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My dreams don’t usually take the form of the state. But in my dream state the Combahee River Collective statement would be the preamble to our governing document and instead of partisan elections we would be choosing to affirm Black feminist leaders right now to lead us out of capitalism and into the collaborative abundance we deserve right now!
So I was thrilled to get to talk to real life Black feminist socialist 2012 presidential candidate Peta Linsday! In the midst of her historic campaign as the Party for Socialism and Liberation’s presidential candidate, through which she is raising issues that the representatives of the dominant parties don’t even dream about, Peta Lindsay shared with me about her influences in the context of Black feminism and the crucial difference between seeking representation from political candidates and reclaiming the power to fight back within our own oppressed communities.
Q: Many people believe that Black feminism doesn’t exist in our generation and that the possibility for socialism ended with the Cold War. You and your campaign are living proof that neither of those claims are true! What inspired you to become a Black feminist socialist?
Well, I’ve been a feminist since childhood, since before I understood the concept really. My mother, who passed away in 1999, was an extremely progressive, independent woman from a family of strong women. I grew up assuming that Black women always worked — there was no other option. I knew some kids who had stay-at-home moms, but that was never my mother, nor her mother.
My grandmother used to proudly tell me stories about how she got work as a shipyard welder during World War II and held a number of other jobs to support her family. My mother is from West Virginia. Her father was a coal miner, and neither of her parents went to high school. She went to college a year early (to Clark and then Syracuse University.) She then went back to school in 1996 and earned her PhD in African American studies from Temple University.
I was eight years old at the time, and she took me with her to the library, to study sessions and she even let me watch her defend her dissertation. I was so proud. Both my father and mother always supported reproductive freedom, abortion rights, equal pay and the leadership of women. These were frequent topics of discussion in our house. So for my sisters and me, feminism wasn’t really much of conscious choice. It was always something we believed in.
In retrospect, one could also say that I had a predisposition towards socialism. I mentioned that my parents were progressive, and both of my grandfathers had at one point been members of the Communist Party USA. My maternal grandfather was a coal miner, a union organizer and an organizer for civil rights. He often organized strikes at the mines, as well as pickets and demonstrations in front of segregated businesses and facilities (pools, hotels, etc) that my mother, her siblings and many people from the community, participated in. My mother said he was known as the “Black Mayor” because of his continued advocacy for the community, people would go to him with their problems.
Once for a school project I had to ask my mother if she was involved in the Civil Rights movement, her response was “Hell, it went down in my living room!” My paternal grandfather joined the CP in Harlem at its height. My father remembers him telling him when he was a boy that, “The communists are the only one’s fighting for jobs for Black men” and “The communists are the only hope a Black man has in this country.” Additionally, both of my parents were vocal supporters of Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution.
When my mother died, I was 15 years old and my family became quite poor. Her medical bills were extensive and the health insurance that I had through her job was gone. I learned very early what 45 million people in this country experience every day, to be afraid to have to go to the doctor.
I was an angry teenager, I was angry about my situation and the situation faced by those around me. I grew up in North Philly and then Washington D.C., both cities with large populations of African Americans who face constant racist oppression from both institutions and people. I went to public school, I saw how the school system was short-changing our people (More on that here). I was angry and I wanted to fight, I just didn’t know who or how.
When I was 17, I got involved in the anti-war movement very early and that’s the first time I worked with socialists. When they talked about the issues, I agreed with what they were saying. I did believe that health care, housing and education should be fundamental rights. I did believe that centuries of oppression and exploitation had created the current conditions in the Black community, and I agreed that capitalism was the cause of our misery. Instead of telling me not to be angry, they helped me channel that anger into something constructive, building the struggle. They helped me believe that real, substantive and fundamental change could be won – but only if I and many others were willing to fight for it.
My experiences at Howard University also shaped my politics. I often found that feminist consciousness was deeply lacking in the student body, as it is in so many other places of “higher learning.” I found myself in constant debates, which led me from a type of visceral feminism to study the theory and practice what it means to be both a Black woman and a feminist, and a socialist.
Q: And now you are bringing that praxis to a wider audience with your presidential campaign. What does a Black feminist socialist platform add to the discourse this election season?
A: As a Black feminist socialist, I am concerned with the problems to which none of the other candidates can offer solutions. Our campaign has a clear Ten-Point Program, which speaks to the issues—from jobs and education, to police brutality and mass incarceration—facing poor and working-class people, to women, and oppressed communities.
We believe in actively fighting to defend women’s rights while the Republican attacks these rights, and the Democratic Party either caves in or trades our rights away. The Democrats’ line is basically, ‘vote for us or it will get really bad.’ That’s a strategy of demobilization. By contrast, our campaign is actively building for mass demonstrations this summer to defend and expand women’s reproductive rights. Our campaign message to poor and working-class women in particular is not “vote for me, and we’ll set you free,” but “you have the power—it’s time to fight back.”
The two (dominant) candidates will present their wives to speak to for a “women’s perspective,” but their presentation will be based largely on a bourgeois perspective. Ann Romney, who is the daughter of a factory owner and has hundreds of millions of dollars. She recently made the point that she “made the choice” to be a stay-at-home mom, but for most Black women, no such choices are available. Michelle Obama may come from the working class, but the Obamas are millionaires and have been solidly in the upper class for decades. I want to speak to the experiences of poor and working-class Black women.
As a socialist campaign, we are also focused on the ugly reality of the capitalist economic system. Obama and Romney differ on how much to cut government spending and social program, but they both are supported by Wall Street, and both agree that capitalism fundamentally works.
Point number one of our campaign’s Ten-point Program is to make a job a constitutional right, creating jobs for the unemployed through a massive, government-funded jobs program. Every one deserves a steady, good-paying job with dignity. Jobs for all would go a long way to address other social problems, and many of the problems facing women.
The idea that “there is no work” is based on a capitalist labor market, where one only finds employment if it will make a profit for someone else. But in fact, there is plenty of work to do. We need to repair roads and bridges, expand public transit, build new schools, clinics, libraries, hospitals, public spaces, etc.
This country is not broke — it is the richest and most productive economy in human history. The wealth exists to repair and repay foreign countries whose wealth and resources have been systematically stolen by Wall Street. The wealth exists to educate all people for free in this country, cancel student debt, stop evictions and foreclosures, and offer jobs and health care to all. Our campaign calls to immediately end these criminal and costly wars and to seize the immense wealth that is being hoarded in financial institutions by the richest .01%.
We raise the demand of making jobs, education, housing and health care constitutional rights not because we believe capitalism will offer these things—but to point to a different type of society that we all deserve. Capitalism is very wasteful. Every year in our schools, our community and the prisons you can see the human beings, the immense human potential, that capitalism is throwing away. Unleashing that potential requires a whole new system.
Q: In 1977 the Black Lesbian Feminist Socialist organization the Combahee River Collective wrote a groundbreaking statement explaining that in order for Black women to be free all people would have to be free, because our freedom requires the destruction of all forms of oppression. How does that statement ring for you today. What does the liberation of Black women have to do with your larger political vision today?
A: That statement rings very true today. The reality is that for Black women, the issues of labor exploitation, gender exploitation and racist exploitation, have been historically tied together and must be dealt with in tandem. Notwithstanding, the advances that have been made in the last few decades, the overall social and economic position of Black women remains unchanged. Black women have less, earn less, are subjected to the same old stereotypes as the past, and routinely have their families ripped apart by police violence and a mass incarceration system built on racism.
That tiny .01 percent survives in power based on the division and fragmentation of the working class along the lines of racism, sexism and anti-gay bigotry. Our campaign stands for unity in the fight against bigotry and our common enemy, the system itself.
Black women have a unique social position, with unique historical experiences and forms of oppression that we must understand and appreciate in any movement for social change. But that need not compel us to fight alone. Since we are pushed to the bottom of society, our liberation necessitates that power in society as a whole be overturned. It necessitates revolution, which in turn requires building broad unity among all enemies of the system.
A socialist revolution is one that brings the workers to power, but from our understanding it must also be a feminist and anti-racist revolution. A socialist revolution would not solve every problem overnight, but it lays the economic basis for tackling racist and sexist oppression.
Here’s an anecdote that I think speaks to this question. I was able to visit Cuba in 2002 with the Pastors for Peace caravan. We brought 81 tons of medical and material aid to Cuba that summer and it was my first and only trip to the island. One day during the trip we went to a bioengineering plant. A few people in the delegation wanted to debate Cuba’s use of bioengineered food — which they use to feed their population under a U.S. blockade — but I was marvelling at the fact that all the scientists were Black women!
Can you walk into a laboratory any where in the United States and see all Black women scientists, or even a proportionate number to the overall population? Cuban society and culture of course still bear some of the marks of the exploitative system overthrown in 1959, but that was an important moment for me that showed some real, practical results of a socialist society.
Q: And finally…I can’t help but think about Shirley Chisolm (who I still consider to be my president). What advice do you think Shirley Chisholm would give to you on your campaign?
My campaign stands in the tradition of Shirley Chisholm—knocking down barriers, demanding inclusion, refusing to be put “in our place.” I don’t meet the criteria of the “typical” candidate in a lot of obvious ways, and like Chisholm, I know the political and media establishment will use that to ignore or discredit my campaign. I have different politics from Chisholm—I am a socialist, she was a progressive Democrat—but she took important position for civil rights, for domestic workers, who have been systematically excluded from Social Security and labor regulations, and against the Vietnam War. Considering all the racist attacks she faced, including assassination attempts, I bet her advice to me would be: “Don’t let the odds intimidate you, don’t be turned away, ignore the haters.”