That Unmistakable “Red Thread” in Caribbean Left Feminist Activism

Andaiye, The Point Is to Change the World: Selected Writings of Andaiye, ed. Alissa Trotz (London: Pluto, 2020); 320 pages; ISBN: 978-0745341279 (paperback)

• February 2022

Emblazoned on the Marx bust in Highgate Cemetery, London, are these words: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point however is to change it.” In “Between Home and Street: Andaiye’s Revolutionary Vision,” one of the three forewords to this amazing and timely collection of writings by Caribbean left feminist activist Andaiye (1942–2019), Robin D. G. Kelley indicates that the book’s title “comes from Karl Marx’s eleventh and final thesis on Feuerbach (1845)” (xxii). Indeed the quote serves as an epigraph for the book itself. But these are also watchwords of the kind of activism that Andaiye practiced: the necessary call to change the conditions we inherited as Caribbean people displaced by transatlantic enslavement and indentureship and its aftereffects in colonialism, neocolonialism and neo-imperialism. This philosophical and political orientation has guided activists in the Caribbean radical-intellectual tradition to which Andaiye belonged and from which she claimed a Caribbean feminist politics central to her self-definition. In “The Grenada Revolution, the Caribbean Left, and the Regional Women’s Movement: Preliminary Notes on One Journey,” an address she gave at the 2010 Caribbean Studies Association conference, Andaiye examines the nature of Caribbean left activism, particularly for the ways that gender operated or was isolated “from its interconnections with class, race and power relations” (44).

An afterword by Anthony Bogues, titled “Andaiye and the Caribbean Radical Organizing Tradition,” both summarizes and reflects Andaiye’s precise critique of Caribbean left politics. Bogues reveals that members of the Caribbean male left were actually stunned when Andaiye brought up the issues of gender and patriarchy as barriers to the Caribbean left going forward. Assessing a 2001 meeting of Caribbean left activists in Trinidad as they planned a conference honoring C. L. R. James, Bogues concludes that the critique of male dominance that Andaiye had raised still remained marginal to central issues like neoliberalism the group wanted to engage: “The meeting did not discuss the matters raised by Andaiye in any great depth and it became clear, even with the intervention of [George] Lamming, that on that day we were not going to be able to create even a semblance of a regional left” (255). And it seems that this is precisely where things have remained. The avoidance of an internal analysis that includes gender is still evident in the gap between a dogmatic Marxism and more egalitarian interpretations of continuing gender inequalities needed to create the necessary social and political transformation.

This collection is a painstaking recreation, a labor of love from its editor, Alissa Trotz, an intellectual daughter whom Andaiye clearly trusted to record her life and who demonstrates in this assemblage the access and care entailed in the dual job of preserving the writings of one of the foremost Caribbean activists while offering to the intellectual-activist community a text that fills a critical lacuna in our knowledge of Caribbean activist-intellectual women. While the world knows the Pan-Africanist, activist, and historian Walter Rodney, assassinated by the state in his prime, the women who did the critical work on the ground, as in most movements, are not as well known. Andaiye, whose name resonated with a particular power in the Caribbean whenever one of her statements was invoked (even when she was not physically in the room or had sent messages), is the leading woman in any such assessment. But she is less known in the rest of the African diaspora. Still, when I met her at the Walter Rodney Conference in Binghamton in 1998, she seemed remote, pensive, and reflective and not the daring, contentious personality that had been described by others. So for me and for others who studied outside the University of the West Indies orbit, this collection fills a knowledge gap and clarifies simultaneously Andaiye’s role both as a Caribbean feminist activist and thinker, adept at providing knowledge of Guyana and the Caribbean, and as a counterpart to Rodney, whom she knew well. In “Walter Rodney’s Last Writing on and for the Guyanese Working People” (2010), for example, Andaiye critiques his lacunae concerning gender and Indigeneity.

Before I go on I want to stress two major weaknesses in his telling of the Guyanese working people: There is no serious treatment of the Indigenous peoples (although he planned a children’s book on the story of the Indigenous peoples in Guyana), nor is there any serious treatment of women (although in his research for A History of the Guyanese Working People, he spent time searching old documents for and recording the little he found about their participation in the struggles of 1881–1905). (247)

Andaiye thereby indicates Rodney’s willingness to make those advancements and corrections in planned future work and subsequent projects, which sadly his assassination in 1980 did not allow him to complete. Her angle, however, is that of an activist on women’s rights, and even though she was not a historian, as an intellectual-activist she provides some of that missing knowledge of Guyanese women.

Divided into four major parts, each with a representative group of essays, notes, journal reflections, letters, interviews, and statements, The Point Is to Change the World takes us into the life, ideas, and work of Andaiye (born Sandra Williams in Guyana). Part 1 is titled “Learning Lessons from Past Organizing”; part 2, “A Different Perspective: Starting with the Unwaged Caring Work of Mainly Women We Reach All Sectors”; part 3, “The Political in the Personal”; and part 4, “Towards Strengthening the Movement.” This wonderful collection solidly places Andaiye in the genealogy of Caribbean feminist thought (which has been defined as an anticolonial, antiracist, assertion of women’s rights) on the “action side” of the research and action aspects of CAFRA (the Caribbean Association for Feminist Research and Action). The first essay—“The Angle You Look from Determines What You See: Towards a Critique of Feminist Politics and Organizing in the Caribbean,” the 2002 Lucille Mathurin Mair Lecture delivered at the Mona campus of UWI—sets up the Caribbean feminist paradigm well. In this now classic essay in the genre of “standpoint theory” (perhaps more definable as “angle of vision” theory) Andaiye analyzes what feminism promised and what it produced, describes the possibilities and limits in the organizing of Red Thread in Guyana, and closes by indicating an alliance with the London-based “wages for housework” movement.1 Still, her own vision is advanced: “We need first to identify the world we want to build, not in the old language of ‘isms’ but in a new language that has clarity and purpose” (18).

The Point Is to Change the World is a collection that one can enter from various points based on interest. When I assigned this text to a 2021 Black feminist theories graduate class, students were drawn in particular to part 3, “The Political in the Personal,” which includes a range of self-reflective essays on women’s struggles with breast cancer, mental illness and depression, and domestic violence. Section 1 of part 3, “My Breast and Yours and the Inequalities of Power,” opens with “The War on Cancer as Seen by an Embattled Survivor” (2017/2018), in which Andaiye presents her engagement with the breast cancer that would eventually be her demise. She is fortified by Audre Lorde, who similarly had written The Cancer Journals (1980) and with whom Andaiye had developed sisterhood and camaraderie, and also love, as Lorde, a fellow survivor, shared tips about how to live and triumph over the limitations and negative effects of cancer treatments. While Andaiye recognizes her privilege in having come from a medical family, which she felt enabled her to talk back to the medical personnel, she still suffers from the adverse effects of certain kinds of absences in care. Her sustenance is through close support from women friends, six of whom go with her to her diagnosis in Barbados, and from a brother who cares deeply for her at her worst moments. Andaiye’s 1992 essay “Sister Survivor: For Audre Lorde” closes the section. (Because I was teaching Lorde’s Sister Outsider [1984] in the graduate class indicated above, the essays and reflections in part 3 had been my own entry point into the text.)

In part 3’s second section, “Women and Depression: Auto/Biographies,” Andaiye’s vulnerabilities are revealed in “Asylum: Diary of the Last Seven Days in a Women’s Psychiatric Ward” (c. 1973), her reflections written after a mental breakdown. The final section, “Undomesticating Violence,” includes “Against the Beating of Children” (2013), a critique of corporal punishment as emanating from slavery and colonial education and having more to do with power and authority, and “Three Letters against Sexual Violence against Children” (2010), which captures the starkness of male violence against women and children. These essays are followed by conceptual notes that reveal Andaiye thinking about economic violence against poor African Guyanese women and by the interesting essay “Women as Collateral Damage in Race Violence” (2002), in which we see the continuities within similar issues across the world. These reveal one of the key themes of her feminist activism in Guyana that had life through her Red Thread organizing work (one of the letters of “Three Letters” had been written in defense of the organization’s commitments). “Sexual Abuse and the Uses of Power,” written in 2018, a year before her passing, expresses a sense of the enormity of the situation for both male and female victims “in and out of the home, where its perpetrators are parent, partner, stranger, preacher, teacher, business leader, policeman, politician,” and, as she concludes, it is “always about power,” more than “about sex” (214).

Overall, a necessary reading is the opening essay for part 4, “Gender, Race, and Class: A Perspective on the Contemporary Caribbean Struggle” (2009). In this tour de force assessment of the Caribbean—which includes a 2019 postscript, one of her last statements—she critiques “the failure of separate movements for justice and equality to build a sustained politics that works to include all sectors of the oppressed and exploited” (243). I read this as a good counterpart to gender, race, and class analyses available in the larger scholarly field, providing a Caribbean context but offering a critique nevertheless of the unfilled and deferred desire for complete Caribbean progressive transformation, still awaiting its fulfillment in politics as in activism.

 

Carole Boyce Davies is Professor of Africana Studies and Literatures in English at Cornell University. She is the author of Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones (Duke University Press, 2008). @Ca_Rule; http://caroleboycedavies.com.

 


[1] Red Thread Women’s Centre (https://redthreadguyana.org) was founded in 1986 by seven women, including Andaiye, to advance women’s rights and to advocate to end violence against women and children and other entrenched structures of oppression and inequality in work and family relations. But the red in “red thread” is also evocative in multiple contexts from left politics to Caribbean landscapes, economic challenges to cultural resistance.