Unheard Voices, Made Known and Amplified
by Caitlin Hayes
When Carole Boyce Davies, Africana Studies/English, first began studying African and African diaspora literature and culture, the field was dominated by male scholars and writers — both as teachers and subjects of study. Boyce Davies arrived at just the right moment to make significant contributions.
“After the Black Power and Feminist movements, the paradigms began to shift toward recognizing the contributions of a new crop of young black women,” Boyce Davies says. “We were just coming into the academy as scholars in various fields, and we felt empowered to ask: Where are the women? Where are the women writers?”
Since then, Boyce Davies has spent her career making room for the experiences and voices of African-descended women all over the globe, with an emphasis on voices inside but also outside the United States. “I moved the discussion of black women writers from being a local, U.S.-based enterprise to being an international genre,” she explains. “I looked at black women’s writing in Brazil, in London, in the Caribbean, in Africa. Many of these women were writing themselves into history, literally.” Boyce Davies has amplified their voices, while writing herself into history, too.
Exploring the Writings of Women of African Descent, a Global Perspective
Early in her career, Boyce Davies published multiple books that gave a then-unprecedented platform for black women writers from around the world and helped establish the study of African-descended women writers as a field. Her first monograph, Black Women, Writing and Identity: Migrations of the Subject (Routledge, 1994), became a foundational text, laying the theoretical groundwork for framing the writing of women in the African diaspora.
Embracing a broad geographical scope, with all the complexities and particularities of each place and experience, was part of the point. “Each place has its own specificity,” Boyce Davies says. “In the U.S., you have a long history of abolitionist-generated literature, which used to be called slave narratives, now, freedom narratives. Then you have a place like Brazil, where race is very differently lived and experienced.”
Boyce Davies acknowledges the differences of each place while also tracing commonalities in the historical experience. “In the Americas, for example, there’s the historical experience of having been enslaved in many cases, the resistance to that enslavement, and the subsequent lives our people lived to recapture who they were, the recovery,” she says. “The writing is part of that recovery.”
Making sure the writing by these women is included in academic and mainstream conversations, Boyce Davies continues, is an extension of that recovery.
Claudia Jones, Left of Karl Marx
International black women writers were missing from the narrative but so were black female intellectuals and activists. Boyce Davies wanted to call attention to the tradition of female activist-intellectuals from the Caribbean, her home region. “We knew a lot about Caribbean men who are activists, C.L.R. James, for example, but there was not much of an understanding of who would be the female counterparts of those Caribbean thinkers,” she says.
Boyce Davies has worked to resurrect and study the writings of Claudia Jones — a black activist and journalist born in Trinidad in 1915 — for years. “She’s been a fascinating person to work with because there are so many sides of her,” Boyce Davies says. Jones immigrated to the United States with her family when she was eight and became active in the black left organizations and movement, eventually joining the Young Communist League USA. During the Red Scare, she was deported to the United Kingdom, as she was technically still a British subject.
Arriving in London in 1955, Jones founded the first black newspaper in the city called The West Indian Gazette and Afro-Asian Caribbean News. She served as a leader of the Caribbean diaspora, which had surged since the end of World War II, as Caribbean ex-servicemen and women and their families came to England to fill labor shortages. “There was a lot of pushback against immigrants from British conservatives, just like you have now in the U.S., and actually a number of riots targeting Afro-Caribbeans,” Boyce Davies says.
As one way to bridge the divide, Jones planned the first London Carnival, which became the ongoing Notting Hill Carnival, to showcase the beauty of Caribbean culture. “She felt that culture and art and all of those ways in which human beings mark themselves in the world need to be taken into consideration when trying to position a group,” Boyce Davies says. “She said that a people’s art is the genesis of their freedom.”
Jones was a remarkable person, but collecting her writings and learning about her life was not easy. As a professor at the State University of New York, Binghamton, Boyce Davies traveled with students to London for a number of years and used the opportunity to search libraries, conduct interviews, and visit the places where Jones lived. Finding Jones’ grave in London’s Highgate Cemetery, directly to the left of Karl Marx’s grave, served as inspiration for the title of Boyce Davies’ first full-length book about Jones, Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones (Duke University Press, 2008).
“I argued that a black woman who is taking up questions of workers’ rights, women’s rights, and race is technically left of Marx because she’s addressing issues that Marx did not have the capacity, experience, or cultural context to address,” Boyce Davies says. “It’s not that she’s much more radical than Marx but that she’s opening up a whole new window — not just on class, but class, race, gender, identity, and more.”
Boyce Davies continues to find more interesting details about Jones. For instance, Jones’ FBI file is over a thousand pages, and Boyce Davies would like to do more work with it. “There’s still so much work to be done,” she says.
The Rise of Women of African Descent in Politics: How They Practice Political Power
In her current book project, Boyce Davies moves to the present day to study black women and political power. “I want to look at this rise of black women in politics in a number of locations,” Boyce Davies says. “Some are heads of state, like Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in Liberia, or women who are now becoming ministers of culture, leaders in their political apparatus in each country.”
Boyce Davies plans to conduct interviews in the coming year, with the goal of understanding how women relate to or practice political power, how they define it, and what the challenges have been. In the resulting book, she hopes to provide mini-vignettes that profile each leader along with her own analysis. “The idea is to make it a readable book, in a nice format that people can get at but also that will have scholarly impact,” she says.
“It means your work is not something that only sits in the library but that it should have an intent and impact on the advancement of your community.”
This dual audience and impact — both scholarly and public — is an important aspect of Boyce Davies’ approach and her positioning as an intellectual and an activist. “There’s something called a Caribbean or black radical intellectual tradition, where scholars do not see their work as separate from what takes place in communities,” she explains. “It means your work is not something that only sits in the library but that it should have an intent and impact on the advancement of your community.”
A Scholar’s Work
For Boyce Davies, this community is global and local. She has lectured in many countries — most recently Haiti, where she organized the first Caribbean Studies Association Conference, and Mali, where she was a guest of the President and Minister of Culture. She is also a member of the UNESCO Scientific Committee, organized to produce a volume on the African Diaspora for The UNESCO General History of Africa (University of California Press), which has taken her to several countries. In 2016, she chaired a panel at The White House in honor of Caribbean-American Heritage month.
Boyce Davies has written and collaborated on many books: general editor of the Encyclopedia of the African Diaspora (ABC-CLIO, 2008), a three-volume work; Caribbean Spaces (University of Illinois Press, 2013), a collection of personal-political essays; a book about Claudia Jones’ autobiographical writing; and even a children’s book, Walking (Educa Vision, 2017), based on a character from her childhood.
In Ithaca, her most rewarding experiences are in the classroom. “Seeing the students grow and become who they are supposed to be. It’s beautiful,” she says. “I want to see them all do well. My philosophy is give yourself the space to be brilliant. I tell my students that all the time. Just go for it.”