Ajowa Ifateyo: Speaking UPFRONT
Originally published November 1984
Ajowa Ifateyo worked from 1972 to 1980 as editor of The Burning Spear, the newspaper of the African People’s Socialist Party. In 1980, the party split, as she describes in the interview.
In 1983, Ifateyo was one of a group of women who founded UPFRONT, a national Black women’s quarterly newspaper published out of Washington, D.C. She currently works on its staff.
Off Our Backs staffer, Carol Anne Douglas; (who is white) interviewed Ajowa Ifateyo. The interview discusses part of her experience in the APSP and her ideas on Black women’s and white women’s liberation.
There may be some question about OOB covering a dispute that occurred four years ago in the Black liberation movement, but, as Ifateyo sees it, the dispute and white feminists’ reaction to it raises larger questions about political relationships between white women and Black women.
whose side are you on?
OOB: I have heard you have some things you would like to say about white women’s relationship with Black women in Black liberation groups.
IFATEYO: My experience comes mainly out of the African People’s Socialist Party, which I was a member of for about eight years until I left in 1980.
The chairman of the organization, Joseph Waller,(Omali Yeshi tela), beat up the woman he was having a relationship with, Aziza Ayoluwa, and myself when I tried to stop him from beating her. Aziza had been trying to get out of the relationship with him. He was unwilling to hear that she was going to end the relationship. He accused Aziza and me of having a lesbian relationship and said that’s why he was justified in beating us up.
We left the house the night he beat us. But other party members went back and said they saw him waiting on the porch with a shotgun. He said he was going to kill us. He tore up the house. All that happened in Gainesville. We went to Louisville, where the national office was.
At that point, people in the party organized a hearing to deal with the fact that the chairman of the organization beat up a woman in the organization.
It was quite a shock for all of us who thought that this was an organization that believes in democratic centralism and that respected women’s leadership. The whole work was the struggle of Black people and we thought no one would do anything to jeopardize that struggle. We were really surprised to learn that this man didn’t care about any of the things he preached and we believed in.
He refused to attend the hearing. He refused to admit he had done anything wrong. At that point, the central committee, which was about half women, expelled him. He refused to accept that expulsion.
What he did was to get support from the women of the African People’s Solidarity Committee. The women in that group were primarily lesbian, and almost all white.
The group had been organized by the party to support the struggle of Black people for independence. What it ended up being was a fundraising organization for the African People’s Socialist Party.
When the organization expelled Waller, he was able to go to the white women in the Solidarity Committee — Penny Hess was the Solidarity Committee’s leader at the time — and get them to believe that we were against him.
When Waller refused to accept the expulsion, we called APSC and told them he was no longer a member of the party and should not be given any money or access to party materials.
The Solidarity Committee’s first response was okay, accepting that it had happened. Two days later, they called to say they were not going to accept the expulsion of this man that he was a good leader and that people have fights all of the time. We had blown it out of proportion and nobody would accept that we had expelled a great leader. They planned to send all the money from their fundraising to him so he could put out his side of the story.
That was a real critical move at that time. The party was heavily dependent on that money from the solidarity committee. The whole publication of the party newspaper, The Burning Spear, depended on it. The solidarity committee also subsidized an African bookstore and the entire office rent and living space (the same building) of the national office.
When it really slapped us in the face, it was totally unbelievable. Here were these white women going to take all this money. I think it was $2,000 a month at the time that they were sending to the national office.
When they said they were going to send all that money to Joseph Waller, in effect, that meant the party work came to a halt. There was nothing we could do. We had planned to publish a special issue of The Burning Spear to explain the whole struggle, but then we couldn’t.
We knew it was an historic struggle. Never in the history of the Black movement had any Black leader been expelled for the oppression of women. We know the Black movement is very sexist, especially the nationalist movement. Our decision was not going to be taken well.
After that, a lot started happening. Joe Waller threatened violence against us. He had the lights turned off in the house where we worked and lived. His baby, which the woman he beat up had just had, was living in the house.
The threats he made against us were mainly through other people. Waller has this extraordinary way of manipulating and changing people’s minds even when they know he’s wrong. People changed their minds after they talked to him. I understand that because I was influenced by him for a long time. Even when I saw things he was doing wrong, I thought he could do no wrong. I rationalized and justified things.
I decided the organization was not worth dying for. I decided to leave the organization.
The majority of the central committee and the organization decided to leave. The only people who were left were Joe Waller and the other woman with whom he was having a relationship.
The white women of the solidarity committee, after they learned we had sent out a letter announcing that Joseph Waller had been expelled, sent out a letter calling us police and the FBI. They insinuated that Waller’s expulsion was the work of the FBI. Waller didn’t make any statement about that. He used them to do it.
I believe that they — the white lesbians in the solidarity committee — were the first ones to call us lesbian separatists. It was really shocking to have these women, a lot of whom identified as lesbians, most of whom identified as feminists, be the ones who told us that we were lesbian separatists and police, that we were doing this terrible thing to the movement.
OOB: Were you lesbians at the time?
When we organized the solidarity committee, we felt strange about organizing white people. White people in the past had interfered in the struggle of Black people. There are a lot of examples in history of white people flaking out at critical points. And with their money, they could determine who was who in the Black community.
The solidarity committee wasn’t supposed to have any independence in deciding what should happen in the Black struggle, although they could do whatever they had to do in the white community. The idea was to educate the white community about the struggle of Black people. When they backed Waller, they violated all the principles under which they were organized, so we expelled them.
Initially in the Black movement there was a lot of resistance to organizing white people. Some other Black activists said they didn’t want to have anything to do with us because we had these white people in the support committee.
Eventually, the idea of having white support groups gained a lot of acceptance. There was a proliferation of white support groups, mainly composed of women. Some were feminists, but they were working under the leadership of Black men in the organizations they were supporting. The white women didn’t complain about sexist stuff in news papers of the groups they supported, such as poems which really degraded women.
OOB: What feminist groups are you talking about? What newspapers?
IFATEYO: I can’t remember the newspapers, but the groups were the May 19th Organizing Committee, the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee.
Anything their Black male great leaders do or say is okay, even if they know it is sexist and wrong. They would not talk about it.
We were really confused about what was going on.
In the ’60s, there was a lot of resentment by Black women of white women ending up in bed with Black men in the Civil Rights Movement.
When we disbanded the solidarity committee for supporting Waller, they didn’t disband. I read in The Burning Spear that they were disbanded in 1981 by the party under Waller’s leadership for the same reason we disbanded them, trying to use their resources to influence the Black movement. From what I understand, there is now a new group with some of the same membership that is called the Committee on Solidarity for African Independence.
Since 1980, we have sent out leaflets and letters telling what happened. Big Mama Rag printed our leaflet, but no other feminist publication printed or mentioned it. Someone from the Committee on Solidarity got on Big Mama Rag’s case and said they shouldn’t have printed it because it was from the police, but they did not substantiate any of the charges. Big Mama Rag was set up for a lot of guilt. In the next issue, they wrote a letter basically apologizing for having printed our leaflet.
So I wrote them a letter asking them when white women were going to stand on their own two feet. When are you going to be able to look at a struggle and make a decision on your own, not let some cult tell you we are police?
I think they were afraid that they would be criticized as being racists. Joe Waller is so fiery and can really take people through the mud. I believe a lot of people were just afraid of him.
OOB: Waller was able to rebuild the group and expand it?
IFETAYO: I don’t know how large it is, but he has rebuilt it. He went to the Black United Fund and recruited a lot of people from there. He’s republishing The Burning Spear, a lot of which is the writings of white people.
Black & white feminists
White women fear to criticize Black groups because they’ll be called racists. Our position in the African Women’s Committee for Community Education, which is a committee that some former APSP members set up to keep the struggle going and educate people about sexism, is that keeping silent is a kind of liberalism that isn’t serving Black women’s interests and certainly isn’t serving white women’s interests. If you see something wrong or have a different opinion, it doesn’t serve anyone’s interests for that not to be brought to a head. Basically, we feel we need to sit down and talk about that with white women.
I think it’s necessary for white women to talk about this stuff and take positions on it (although you might sometimes reserve judgement). Based on your gut feelings and experiences and knowing people, you can take certain kinds of positions. I think that’s critical.
You could be accused of being interventionists. It’s just something that I think we’re all going to have to work out. The point is that you can’t be afraid to make a mistake and say the wrong thing.
We are trying to look at what has been the relationship between white women and Black women and try to address some of the problems.
There is now a group of Black and white women in D.C. meeting to talk about guilty feelings on the part of white women and how it has detrimentally affected the Black movement and the ability of white women to freely express themselves or the right to disagree with a Black person.
separation & cooperation
OOB: What are your short term goals? What would you like to see happen in the next five or ten years?
IFATEYO: Hopefully, we’ll be able to build institutions and do networking.
There’s a lot to be gained from Black women and white women working together. The problem is overcoming a lot of the distrust and fear. The only way for people to do that is to be honest about what’s what, to be upfront. That’s really hard. But it’s going to be in both of our interests to make that happen.
To me, it’s always odd to hear white women who are complaining that there are no Black women or women of color in their organizations. To me, that’s crazy.
On the one hand, there’s a basis for unity. But that unity has to be a result of each nationality understanding their struggle and I think it’s going to take working in separate organizations.
But trying to do that also means having times or places or events where we come together to do some sharing, some talking, to understand issues and to understand our commonalities as well as our differences.
I don’t see the necessity of having Black women in all organizations. If there’s some general issue, like employment, that all women are going to benefit from, then maybe we’ll all work together.
White women have different struggles that they need to deal with.
If white women have Black women in your organizations, there’s not going to be this automatic trust. There are differences that aren’t going to be overcome in five or ten or twenty years or even thirty years.
So I feel there’s a need to have discussions, to get all the pain out, all the fear, all the guilt. There are real issues, real concerns Black women have, like not being able to depend on white people because white people can always go back into the system if things get rough. White people have resources that Black people don’t generally have access to.
But I think there are a lot of things that Black women have to learn from white women. A lot of Black women probably wouldn’t appreciate my saying that. I’m in no way saying our struggles are the same, just that we can get information about your experiences and your organizing.
On the other hand, there’s only so far that white women can go with some of the knowledge they’ve gained because of the racism and classism in this society.
OOB: So you feel the white women’s movement and the Black women’s movement are separate?
IFATEYO: Definitely. For me, a major difference is the cultural differences, and of course economics and how racism acts on us and the whole issue of distrust. And our priorities are different.
Black women don’t exclude ourselves, but our priority is the liberation of our people. I don’t mean not dealing with women’s issues; I mean we’re going to do all of this at the same time. The perception is that groups like N.O.W. want more liberal stuff, like getting more police women on the force, or political candidates. That’s okay, that’s what they have to do. But Black folks’ struggles go much further than that.
Some Black women feel that white women are just selfish because they’re not dealing with survival, gut issues like police brutality, racism and economics.
OOB: What is the difference between Black feminists and white radical feminists?
IFATEYO: I’m not quite sure. I don’t want to make a generalization about it. Some radical feminists might end all relations with men.
We talk about that all the time: we say we don’t know any Black lesbians who are separatists in the sense of not wanting to be around men, not wanting any political or social relationships with men.
OOB: The men in white women’s families might be very overt racists. That can be another reason to sever ties with them.
IFATEYO: We talk about that, too, how bad white men are. You can see how nobody would want to deal with white men. Maybe it’s all right if white women are lesbian separatists.
I don’t know about Black men.
OOB; The issue of white women’s contacts with Black men is pretty touchy, too, as you’ve said.
IFATEYO: I think that Black and white women should talk about those relationships.
We had a program in the party one time where we talked about Black women’s experiences in the Civil Rights Movement, and somebody said it would be really good to know what white women’s experiences were. People say white women were raped by Black men and felt they couldn’t accuse them because it was a traditional thing for Black men to be accused of. Did that really happen? And did white women really sleep with Black men just to avoid being called racist?
When I first heard about that, my whole perception was colored by nationalist politics. We had a lot of struggle around women in the party, but our struggles as women were kept in that safe context.
After I got out of the party, I saw how we had been kept in a safe place. We didn’t use the word “sexism”, we had to call it “male backwardness.”
I want to say a little more about separatism. I am definitely a proponent of women’s need to have our own space. And Black women need our own space. Lesbian women may need lesbian space, too. If I say I have problems with separatism, I don’t mean problems with women’s need to have their own space.
OOB: What about the long term future? What do you see as desirable?
IFATEYO: I think there could be a lot of cooperation — economic and social cooperation, but I still see the necessity for there to be separate groups. There has to be a preservation of our culture, which has been destroyed for many years. We need to close in and redefine what’s ours and not ours, what we want to keep and what we want to throw away.
We need to remain separate, but not not having any contact with any other people in the world. We need to stand on our own two feet and know what’s us. We need to be strong internationalists and support other struggles. They’re all our struggles anyway.
There are a lot of people who understand the connections.
OOB: Some Black feminists are working more closely with white women than you find appropriate.
IFATEYO: I think everybody has to work where they are most comfortable. None of us has all the answers. Nobody has the right to judge how others work, we all contribute in the end to victory. I don’t want anybody to criticize me for doing what is right for me.
OOB: Have there been any positive results from your experience with the African People’s Socialist Party?
IFATEYO: There’s a lot that’s positive. At one point after leaving the party, I thought I had wasted my life, that the work hadn’t made any difference in the lives of Black folks. But now I think it made a lot of difference locally.
The person I am today is a result of that experience — my ability to organize, to administer, to work with people, my political outlook.
My first awareness of women’s oppression came from the party, from Joe Waller in particular. It’s ironic. The majority of people in the party were women, so the party had to do some female consciousness-raising. When we went to work with men from other Black groups, they didn’t want to shake hands with us or deal with us because so many of us were women.
The African People’s Socialist Party has been progressive on women compared to many Black groups. Women were the backbone of the group. But Waller maintained political and ideological control.
OOB: How did you come to create UPFRONT?
IFATEYO: Coming out of our experience in the Black Movement, Linda Leaks (another former APSP member) and I saw a need for Black women, just like any other oppressed group, to have an advocate, an institution which would serve our needs as victims to have a forum to talk about our experiences and to reach some conclusions about how to do things. We felt a newspaper would be the best way to do that.
So we reached other women who saw the need for a newspaper and eventually the Upfront Media Collective was formed to put out UPFRONT, a Black Women’s Newspaper. UPFRONT is acting as a forum because the Black Women’s Movement is just coming on its own, it’s still developing and has many political influences.
UPFRONT is a paper by and about Black women, for everybody. There is no particular line; Black women’s experiences are very varied and we try to reflect that. The paper’s about a year old. We are still developing and struggling to overcome economic and other problems. The primary thing is to provide a forum for all Black women.
the party’s response
The African People’s Socialist Party has used The Burning Spear to attack Ifateyo (sometimes under her name Vicki Adams) and Linda Leaks, another former party member who left earlier. The paper said Ifateyo committed “crimes against the party” including planning to take it over and “transform it from a revolutionary African Internationalist organization into an anti-male bourgeois feminist organization.”
The paper says that she “initiated a series of meetings that the Chairman was barred from attending, organized an illegal trial of the chairman at which he was not present” and “arbitrarily direct(ed) a cut off of funds to the Chairman necessary to his existence… and spread vicious slander about the Chairman…”
Further, they accuse Ifateyo of using expressions such as “penis privileges” in personal letters to Linda Leaks that other party members found. The term “penis privilege” “puts forth a ‘biological analysis,’ one that presupposes a social condition has its genesis in objective biological characteristics,” they charged.
Ifateyo’s charge that the Chairman and the Party oppressed specific women is “an obvious lie” because three-fifths of the Party’s Central Committee were women, The Burning Spear maintained. Also, the director of organization, the editor, the majority of members on regional, district and local party committees and the majority on every party committee were women, the paper said.*
*The Burning Spear, July 1980.
I called Penny Hess at Uhuru House in Oakland, California, the headquarters of the African People’s Socialist Party.
When asked about her side of the events of four years ago, Hess said that Ifateyo “spreads vicious slander.” She said she had no time to talk then.
I called back at the time suggested and asked to speak with Hess. A man who answered the phone said the party wanted to “express our disapproval” that OOB wants to speak with Hess, who is not a party member, about party matters.
I would be happy to speak with a party member, I said. I wanted to speak with Hess also because she is mentioned specifically, so she could reply to the comments about her.
“This has nothing to do with Penny Hess,” he replied. “It’s an attack on the party. You should have the political sophistication to know that this is an attack on the Black movement.” He said I could speak with Felicia Blackearth, a party member, the next day.
I asked for his name. There was a long pause. “Should I say you’re a party spokesperson?” “Yes,” he replied.
The next day, I called Felicia Blackearth.
“This struggle happened four years ago,” she said. “The real test is what kind of program people have now.” She said the APSP in Oakland runs a free childcare collective, provides a free typesetting course for African women, publishes The Burning Spear monthly and is working for an initiative to provide community control-housing to help the homeless in Oakland. Party members are out working on the street every day because they don’t have the money to do mailings about the initiative, she said. “We are speaking to the needs of African women.”
“These two people [Ajowa Ifateyo and Linda Leaks] can no longer unite with the party and the whole people,” she said. “They are engaged in slander,” she added. “In 1980, I was duped into accepting Ajowa’s charges at first because I was young and politically inexperienced,” she said. Now, Blackearth said she realizes that “the same monster is kicking our asses today as in 1977,” and there is no need for a changed political ideology.
“Our key is the liberation of the African people,” she said. “You can print Ajowa’s ideas if you want, but you shouldn’t print her anti-party attacks,” she said.
A party member called the OOB office and told another OOB staffer that if an article on Ifateyo was published, they would consider it an attack on the Black Liberation Movement.