Disclaimer: women = All Africans who identify as women.
When discussing women’s role in revolution and resistance, it is important that we do not classify them merely as supporting characters. More often than not, African women held positions of leadership just as African men did. African women were never discriminated against by their counterpart, the African men, as is characteristic of the relationship between the white man and woman.
It is the purpose of this piece to provide historical examples of how working-class African women, joined and supported by working-class African men, combated the shackles of racism, colonialism, and imperialism regardless of their geographical position. We will use the women of Dahomey, Assata Shakur, and Claudia Jones as examples of significant working-class women who contributed greatly to African Liberation.
Women soldiers of Dahomey—Africa
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Kingdom of Dahomey (located in Benin’s modern country) was defended by women soldiers contemporarily known as “Dahomey Amazons.” These women were trained and disciplined from their teen years to protect Dahomey from any outside aggressors. Most notably, the women soldiers of Dahomey were significant in their role fighting French colonialism. There were two major conflicts, the First and Second Franco-Dahomean War, in which the women soldiers truly demonstrated their military strength and prowess.
Though the second conflict ended with the fall of the Dahomean kingdom due to French colonialist forces’ military power, the Amazons of Dahomey nevertheless fought till the absolute end for their kingdom. Discipline was heavily emphasized in their rigorous training; this included the endurance of pain and indifference to death. The women were taught to control their anger and organize it into defending Dahomean sovereignty. This is evident in the recruits themselves; the women were teens and adults alike.
Some voluntarily joined while others were forced depending on their circumstance. Regardless of their situations, however, one thing is clear. The women of Dahomey exemplified the extent to which working-class African women contributed to stability and peace. It is also a standing testament of the egalitarian dynamic between men and women in Africa. African women were never denied positions of service or leadership because of their sex. This idea, like many other harmful and anti-African ideas, was brought from Europe during colonization.
In the modern age, working-class African women like Assata Shakur are the epitome of women as a force of resistance and revolution..Assata Shakur, mostly known for the violent altercation at the New Jersey Turnpike, which ended with her capture, was heavily involved with the Black Panther Party (BPP). In Assata, her autobiography, Shakur recounts her involvement in the Party, especially her participation in the breakfast program that the BPP was famous for. It is also often overlooked that many members of the party were students in college. As a student herself, Shakur contributed by working and coordinating with students on campus. She writes, “Because I was still a college student, I was often called on by the BPP to do student work.” This meant that she was expected to go on campus and spread the Party’s message.
She also goes on to say that she “was deathly afraid of speaking in public,” but that she had to get over it tobe effective on campus. This sentence is significant because as important a figure as Assata Shakur is, she still suffered those mundane fears that any regular person would.
This is one of Assata Shakur’s aspects that makes her connect to students and African people in general. She lived those things we read about. She lived the BPP, she lived COINTELPRO, she lived the anti-African state that is the U.S., and unlike so many, continues to live today.
This makes Assata Shakur a living legend in every sense of the word.
Assata Shakur is a giant in Black Liberation’s movement, but it is just as important to remember that she is still a person. This understanding goes beyond Shakur. When we study and analyze our ancestors, it is imperative that we allow them the room to be people. African people are not a monolith, in the same manner African leaders too are not a monolith.
Claudia Jones—Caribbean: Trinidad & Tobago
Claudia Jones was a Trinidadian journalist, communist, and activist born in 1915. In 1947, Jones was the only African woman in the central committee of the Communist Party USA. As a journalist and activist, Jones organized working women’s groups and spread Communist ideas in the United States. For this, Jones was targeted by the government.
This target became apparent when in 1950, Jones delivered her speech entitled “International Women’s Day and the Struggle for Peace” and was subsequently arrested, convicted, and imprisoned for daring to be a Communist within the U.S.
“For, even with all the power your Honor holds, how can you decide to mete out justice for the only act to which I proudly plead guilty, and one, moreover, which by your own prior rulings constitutes no crime—that of holding Communist ideas.”Claudia Jones, “Speech to the Court,” February 1953
In 1955, Jones was deported to the UK and there, she founded the first commercial Black newspaper in the UK: West Indian Gazette and Afro-Asian Caribbean News (WIG). One of the main purposes of the Gazette was to foster an African/Black consciousness among Caribbean nationals residing in the UK. Instead of defining one’s nationality by one’s respective island, the Gazette preached the unification of Caribbean peoples of African descent. The Gazette also employed and spread Pan-African ideas of linking one’s struggle with that of the global fight against colonialism and racism.
Much like Black feminists contemporarily, Claudia Jones argued that “Negro women—as workers, as Negroes, and as women—are the most oppressed stratum of the whole population.” Unlike modern Black feminist ideas however, Jones was drawn to Communism to solve those multi-faceted oppressions suffered by Black women. It is important to recognize that Claudia Jones was a radical leftist. Claudia Jones’ politics is another glaring example about the political complexities of our ancestors.
As African people, we cannot sanitize or simplify our ancestors’ messages to fit our own personal agendas and narrative. That’s the enemy’s job. When we quote or reference their works it is important that we do so fully aware of the context. For if we do, we are doing ourselves, our ancestors, and our people a disservice.