Women, Race & Class by Angela Davis

So, this is my first foray into a review, so here goes.

As a socialist I see the main problem to be that of the capitalist system within which we have all been born into and continue to live in. However one cannot just fight the capitalist system by itself. There are a number of different factors, many predating the capitalist system but since co-opted by it, that serve as supporting buttresses to the system we know as capitalism. The most obvious ones today are the factors of racism, sexism and a general authoritian character structure that predisposes many of us, through our socialisation, towards authoritarian notions, including a superstitious belief in the need for leaders as opposed to a more libertarian character structure. I see homophobia largely as part of sexism. There is also sectarian issues in the religious sense that divide the working class, or are used to legitimise various axes of oppression.

It is necessary, while continually fighting against the capitalist system, to also fight against its supporting tendencies. Kind of like the mythical hydra slain by Hercules, the fight against capitalism isn’t as simple as a blind faith in the inherent ability of the system to create its own gravediggers and the necessary coming of the socialist revolution in some sort of messianic prophecy. It is necessary to fight many fronts simulteonously, and the social revolution and the political revolution are inseperable; this indeed was one of the mistakes of past revolutions and revolutionaries who insisted that any struggle beyond the class struggle was diversionary, and that following the political revo against the capitalist class the other problems of sexism and racism will be dealt with.

At certain periods certain aspects of the struggle must be focused on; for example, during slavery it was neccessary to engage in the struggle against the slave system. Under state led segregation and apartheid, the struggle against legal segregation took priority. Today, in Bermuda, slavery is no more, and state led segregation is over. However we are still dealing with the legacies of these historic systems, and it is necessary to study the past and to continue the struggle against the legacy of slavery/segregation, which today manifests itself largely through the phenomena of white priveledge, a much more subtle and often unconscious form of racism. The special oppression of women is still prevalent. It is from this basis that I sought out this book by Angela Davis.

The bulk of the book, chapters one through ten, focus largely on the history of race and class in the USA, the abolionist and suffragette struggles, and how the dialectics of race and sex often interacted and affected the way the struggle was fought as well as its successes. It revealed a history that to me had been largely hidden up til now, for example, although I knew the names Frederick Douglas and Susan B. Anthony, I knew little more of them than that Mr. Douglas was a former slave and the leading black intellectual of the 19th Century, and that Ms. Anthony was a leader of the suffragette movement and is featured on the rare US silver dollar. Reading these chapters revealed much more about their lives, their positions and the nature of the struggle and society that they existed within. It also introduced me to people and events I had never heard of before, and for this alone was an invaluable resource of historical knowledge. Additionally these chapters covered certain aspects of the slave system and its aftermath that I honestly had not consciously considered, but is obvious once one thinks about it. For example, part of the systematic repression of the slaves included the physical punishment of beatings and floggins, but of course with women the level of repression could be increased through rape. This double (or even triple as one must consider class as well here) jeopardy of being both black and female goes a long way to explain what heretofore had been relegated to an interesting fact in my mind that the bulk of Bermuda’s slave revolts where often orchestrated and/or executed by female slaves, such as the numerous poison plots. The narrative of Mary Prince also alludes to the role of sexual violence in repressing the slaves, although it is true the Victorian abolitionists purposedly did not dwell on this aspect to much. The particular history of how the capitalists used both racial and sexist ideologies to ‘divide and conquer’ the working classes post-emancipation, and the betrayal of Reconstruction following the US Civil War, along with the continued use of racism and sexism by US imperialism (to both legitimise imperialism and subjugate imperial subjects) from the Spanish-American war and the seizure of Cuba and the Philipines right up to the systematic and military advocated use of rape in relation to ‘inferior’ Vietnamese women was also illuminating. It really brings into greater focus the more modern atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan, notably Abu Gharib, the Mahmudiya rape case, as well as increasingly credible reports of more widespread racist-sexist atrocities (http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/haifa_zangana/2006/07/the_personality_disorder_of_th.html) ( http://www.uniraq.org/documents/HR%20Report%20Jan%20Feb%2006%20EN.doc).

The remaining three chapters were also very illuminating. Chapter eleven ‘Rape, Racism and the Myth of the Black Rapist’ explored the racist fear of Black men as sexually agressive men lusting to rape white women, and the connection of this racist fear with the racist perception of black women as sexually promiscous and available to male advances. In Bermuda we all know stories, in particular in relation to Portuguese families, but also white Bermudian families as well, were the sons frequently date black women with little to no hassle from parents, but the daughters are ostracised or otherwise prevented from entering into relationships with black men. This chapter explored the origin of the ‘black men as rapists’ myth to the post-war racist repression of the black population, often as a cover for legitimising lynchings, an integral aspect of the oppression of racial terror. Similarly, the availibility of black women as domestics, combined with the legacy of slavery where the master ‘owned’ the slave 100%, along with prevailing power and racial dynamics and the use of sexual terror in the repression of the black population helped with developing the view of black women as sexually available.

Chapter twelve, ‘Racism, Birth Control and Reproductive Rights’ explored the racist use of sterilisation and birth control to limit the growth of the ‘undesirable’ black population lest it challenge the dominance of the white population. This chapter is I beleive important in understanding the resistance to birth control measures that were attempted to be implemented here during the era of state led segregation.

The final chapter, ‘The Approaching Obsolesence of Housework: A Working Class Perspective’ explored the potential for revolutionary change in relation to housework and the need for the industrialisation of housework such as cleaning, food preparation and child-raising, in order to allow for greater liberation for women from this role. I agree with much of this chapter, although I maintain the position that keeping my house clean should be the shared (and I mean evenly shared) duty of myself and my partner. I would look forward to a cafeteria providing free and both tasty and nutritious food at work as part of my wages, as well as adequate maternity/paternity leave and quality day-care for children near or at work.

Ultimately I found this work by Angela Davis to be very thought provoking and illuminating, and I look forward to obtaining and reading other works by her (specifically Women, Culture and Politics if anyone out there has a copy I can borrow, or Violence Against Women and the Ongoing Challenge to Racism).

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