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Celebrating Revolutionary African Women

Cuban propaganda celebrating revolutionary African women

After Emory Douglas, 1968 © Lázaro Abreu Padrón, OSPAAAL, The Mike Stanfield Collection

Like many things with socialist origins, International Working Women’s Day has been repackaged by capitalism and imperialism. Far from how it started, mainstream celebrations of Women’s Day and Women’s History Month now infer that all women’s struggles are the same – leaving out the class and national contradictions that exist within the community of women in order to center the experiences of bourgeois and petite-bourgeois women. To counter this trend of co-option, this month the editors of Hood Communist will be celebrating revolutionary African working-class women and their contributions to the struggle for African liberation. To kick off the celebration, here are four revolutionary African women you should know.

Elma Francois, the Fire Starter

Revolutionary African woman, Elma Francois. A Caribbean revolutionary.

“I know that my speeches create a fire in the minds of people so as to change the conditions which now exist…”

Elma Francois

If one were to do a cursory Google search on “prominent Socialists and Marxists from the Caribbean,” multiple sources will direct you to Fidel Castro, Uriah Butler, Maurice Bishop, Walter Rodney, and even Claudia Jones. However, before Fidel and his case against Cuba’s economic and social misery, there was Elma Francois behind Butler and his communist influence. 

Elma Francois, a remarkable labor organizer and domestic worker who led multiple strikes and labor movements, challenged British colonial policies in Trinidad and Tobago. Francois educated herself by reading widely and soon began to give public speeches about labor and political matters. With an acute awareness of her African heritage, Francois formed the National Unemployed Movement(NUM), which later became known as the Negro Welfare Cultural and Social Association (NWSA). 

The NWSA, the first gender-neutral organization of its time,  sought to empower African people, particularly African women, across three fronts— socially, politically, and economically. It was also the first and only organization in the Caribbean that registered the unemployed. In 1935, when the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini invaded Ethiopia, the NWSCA held a mass meeting in October and mobilized dockworkers to boycott Italian ships.

On June 19, 1937, the Butler Riots ignited awareness of workers’ rights across the Caribbean in Jamaica, Barbados, Grenada, and Guyana. Alongside Uriah Butler’s advisory, Francois led the first workers to strike in Port Of Spain in 1938. Her subsequent arrest made her the first woman in Trinidad and Tobago’s history to be charged with sedition. 

During her self-defense, Francois outlined the outlook of the NWSA and its commitment to the development and empowerment of the oppressed African people of the West Indies. To make her point, Francois drew on examples of international struggles, including land struggles in Kenya and workers’ mobilizations in the U.K.

More poignantly, she argued that workers are concerned with transforming their material conditions above all else.

 “I said that hundreds of workers were being placed in jail. I said that jail sentences and executions do not solve our problems. It is only by organized unity that we can better our conditions … I said workers of the world were not prepared to fight in any way but for bread, peace, and liberty.” 

Elma francois

Unlike the prominent Afro- Caribbean communist woman, Claudia Jones, charged with the same act in the US, eventually, she was found not guilty. She later went on with others to form several trade unions in Port of Spain, including the SWWTU and the Federated Workers’ Trade Union.

Elma Francois’s social conscience was well developed. She fought for social justice differently. She was a radical communist whose visions did not include the mercantile and industrial middle class. Described as one of the “vociferous Africentric activists” in Trinidad and Tobago’s history and in the Caribbean region, she was committed to the liberation of African peoples in a Pan Caribbean/ Pan African struggle.

Carlotta, the Heroine of Cuba

Carlotta leading the enslaved Africans in Matanzas, a painting by Lili Bernard

Carlotta, also known as Carlotta Lucumi, was a revolutionary African woman who helped lead a year-long organized uprising in the Matanzas region of Cuba in the late 1800s during a period of mass African resistance to slavery known as La Escalera. Carlotta was born in Africa to the Yoruba tribe, somewhere in the area of modern-day Benin, but was kidnapped as a child and brought to Cuba by Spanish colonizers. She was sold and forced to labor harvesting sugar cane on Spanish sugar plantations, institutions that were widely known throughout the region for their brutality.

Like many enslaved African people, Carlotta was a cunning and resourceful organizer with an irrepressible desire for liberation and didn’t put up with the brutal conditions for long. Alongside other enslaved Africans – including a Fula man named Eduardo, a Lucumi man named Evaristo, and another Lucumi woman that some stories describe as Carlotta’s lover, Fermina Carlotta developed a plan to organize enslaved Africans to rise up and overthrow the Spanish landlords of the plantations in Matanzas. The Africans who planned this rebellion were a mix of Cuban-born enslaved Africans and Africans with military training who had been only recently kidnapped from the continent. They represented many different African religions and tribes united in a common struggle for liberation— a truly Pan-African movement!

Unfortunately, Fermina’s role in the plan was discovered and she was imprisoned, beaten, and tortured by the Spanish. In spite of this, Carlotta and her comrades continued to secretly organize the uprising. Carlotta devised a way of communicating with other enslaved Africans on plantations across Matanzas using talking drums – an instrument that when played, mimics the sounds of speech in African tongues. In this way, enslaved Africans were enlisted into the rebellion and were able to coordinate a series of attacks against the slave system right under the noses of European colonizers.

On November 5, 1843, the enslaved Africans of the Triumvirato and Arcana plantations deployed their plan and broke out in a massive uprising. Carlotta and her comrades were able to liberate Fermina from imprisonment. After their success at the Triumvirato and Arcana plantations, they went on to coordinate a series of rebellions against the slave system across the entire Matanzas region that lasted for over a year.

Sadly, Carlotta was later captured by the Spanish and was murdered in retribution for her resistance. But the spark she helped light on the island alongside her comrades stoked a fire for liberation in Cuba that colonizers could never hope to repress. Eventually, through the resistance of enslaved African and Indigenous people, the slave system would fall, Cuba would gain its independence from first Spain and then later the US, and the glorious Cuban revolution would be won. 

131 years after the uprising in Matanzas, the Cuban government initiated Operación Carlota on November 5th, 1975. It was a direct response to an urgent request of solidarity from Angola’s revolutionary African government. Having just achieved independence after a long national liberation struggle, Angola confronted an invasion by the European settler government of South Africa. South Africa was determined to destroy the free African government of the newly independent Angola. Operación Carlota was decisive in stopping the spread of apartheid in southern Africa and pushing the settlers out of Angola. The defeat of the South African forces was a major development in the southern African anti-colonial struggle. At the time, The World, an African newspaper, described what Cuba had done as such: “Black Africa is riding the crest of a wave generated by the Cuban success in Angola. Black Africa is tasting the heady wine of the possibility of realizing the dream of ‘total liberation.’”

Carlotta’s contributions to the struggle for the liberation of Cuba and of all Africans worldwide is clear.

Teodora Gomes, revolutionary leader of the PAIGC

Pan-African revolutionary woman Teodora Gomes speaks at a PAIGC event.

Teodora Inacia Gomes was born in Empada in the Quinara region of Guinea-Bissau in West Africa.  From a very young age, she became deeply concerned about the colonial oppression of Guinea-Bissau by the Portuguese and colonization throughout all of Africa, the oppression of African people worldwide, and the patriarchal oppression of women. 

Ms. Gomes joined the Amilcar Cabral founded African Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissau (and originally Cape Verde – PAIGC) in 1962, just six years after its inception.  She traveled to Guinea-Conakry to participate in the PAIGC’s armed training under the protection of the Democratic Party of Guinea and Sekou Ture’s government. 

During the PAIGC’s independence war against the Portuguese, Ms. Gomes became a trusted confidant of Amilcar Cabral.  And, in helping push the PAIGC’s commitment to advancing the fight against patriarchal oppression, Ms. Gomes led a contingent of almost 100 women PAIGC fighters who, along with her, engaged in countless military firefights with the Portuguese colonists. 

During the anti-colonial war, Ms. Gomes established herself as a trained medic on the battlefield. She continued to fight to ensure African women were respected as full participants in the fight for the dignity and independence of all people in Guinea-Bissau.

Upon the PAIGC defeating the Portuguese in 1974, Ms. Gomes continued her leadership role within the PAIGC.  She was immediately elected to the newly formed People’s Assembly of Guinea-Bissau.  She used her work to continue to wage a relentless fight against patriarchal oppression of African women as she is a key member of the General Union Guinea-Bissau Women (UDEMU), the women’s wing of the PAIGC.  Through her continuous efforts in UDEMU, she worked with others to get the genital mutilation of African women outlawed in Guinea-Bissau.  She also did work to help eliminate forced marriage and the inability of African women to get divorced.

Ms. Gomes has always understood that Guinea-Bissau’s struggle is not isolated from the struggle for the liberation of all of Africa and Africans everywhere.  Over the last five decades, she has consistently advocated and participated in the Pan-African work of the PAIGC, including being the keynote speaker at the All African People’s Revolutionary Party’s African Liberation Day sponsored program in 2020.

Today, Ms. Gomes continues to serve in a leadership capacity within the PAIGC.  She continues to fight for the full rights of African women. She continues to push for the unity of African people everywhere and the complete unification of Africa under a scientific socialist government.

Amy Jacques Garvey, the force behind the UNIA

Marcus Garvey and Amy Jacques Garvey

There is no way to speak of Garveyism without a mention of Marcus Garvey’s second wife, Amy Jacques Garvey. Jacques was born in Kingston, Jamaica on December 31, 1885. Her father was intentional about challenging her intellectually and sent her to the finest schools in Jamaica. Her great-great-grandfather, John Jacques, was the first mayor of Kingston. But Amy would not receive this formal education and only use it for her benefit. 

After being educated in Jamaica, Jacques moved to Harlem in 1917 at the age of 32. It was there that she met Marcus Garvey and began editing and publishing the Negro World newspaper. She used the platform to address Black feminist issues in a column called “Our Women and What They Think.” After the death of Marcus Garvey’s first wife, Amy Ashwood Garvey, he and Jacques wed in 1922. She continued her work with the paper and became one of Marcus Garvey’s most trusted comrades, helping in most of his business and political affairs. She was all about Black consciousness, self-help, and economic independence. 

When Marcus Garvey was sent to prison on charges of mail fraud, Jacques became his personal rep and a true ride or die. She made speeches at different branches of his organization, the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), and raised funds for his legal defense. Upon Garvey’s release, he was deported back to Jamaica, and Jacques soon followed with their two children. 

After Marcus Garvey died in 1940, Jacques made sure that his legacy stayed alive. During the 1940s, she was the contributing editor to the journal, The African. In 1944 she wrote “A Memorandum Correlative of Africa, West Indies and the Americas” which she sent to representatives of the United Nations, urging them to adopt an African Freedom Charter. She edited three volumes of The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey. By 1963, she published her book, Garvey and Garveyism, and later published two collections of essays, Black Power in America and The Impact of Garvey in Africa and Jamaica. She never gave up on the struggle for Black nationalism and African independence. There is no way that Garveyism as a political philosophy would have survived as strong as it has today without her tireless efforts. She passed away in 1973, in her birthplace, Kingston.

More from this Writer

“To educate the masses politically does not mean, cannot mean, making a political speech. What it means is to try, relentlessly and passionately, to teach the masses that everything depends on them; that if we stagnate it is their responsibility, and that if we go forward it is due to them too, that there is no such thing as a demiurge, that there is no famous man who will take the responsibility for everything, but that the demiurge is the people themselves and the magic hands are finally only the hands of the people.”
― Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth

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