Hammer and Hoe: Communism and Anti-Racism in the American South
“Communist” may be something of a curse word in the United States, but for many Black people the U.S. Communist Party was an entry point into politics. Often excluded from the two major political parties, both of which were expressly or tacitly committed to maintaining white supremacy, Blacks found active roles in the Communist Party, with its full-throated call for racial and social equality. What does this say about the struggle against racism, on the one hand, and American communism, on the other? In his classic Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression, historian Robin D.G. Kelley casts a new light on anti-racist and pro-worker organizing and activism in the Jim Crow south, placing the focus on a diverse array of working-class Party members: Black sharecroppers, white unionists, women, the unemployed, and young people. Largely untethered from national Communist politics and Soviet-centered Party orthodoxy, Kelley’s ordinary Alabamans worked from and through local conditions, including a violently repressive police state, to build a vibrant political vehicle that was fundamental to some of the most impactful radical campaigns of the 20th century, from the Scottsboro Boys case to the mobilization of thousands of poor Black and white farmworkers. The challenges experienced by mid-century Black communists resonate with activists today: How do we build solidarity amid divisions of race, class, gender, and sexuality? What are the obstacles to overcoming political isolation? What are the obstacles to overcoming political isolation? Is there a connection between anti-Blackness and anti-communism in the United States?
In this course, we will read Kelley’s Hammer and Hoe in its entirety, exploring each of its central topics: Black self-determination in the Jim-Crow South; divisions between the Black working class Black middle class; the struggle to build Black-white intraracial politics; the creation of the CIO and its consequences for American radical politics; the construction of a popular front; the struggle for civil rights; and the Red Scare. As we read Hammer and Hoe, we will rely on the writings of Vladimir Lenin, Cedric Robinson, Charisse Burden-Stelly, Mark Solomon, and Mark Naison, among others. We will ask: what was the contribution of Black people to the Communist movement in the United States? To what extent do class divisions impede fights against racism? What does it mean to build an interracial movement? What is the legacy of the U.S. Communist Party, and what is its relevance to the Civil Rights movement a few decades later? Can fights for economic equality be undertaken separately from fights against racism, and vice versa?
Course ScheduleThursday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
October 21 — November 11, 2021