A Steampunk May Day: Black Radicals, Anarchists, Socialists and Reformers

black CPUSA“The bourgeoisie is fearful of the militancy of the Negro woman, and for good reason. The capitalists know, far better than many progressives seem to know, that once Negro women begin to take action, the militancy of the whole Negro people, and thus of the anti-imperialist coalition, is greatly enhanced.”–Claudia Jones, “An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Woman!” (1949)

[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]

*This is in great part a reprint from a 2013 blog post, in which Sen. Rand Paul (of all people) is highlighted.

“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 declared steampunk as even inherently anti-colonial; 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.”

Steampunk itself exists in a radical age, as the blog Steampunk Emma Goldman reminds us in its dedication to “occasionally talk about past and future political actions inside and outside the steampunk community.” The era to which the genre lays claim was one in which labor unions, workers, socialists, anarchists and radicals waged wars of rhetoric and direct action–that could erupt into riots, uprisings and rebellion. In Chicago’s Haymarket Square on May 4, 1886, a labor protest rally turned into a riot after someone threw a bomb at police. Eight people died. In Ludlow, Colorado, striking coal miners attacked their place of work, destroying and looting property. They were met by company guards and the Colorado National Guard with machine guns. Between 70 to 200 men and women were killed.

This radicalism was 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 our dirigibles, our re-imagined world of steam is (pardon the pun) just a lot of hot air.

In the United States, African-Americans and migrants from throughout the Black Atlantic were also involved in these events. The NAACP, founded in 1909 in the wake of the heinous Springfield Race Riot of 1908, had its own birth through radicalism. Its precursor was the Niagara Movement begun four years previous: a black gathering of reformers who came together in part 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.

naacp-annual-conference-1929The 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.

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. 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 violent anti-black race riots led by murderous white mobs reached fever pitch. Finding few allies in either major political 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. Most labor unions refused to even admit or ally with black laborers. In the summer of 1892 when white steelworkers at the Homestead Mill in Pennsylvania went to war with Andrew Carnegie and his Pinkerton hirelings (a strike that became a riot involving guns and even a cannon, leaving ten dead and scores wounded), they eventually turned on African-American strikebreakers–with a mob of 2000 whites attacking black families, looting their homes and destroying property. Even well-meaning white radicals like Debs downplayed the role of race in black oppression, claiming “the class struggle” to be “colorless.” Others like H.G. Wells had an unfortunate obsession with eugenics and population control–which never tends to end well for people of color. 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 early on, among them Lucy Parsons. Born Lucy Gonzalez in Texas, a slave of African, Native American and Mexican background, she married Albert Parsons in 1871, a former Confederate soldier who took up the Union cause after the war. 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 (after receiving threats in the South) 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.

lucy parsonsParsons 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. Some of her commentary was blunt to the point of alarming: “Let every dirty, lousy tramp arm himself with a revolver or a knife, and lay in wait on the steps of the palaces of the rich and stab or shoot the owners as they come out. Let us kill them without mercy, and let it be a war of extermination.” 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.

African Blood Brotherhood PosterFrom 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.

claudia jones

Claudia Jones- Trinidad-born journalist, activist, black nationalist and communist.

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.

abraham lincoln brigadeOliver Law (far left) and the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain

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:

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)


2 thoughts on “A Steampunk May Day: Black Radicals, Anarchists, Socialists and Reformers

  1. Hello,

    I am doing a documentary for school that will hopefully move on to a more national scale competition. I am doing a report on the Harlem Renaissance and the NAACP, and I was wondering if I could be able to use that image of the NAACP meeting in my documentary.

    If you do not own the rights to the image, could you direct me to the organization that does?

    I appreciate it, thanks.

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