Women’s Anticolonial International Thought

If early international relations meant race relations, then anticolonialism - the intellectual and political project of understanding, resisting, and transforming global racial and colonial exploitation - is also fundamental to the history of international thought and practice. Today, work on the intellectual and political history of anticolonialism is flourishing, alongside and often in conversation with scholarship on the closely related history of Black internationalisms. Within these literatures, the most developed engagement with historical women’s thought has been scholarship on Black feminist internationalism within the United States. There is also a strong body of scholarship on Francophone Black women’s anti-colonial thought.

Women were central to theorizing and resisting anticolonialism in its diverse forms and locations. Yet, very little, if any, of this work has influenced contemporary international theory or histories of international thought within IR given the gendered and racialized politics of expectations surrounding intellectual worth and appropriate genre. Indeed, if there is a structural and disciplinary production of women as incapable of generating knowledge about international relations, then the strictures on women of color are still graver.

In this short post, which previews the section on Anticolonialism on our forthcoming Anthology, we discuss thinkers working primarily outside academe, though often with advanced degrees, and in diverse genres.

One of the important early theorizations of ‘Black Internationalism’ was Jeanne ‘Jane’ Nardal’s (1900-1993) essay ‘Internationalisme noir’, published in 1928. Black internationalist consciousness, she argued, had its origins in the global conflict of the First World War. The widespread experiences of total war mirrored the experiences of Black populations around the world, yet the violence of war, and a disenchantment with the possibility of civic equality in the metropole, led to a rediscovery of African culture, of la vogue nègre.

Nardal grew up in the French colony of Martinique, before moving to Paris to study literature and French at the Sorbonne in 1923 (she and her sister, Paulette, were the first Antillean women to be admitted). Their experiences of racism and sexism in the imperial capital prompted their involvement in anti-racist movements. For Jane Nardal, this activism manifested primarily through her journalism and editorial work, much of which sought to show that imperial and racist hierarchies would only be overcome when Black peoples were recognized as co-contributors to their respective national cultures. To this end, she advocated the production of literature and art that married what she saw as the best of French culture, latinité, with the best of African culture, Africanité.

Nardal’s essay articulated ideas about race that would become central to the influential French political cultural movement of the 1930s, négritude, and appeared in the newspaper Nardal had co-founded, La Dépêche africaine. Published primarily in French but with a regular English section, its circulation peaked at around 10,000 in its four-year run. La Dépêche africaine’s mission was to serve as ‘an independent journal of correspondence between blacks, for the moral and material interests of the indigenous populations, through the objective study of the larger colonial questions considered from political, economic, and social points of view.’ Nardal’s article was an unusual foray into cultural nationalism for the periodical but it nonetheless fitted directly into La Dépêche africaine’s efforts to intervene in the contemporary imperial order. Nardal was read by influential African American intellectuals such as Eslanda Robeson, who also appears in the Anthology, as well as Alain Locke and W.E.B. Du Bois, all of whom advanced anti-racist and anti-colonial theory.

In style and substance, Suzanne Roussy Césaire’s analysis of international order was not dissimilar to Nardal’s and the two moved in similar intellectual circles in Paris in the 1930s.

However, Césaire’s work was far more engaged with the contemporary French movement of surrealism. Born in the French territory of Martinique in 1913, Césaire studied literature at university in Toulouse and then Paris at the École normale supérieure. In the mid- to late-thirties, she became involved in the cultural political movement of négritude and worked with the poets and politicians Léopold Sédar Senghor and Aimé Césaire on the ground-breaking Black activist journal L’Étudiant Noir. Suzanne’s intellectual work has long been overshadowed by Aimé, whom she married in 1937. Nevertheless, the essay we excerpted in the Anthology, ‘The Great Camouflage,’ needs to be understood in relation to their intellectual collaboration on the relations between race, culture and human freedom.

The piece appeared in 1945 in Tropiques, a journal they helped to launch under the Vichy regime in Martinique during the Second World War. Tropiques was explicitly intended as an assertion of Black cultural originality, an attempt to meet the challenge laid down in Nardal’s ‘Internationalisme noir’. ‘The Great Camouflage’ is filled with a surrealist poetic language unlike the more academic tones of the contemporary colonial policy theorists in our section on Imperialism. Césaire’s tone and form was partly a reaction to the colonial context in which her work was circulated: despite its explicitly political nature, Tropiques managed for some years to pass under the radar of the Vichy regime as it was dubbed a magazine of ‘folklore.’ International political thought was disseminated under the guise of cultural and literary writing, a technique common in francophone anti-colonial thinking in this period.

Césaire paints a picture of the Antilles as the product of centuries of French colonialism and slavery. This history cut both ways, placing the islands in a position of eternal struggle. For the Antillean who is the ‘great-grandson of a colonist and a black slave woman’, the sense of belonging to France is always undercut by racialized identity. French colonial officials demarcated the boundaries of French belonging in Martinique. Yet they were filled with dread by their ‘colored descendants.’ By blood and education, Antilleans are French, yet also not considered part of ‘Western civilization’ due to the colonial logics of race (138). In tension with this tangled colonial dynamic is the ever-present conflict between the processes of modernization epitomized by the United States and the tentacles of ‘the old continent’, Europe (137). In both cases, people of color suffer, but ‘blacks in America… suffer most’ due to a ‘day-to-day humiliation’ that knows no bounds. As remedy to this tug of war and the Antillean struggle, Césaire proposed African solidarity as a source of revitalization because it had endured, despite European imperialism. In explicitly gendered language, she wrote, ‘Africa is there, present, that she waits, immensely virginal despite the colonization, turbulent, devourer of whites’ (140).

Una Marson (1905-1965), Jamaican feminist and pan-Africanist intellectual developed her international thinking before the rise of fascist internationalism but, as seen in the excerpt we reprint in the Anthology, became intensely involved in anti-fascist-anticolonialism, particularly after the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. Born in Jamaica to middle class parents, Marson, like Jones, had no formal education beyond high school. Yet, in 1926, she became an editor of Jamaica Critic, and later edited and produced her own magazine The Cosmopolitan, while publishing critically acclaimed feminist poetry. She moved to London in 1932, though frequently travelled back to Jamaica, becoming an active member of the League of Coloured People, the British Commonwealth League and the International Alliance of Women. Marson worked at the League of Nations headquarters in Geneva prior to taking up a post at the Ethiopian ministry in London, which included administrative work for Emperor Haile Selassie and the Ethiopian minister, Charles Martin.

In the Anthology, we excerpt Marson’s poem, ‘To Jo and Ben’, which appeared in The Moth and The Star, dedicated to Charles Martin’s sons, who, as the poem’s dedication describes, were ‘brutally murdered in April 1937 at Addis Ababa by the Italians’. ‘Bombs rained/ From hell’s corsairs/ Upon You/ But you were still/ Unscathed. /Conquered your land/ But Still/ With the unconquered/ Band of gallant warriors/ You stood… To free the land/ That gave you birth/ From savagery’s dark reign.’ Like several other thinkers in the volume, Marson can be situated within Black internationalist traditions, specifically as a leading member of the West Indian intellectual tradition in Britain.

Poetry was frequently used as a medium of political protest within anti-colonial and anti-imperial movements, in part because it was not usually subject to police or state surveillance and less likely to end in reprisal. Whilst Marson did not make her choice for this reason, it is nonetheless important to observe that this poem is part of a much larger tradition of anti-imperial protest, particularly in the Caribbean, in which she was a leading figure. As the first Black female producer for the BBC, Marson developed the hugely influential Caribbean Voices, a weekly feature within the Calling the West Indies series, the BBC’s first programme for Caribbean listeners. In its run from 1943 to 1958, the programme was a critical platform for Caribbean writers and poets. In the words of Barbadian poet Edward Kamau Braithwaite, Marson’s Caribbean Voices was ‘the single most important literary catalyst for Caribbean creative and critical writing in English.’

The only daughter of Sir Bache Cunard – the heir to the British Cunard shipping line – and the American-born London socialite Mary Alice Cunard (née Burke), Nancy Cunard (1896-1985) was an unlikely anticolonial thinker. And yet, in all her professional endeavours, including activism, poetry, journalism and publishing, she forcefully rejected the gendered and classed trappings of her birth. Her relationship to empire, anticolonialism, and the question of racial difference was defined by her identity as a wealthy white woman. Cunard was to some extent conscious of her own positionality. She adopted an anti-racist platform, explicitly disavowing whiteness, or particular versions of whiteness that emphasised racial otherness. She also used her privilege to amplify Black critiques of racism and imperialism.

Cunard is perhaps best known for editing the 1934 volume, Negro: An Anthology, an 855 pages collection of essays, short stories, sheet music, drawings and poems from over 150 Black thinkers and artists, with some white contributors. The volume was explicitly designed to assert the diversity and reality of Black humanity, including a significant number of women. Cunard’s anthology was an impressive and significant intervention into interwar discussions about race. She lay out her own thinking on racism and colonialism, arguing that ‘it is Communism alone which throws down the barriers of race as finally it wipes out class distinctions. The essay we extract here, from Cunard’s 1942 White Man’s Duty: An Analysis of the Colonial Question in the Light of the Atlantic Charter, is less obviously communist. However, Cunard adopts a similar framing to Negro: An Anthology, setting out her argument in the preface before showcasing the thought of George Padmore, one of the most influential Black and Trinidadian thinkers and activists of the twentieth-century.

Padmore had worked in the United States and Europe as a Communist organizer before breaking with the Comintern to pursue Pan-Africanist organizing in Britain. Cunard and Padmore became friends and collaborators through his involvement with Negro: An Anthology. The bulk of White Man’s Duty comprises the transcript of Cunard’s conversation with Padmore. She prompts him to explain ‘his analysis and solution of the problem’ of world peace and empire, including reaction to the 1941 Atlantic Charter, President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill’s statement on their goals for the post-war order. Neither Cunard nor Padmore believed that the Charter’s rosy vision of freedom included people of color or colonial subjects. In particular, Britain’s plan for peace had to properly address the question of Empire. Instead of maintaining the racialized norms of empire – which also manifested in Britain through an unofficial color bar – Cunard urged her readers to force Britain ‘become the real British “Commonwealth”’ in which all members had equal rights. 

Literary scholar Maureen Moynagh has described Cunard as a kind of ‘political tourist’, noting that her work took on the aspect of both the imperial gaze of an aristocratic white woman and the commitment of a political activist. As a collector of African art in the 1920s – most famously her collection of African jewellery - Cunard’s interest in Africa and African diaspora was heavily embedded in the contemporary vogue nègre. This was symptomatic of the Parisian landscape she inhabited in this period: many of her friends and lovers were important figures in surrealism and modernism, both movements that took inspiration from imperial imaginaries of Africa. In the late 1920s, Cunard developed friendships with African American writers visiting Paris, such as novelist Langston Hughes. This opened her eyes to the realities of racism in the United States. Her burgeoning awareness was cemented when, in 1928, she began a romantic relationship with the jazz musician Henry Crowder. The mixed-race couple were often refused entry to restaurants in Britain, and they were often the object of scorn in public. Indeed, Negro: An Anthology, was funded by the damages Cunard won from a libel suit against the British press for the racial slurs used to describe their relationship.

The final selection we want to highlight here comes from another white woman whose eyes were opened to the horrors of colonialism and racism, Simone Weil (1909-1943). Primarily through the work of Helen M. Kinsella, Weil is one of the few historical women to receive minor acknowledgement in IR’s existing canon. Yet this attention is meagre relative to her influence, particularly for her best-known work on the concept of power and the question of rights. Weil’s anti-colonialism emerged from her political experiences as a teacher and activist in imperial France.

Born in Paris to secular Jewish parents, Weil originally trained as a philosopher, and was the only woman in her class at the École normale supérieure. Upon graduation in 1931, she worked as a teacher at lycées and became active in labour unions, teaching philosophy to workers and protesting for better conditions. Drawn to Marxism, she took a sabbatical from teaching in 1934 to work as a member of the class she saw as most oppressed, unskilled women factory workers, and participated in the infamous 1936 Paris factory strikes. However, by 1931, after reading reports of French colonial reprisals in response to the Yên Bái uprising in Indochina, Weil became increasingly critical of French colonialism and drew comparisons between the oppression of the working classes in France and France’s colonial subjects.

Weil’s sense of these parallels deepened after the fall of France in September 1939. Initially moving with her family to Vichy France, she worked for the Resistance, distributing one of its more influential newspapers, Les Cahiers de témoignage chrétien. Eventually she was forced to leave France for New York before moving to London to work with the Free French Forces. The article below was written from London in 1943 not long before her death from tuberculosis. ‘The Colonial Question and the Destiny of the French People’ is one of thirteen articles she wrote questioning the ethics of colonialism. It combines Weil’s analysis of the legitimate uses of force and individual freedom with a stark critique of European imperialism through a comparison of French colonialism to the German occupation of France. Complaints about Germany’s infringement of French sovereignty could logically be applied to the French military occupation throughout its empire. ‘If the methods of colonial conquest are examined in detail’, Weil wrote, ‘the analogy with Hitlerian methods is obvious (110).’ Only a twisted logic premised on false racial hierarchies could provide support for imperialism. Even if such racial logics were accepted, Weil argued, then ‘the force upon which a colonial empire rests is a naval fleet’. ‘If it is force that decides, France has lost hers; if it is a question of rights, France never had the right to determine the destiny of non-French peoples’ (109).

The selections introduced here are not at all comprehensive and we include more in the Anthology. There were numerous women anticolonial thinkers and activists in other colonial locations where the influence of their ideas was curtailed. Reading this work, largely by non-Anglophone and émigré thinkers should give many of us pause. The relatively small numbers of women of color writing about international relations in the Anglo-American academy can be explained by the racial, class, and gendered hierarchies of and exclusions from higher education. The relative absence of Anglophone white anticolonial thinkers cannot be so easily explained.