Remaking Black Power: The Militant Negro Domestic, 1945–1965

The following is an excerpt from Ashley D. Farmer’s Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era. In this comprehensive history, Ashley D. Farmer examines black women’s political, social, and cultural engagement with Black Power ideals and organizations. Complicating the assumption that sexism relegated black women to the margins of the movement, Farmer demonstrates how female activists fought for more inclusive understandings of Black Power and social justice by developing new ideas about black womanhood. This compelling book shows how the new tropes of womanhood that they created–the “Militant Black Domestic,” the “Revolutionary Black Woman,” and the “Third World Woman,” for instance–spurred debate among activists over the importance of women and gender to Black Power organizing, causing many of the era’s organizations and leaders to critique patriarchy and support gender equality.

Farmer is also a recipient of the 2021 Whiting Creative Nonfiction Grant. The Whiting Creative Nonfiction Grant of $40,000 is awarded to writers in the process of completing a book of deeply researched and imaginatively composed nonfiction. Below the excerpt, you’ll see Farmer discuss how the grant will help continue the research behind her upcoming UNC Press book Queen Mother Audley Moore: Mother of Black Nationalism.

“The revolution is on, and it isn’t just tonight,” seventy-year-old radical activist Audley Moore told a group of protesters and schoolteachers in 1968. “I want you to know that it isn’t just this week. This revolution has been going on for the last fifty years, because when I came into the movement, I came in only because it was revolutionary. This is something for you to think about, so don’t just think that because Carmichael said ‘Black Power’ that all of sudden people today are thinking in terms of their freedom.” These New York City–based activists and educators had invited Moore to the “Priorities in Urban Education Conference” to help garner support for their campaign for community control of Brooklyn public schools. As one of the movement’s midwives, Moore had been fighting for black self-determination longer than most of her audience members had been alive. She used the speaking invitation to proffer an alternative genealogy of the Black Power era, one in which 1960s protests were the continuation rather than the origin of the movement.

Moore counted herself among a cadre of activists who were instrumental in developing the ideological frameworks of the Black Power era and in formulating gendered expressions of its central principles. Although the story of the movement typically begins in 1966, with Stokely Carmichael’s speech in Greenwood, Mississippi, Black Power was much larger than the slogan he introduced into the popular and political discourse. A lifelong black nationalist, Moore consistently argued that black women radicals developed and sustained radical emancipation projects well before the 1960s. She also credited these women with creating the new definitions of black “self-identity” that Carmichael and others would later argue were at the core of Black Power projects.

Moore located the origins of the Black Power movement in the intellectualism and activism of postwar women radicals. Coming of age in the 1920s and 1930s, many of these women were politicized by Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), a global black nationalist organization that advocated for black self-determination, African repatriation, and separate black cultural and political institutions. As the Depression hit and the UNIA dissipated in the 1930s, many of these women joined the Communist Party (CP). Employed almost exclusively as maids and cooks in white households, they found the CP attractive because it combined Garveyite nationalist frameworks with sophisticated critiques of domestic workers’ class oppression. As CP members, they espoused a black nationalist, working-class, women-centered political agenda and organized around their unique experiences with racism, sexism, and capitalism.

In the first half of the twentieth century, black nationalists and Communists often theorized black liberation through the lens of the working class. Moreover, these activists and organizations framed the struggle for black self-determination and liberation as the fight to regain black manhood. Popular and political perceptions of black womanhood, on the other hand, often focused on the domestic worker as a symbol of black working-class womanhood. Although leftist organizations identified black women’s “special” race, class, and gender oppression, they did not always articulate a gender-inclusive emancipatory vision. Instead, leading activists and groups often marginalized the domestic worker and the plight of black women more broadly, reinforcing popular perceptions of black women that were steeped in the ideal of the “docile” mammy figure and entrenched in the legacy of slavery.

From the 1940s to the 1960s, black women radicals both centered and reimagined the political identity of the black domestic worker. Drawing on Garveyite frameworks, they maintained that black Americans constituted a distinct cultural and political group entitled to separation and self-determination. These activists’ communist-inspired analyses of their intersecting race, class, and gender oppression also led them to view black working-class women as the vanguard of black Americans’ self-deterministic pursuits. Combining these positions, they collectively constructed the idea of a Militant Negro Domestic, a political identity that framed the domestic worker as a political activist who advocated for community control, black self-determination, self-defense, and separate black cultural and political institutions. By reimagining this dominant symbol of black womanhood, black women activists reshaped contemporary masculinist conceptions of the black working-class political subject. They also linked the ideologies and symbols of early twentieth-century black nationalism to the burgeoning Black Power movement of the early 1960s, making both black women and womanhood foundational to Black Power–era thought.

Ashley D. Farmer is assistant professor of history and African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas-Austin