Abolitionist Feminism Then and Now #2: Eslanda Cardozo Goode Robeson

7 December 2020

Aija Oksman, University of Edinburgh

Eslanda Cardozo Goode Robeson (1896-1965) was an inspirational Black woman; she was a writer, an anthropologist, and an activist for women’s and civil rights, as well as a successful business woman. Goode strongly favoured Black women’s radical feminism over the type of white women’s more mainstream feminism, the latter of which advocated for the rights of women without paying heed to what we would now term ‘intersectionality’.[1] This she considered obverse to the Woman Question, and believed that mainstream feminism was sowing seeds of disunity by excluding women of all classes and races. Goode and her contemporary Black radical women advocated for a new intersectional, inclusive feminism – though ‘intersectionality’ would not be coined as such until 1989 by Kimberlé Crenshaw.[2]

Despite the appreciation of journals such as Freedom (1950-1955 journal published by Paul Robeson, Goode’s husband) and its largely female-led editorial team and writing staff, the activism of leading women’s organizations such as the National Association of Colored Women, and the growing Transatlantic Pan-African consciousness, one of the criticisms that Goode would make throughout her career was the lack of leading positions for women within various Black civil rights organisations, such as NAACP or Congress of Racial Equality.[3] She considered that ‘[o]fficialdom has a nineteenth century attitude in thinking and behavior toward women in the fast moving, radically changing twentieth century’, and added that ’[t]he men have failed in their job to date: the world has suffered war after war, each one more destructive than the preceding.‘[4] In the rapidly changing twentieth-century America, Goode agreed to collaborate with Pearl S. Buck (1892-1973) on American Argument (1950).[5] She hoped that this collaboration between a Black and white woman would bring unity to their causes, as well as clarify some stereotypical misconceptions about African Americans.

Buck was a white internationalist woman who, through her experiences of growing up in China as a child of missionaries, became an advocate for human rights. She was also an accomplished author and, among many other novels, wrote the Good Earth (1931), which won the Pulitzer prize in 1932 and was instrumental in her receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938. American Argument is a study of America from Buck’s perspective, in which she transcribes numerous conversations that she and Goode conducted for the purpose of the study. As the chapter titles suggest, they discussed important issues: ‘How We Were Born and Grew’, ‘Being Americans’, ‘Male and Female’ and ‘Ourselves and Freedom’. It becomes clear within the pages of the book that the two women inhabit two different Americas. Despite Buck and Goode’s mutual respect and admiration for each other as women, as activists and as writers, the book is ultimately dominated by Buck’s voice and objectives. When transcribing the conversations into the book, she includes her own contemplations and interpretations. Since the two women respected each other greatly, I accept Buck’s transcriptions of Goode’s side of the narration as unedited. However, we ought to remain critical of Buck’s interpretations and comments over the other woman’s narrative, considering also that Goode had final editorial approval before the book would be published.

Goode only adds two pieces: the Foreword to the book, and one rather scathing footnote to Buck’s blunt statement that she would not be a friend of Goode’s were she a Communist. Other than Goode’s two authorial appearances, their conversations are transcribed, interpreted, elaborated and commented upon by Buck. Goode knew this, and towards the end of the book she affirms that the two women inhabit different Americas by noting that the two women saw things ‘from two different backgrounds, [Buck] from the background of privilege, and [Goode] from the background of oppression.’[6] Barbara Ransby’s interpretation of the conversations between the two women is that Goode defines two distinctly different women: women of colour (who are grouped with the peoples of the working classes), and the white, affluent, ‘American women’. Ransby clarifies that, in Goode’s definition, ‘“American women”[is] a term [that for Goode] represent white middle-class women, and [there is] another demographic altogether that she refers to in her many observations and comments elsewhere [as] poor and working-class women, radical women, Black women, and women under colonialism’.[7] Goode attempted to explain to Buck that there were Black women with distinctive experiences differen­­­­­­­t from and contradictory to those of American white women. She explains that ‘[Black] women can’t just say they are superior, as the average American white woman does, and then sit back and go to seed. We have to work for even a lowly place in American society.’[8] According to Goode, a taught, arrogant perception of superiority has been instilled in most white people in America. Regardless of social or economic position, and regardless of ’the same physiological, psychological, and sociological needs,’ white people continue to consider themselves superior.[9] According to Goode, this is because ’American society starts on the premise that [Black people] are inferior [and the] insecure whites sometimes feel better when they can look down on someone else.’[10] This gives them ‘a false [and] dangerous, feeling of superiority.’[11] Goode therefore considers African Americans to have grown up being more realistic about their opportunities, working hard not only to improve themselves as individuals but also their communities and as a nation. Goode explains to Buck that

a white slattern can go to the movies, or read the advertisements, or listen to the radio, and optimistically she can persuade herself that wonderful romantic things may happen to her just because she’s white, and therefore, “superior”. So she sits back and hopes and dreams that they will happen, but doesn’t do anything towards making them happen. Has she not been told at every opportunity that she belongs to the “superior race”, no matter how inferior she may be? But a [Black] girl goes to the same movies, reads the same advertisements, and listens to the same junk on the radio, but she knows these things may not happen to her, unless she goes out and does something special to make them happen. Has she not been told at every opportunity that she is less than human, inferior, no matter how superior she may be?’[12]

Therefore, what Goode acknowledges and what Buck fails to internalize is that there is an impenetrable colour line between the two women. Although they continue throughout American Argument to profess their great personal and professional affinity for each other, what Goode knows, ultimately, is that despite all her efforts, she can only climb as far as a nation that enables white supremacism allows her. Instead, Goode challenged the supremacist order without regard for her personal safety. Buck, though an avid advocate for the rights of all people, was a white affluent woman in America with privileges and opportunities which were often unavailable for Goode. Where Buck expresses her disdain for the American South (as it would be ‘too tiresome to remember what colour we are’ at all times in all interactions) she fails to offer sympathy to the brutality faced by African Americans in this region.[13] She also seems unwilling to confront the widespread racism that existed in the North in equally oppressive forms of discrimination, referring to Goode’s experiences as ‘added burdens’.[14] Goode, however, was acutely aware of the discriminations and prejudices that plagued her experiences and not Buck’s.

Through slavery and beyond, white supremacy perpetuated a notion of African Americans only being suited for manual work, and being incapable of mindful, intellectual work. Goode notes that white people justified a racist system by ‘entirely ignoring human history and anthropological and physiological truths’.[15] She knew that her successes would affect the perception of the white people with whom she interacted, and that these perceptions would extend to other African Americans that they in turn would interact with.[16] Goode personally felt that, if she did not succeed in her endeavours, ‘it would mean that [African Americans] and women were incapable, lazy, stupid, or irresponsible. All [African Americans], and many women, have to bear this burden, especially those who are “first” at anything.’[17] Such self-determination was the backbone of the civil rights movement. Nevertheless, white feminists in America were largely incapable of seeing that the sexist forms of discrimination that they experienced were compounded with racism for Black women in American society. For Black women, who were working to advance their own and their families’ social and economic positions in American society, white women would ultimately add to the burden of prejudice by being incapable of disassociating their own experiences of discrimination from those of women of colour. This was theorized by Mariana Ortega as feminism laced with  ‘loving, knowing ignorance.’ Ortega explains that

[a loving, knowing, ignorant white feminist] constructs a reality that is in fact closer to what she wants it to be rather than what It is – [a reality] in which the white [feminists] think they understand the experience of all women of color […] in which the experience of woman of color are homogenized, in which women of color are seen as half-subjects who need to be ‘given a voice’ – hence loving, knowing ignorance.[18]

Buck remains ‘lovingly, knowingly ignorant’ as she prompts conversation with Goode on matters of family, loyalty to the nation, woman- and motherhood and other topics, unable to concede that her personal experiences were distinctly separate from that of Goode’s. Buck’s ‘loving, knowing ignorance’ leads her to consider Goode’s experiences ‘in a peculiar fashion [as] the problems and possibilities that can be called really American.’[19] What is more, Buck believed that Goode has ultimately ’experienced and surmounted the fact of being [Black]. She has experienced and surmounted the fact of being a woman. She has experienced and surmounted being the wife of a famous and successful man […].’[20] Buck makes it sound as though these facets of a woman of colour’s identity (being Black, a woman and a wife/mother) are things to ‘overcome’ in order to be successful in America, despite herself being a wife and a mother, as she continues to fail to recognise her own privilege. Goode, therefore, corrects Buck by emphasizing the differences in their experiences and achievements.

Goode attempts to explain how deep-rooted American discrimination is by remembering her birth certificate, where she was marked down as ‘child, female, coloured’, which ‘[i]n the United States […] earmarks a baby for discrimination, segregation, and injustice throughout life. Unless our society wants and intends to do something against babies because of their colour, there is no reason to mark them down as coloured or white.[21] For Goode, such early marking was at the root of the inequalities and racism in America. And yet, Goode did not believe that Americans were truly racist at heart, but that it was an economic construction. She tells Buck that

there are too many organized efforts to create [race prejudice], and to keep it up. We have to make Jim Crow laws and insist upon them […] It takes alert, consistent effort to preserve this so-called race prejudice, which is really economic at base. […] They have to work hard to keep up [these barriers of race], because the barriers are artificial, not real or natural.[22]

What Goode and the Black women she inspired aimed to achieve was to dismantle such political and economic barriers of race by beginning with elevating the working-classes through unionization and activism. Their activism was not only vocal but also visible, with Black women at the center of the political awakening. Black women such as Goode had ‘understood black women as the key agents of transformative change and appreciated their freedom as inseparable from […] union rights, civil rights, and women’s equality.’[23]In fact, Goode became ‘indisputably a part of Black radical [and] part of Black women’s intellectual and political tradition’ as her experience as a Black woman, an activist and successful in America ’anticipated contemporary feminist theories of intersectionality’ as she paved the way for women such as Angela Davis, who will be the subject of Part 3 of this series.[24]


Sources:

[1]For further reading, see for example: Reconstructing Womanhood, Reconstructing Feminism: Writings on Black Women, ed. Delia Jarrett-Macauley (London: Routledge, 1996); Brenda Allen, ‘Black Womanhood and Feminist Standpoints’, Management Communication Quarterly, 11:4 (May 1998), pp. 575–586.

[2]Kimberlé Crenshaw. ‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics’, University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1:8 (1989), pp. 139-167.

[3]Ibid.

[4]Goode quoted in: Barbara Ransby. Eslanda: The Large and Unconventional Life of Mrs. Paul Robeson (New Haven; London: Yale university Press, 2013), p. 147.

[5]Pearl S. Buck with Eslanda Goode Robeson, American Argument (London: Methuen & CO Ltd., 1950), p. vi.

[6]American Argument, p. 187.                                                     

[7]Ransby, p. 147.

[8]American Argument, p. 55.

[9]Ibid., p. 105.

[10]Ibid.

[11]Ibid., p. 49.

[12]American Argument, pp. 105-106.

[13]American Argument,p. 4.

[14]Ibid.

[15]American Argument,p. 107.

[16]Goode became the first African American and the first woman to work at the Presbyterian Hospital in New York, which welcomed all patients regardless ’race, creed and colour’: American Argument, p. 15.

[17]American Argument, p. 15.

[18]Mariana Ortega, Being Lovingly, Knowingly Ignorant: White Feminism and Women of Color’, Hypatia, 21:3 (2006), pp. 56–74 (p. 62).

[19]American Argument,p. 83.

[20]For further information on Goode’s impact on the Transatlantic and Pan-African considerations, see: Maureen Mahon, ‘Eslanda Goode Robeson’s African Journey: The Politics of Identification and Representation in the African Diaspora’, Souls, 8:3 (2006), pp.101-118..

[21]American Argument, p. 5.

[22]American Argument, p. 25.

[23]Erik S. McDuffie, Sojourning For Freedom: Black WOmen, American Communism, and the Making of Black Left Feminism (Durham, NC; London: Duke University Press, 2011), p. 92.

[24]Ransby, p. 278.

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