some, like Claudia Jones, would be arrested, held in prison and eventually deported from the country.
Recruiting in the deep South was deadly dangerous. Local Alabama farmers Ralph Gray and Clifford James who organized for the Communist Party were murdered. Others, like the tenant farmer and activist Ned Cobb, were imprisoned for over thirteen years. All too common for the day, many blacks simply disappeared, as unidentified bodies were found floating in rivers. Still, African-Americans joined these more radical parties, and pushed for equity in some of the most unlikely places; the Share Croppers’ Union of Alabama, claiming some 8,000 members, won a strike in 1934 for higher wages.
This radical moment in black politics remained through the 1930s, appearing in the form of Salaria Kea and Harry Haywood, both of who went off to fight fascism in the Spanish Civil War. In 1937 black CP member Oliver Law became leader of the anti-fascist volunteer Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain, making him the first African-American to command white troops; he would die in the famous battle of Mosquito Hill. The radical spirit appeared in the form of Alabama born James W. “Jim” Ford, who ran as the Vice-Presidential candidate candidate for the Communist Party USA in 1932, 1936, and 1940. (You can see a video of his 1940 speech here.) It showed up in anti-colonial writers in the Caribbean, from the Trinidadian activist C.L.R. James to the Martinician poet Frantz Fanon, all of whom found radical “comrades” in the United States. It continued on in famous figures like Paul Robeson, whose strong support of the USSR would put him at odds with both anti-Stalinist socialists and Cold War America.
The history of black radical political involvement in the US is directly tied to issues of racism, inequity and marginality. In socialism, anarchism, communism and other radical movements, African-Americans found ideologies whose visions sought to deconstruct the rigid hierarchical structures that dominated Victorian and popular Western thought. From the founding of the NAACP to the African Blood Brotherhood, these radicals attacked racism, class-ism, limited gender constructions and sought to overturn the entire global colonialist venture. Even if such political strategies inevitably fell short of their many lofty goals, they remain nevertheless embedded in the political history of black struggle. And our collective political re-imagined past of monocles, gears and airships is all the richer for it.
Further reading for Senator Rand Paul and anyone else:
Carole Boyce Davies, Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones (Duke University Press, 2008)
Winston James, Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia: Caribbean Radicalism in Early Twentieth-century America (Verso, 1998)
Minkah Makalani, In the Cause of Freedom: Radical Black Internationalism from Harlem to London, 1917-1939 (University of North Carolina Press, 2011)
Erik S. McDuffie, Sojourning for Freedom: Black Women, American Communism, and the Making of Black Left Feminism (Duke University Press, 2011)
Mark Naison, Communists in Harlem during the Depression (University of Illinois Press, 2004)
Mark Solomon, The Cry Was Unity: Communists and African Americans, 1917-1936 (University Press of Mississippi, 1998)
Theman Ray Taylor, Cyril Briggs and the African Blood Brotherhood: Another Radical View of Race and Class During the 1920s (University of California, 1981)