Black Anti-Fascism and the Struggle for Democracy

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Nationalism and Transnationalism; Politics; Race


The emergence of Far Right politics throughout many democratic societies has revitalized discussions in both academia and the general public on the nature of fascism. While drawing parallels between early twenty-century fascism and modern-day white nationalism has produced useful lessons, this panel reorients the discussion towards peoples of African descent and their contributions to the legacy of anti-fascist politics and protests. By centering anti-fascism in their quest to build more genuine democratic societies, black anti-fascists played pioneering roles in the struggle to both protect and promote civil and human rights throughout the twentieth century. On this panel, Joseph Fronczak details the legacy of the Hands-Off Ethiopia Movement of 1935 and 1936 as a critical moment in the formation of a modern, transnational Left. By transforming anti-fascism from an Italy-specific expression to a global ideology, the Hands-Off Ethiopia Movement re-conceptualizes our understanding of democracy. Anna Duensing details the significance of African-American, anti-fascist satirist Oliver Harrington. At the dawn of the Cold War, Harrington moved from New York to East Berlin. While scholars have documented Harrington’s writings as a war correspondent during World War II as well as his work with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, few have studied his political writing during the 1960s and 1970s in East Berlin. Tiffany Florvil observes German women of African descent and their feminist, diaspora activism. Against the backdrop of the post-Holocaust West German society, these black lesbian activists challenged the heteronormative practices of white German politics during the Cold War. Organizing on both sides of the Atlantic, these women developed feminist and diasporic spaces that confronted sexism, racism, and homophobia.

Papers Presented

Hands Off Ethiopia and Antifascism: Amy Ashwood Garvey and C. L. R. James in Antifascist History

What would antifascism have been without “Hands Off Ethiopia?” The Hands Off Ethiopia movement remains the great overlooked antifascist cause. Overshadowed by the mystique of the Spanish Civil War that dominates antifascist historiography, widespread protests in 1935 against Fascist Italy’s war on Ethiopia stitched together solidarities later displayed in Spain, as scholars such as Robin D. G. Kelley and Imaobong Umoren have shown. This paper relies on the historiography of the black radical tradition to rethink the history of antifascism. I’m interested in particular in expressing a certain paradox. During the Hands Off Ethiopia movement, the efforts, expressions, and ideas of black radicals were central in transforming antifascism from an Italy-specific political form into a globally meaningful ideology; and yet the centrality of their role in remaking antifascism remained invisible to most of the political world and even, it appears, to themselves. This paper takes as its vantage point London of 1935, when Amy Ashwood Garvey and C. L. R. James organized the International African Friends of Ethiopia. I attempt to pursue two seemingly contradictory points that I hope express the paradox I have in mind: that Ashwood Garvey and James crafted singular ideological visions of antifascism that confound prevailing understandings of antifascism’s history; and that Ashwood Garvey’s and James’s antifascism were sharp examples of the black radicalism that provided a crucial foundation for the global antifascism of the Spanish Civil War era.

Presented By
Joseph Fronczak, Princeton University

“Like a Smile Which Dies on the Lips": Oliver Harrington’s East German Years and the Cold War Legacy of Black Antifascism

In November 1961, the African American political cartoonist and communist Oliver “Ollie” Harrington left his community of expats in Paris and relocated to East Berlin. Arriving shortly after the construction of the Berlin Wall in the midst of escalating Cold War tensions, Harrington settled in as a “loyal foreign visitor” to the German Democratic Republic. He would remain there for the rest of his life, up through the collapse of the Soviet Union and subsequent German reunification until his death in 1995. Scholars of the long civil rights movement have looked to Harrington’s early life and career in Harlem in the 1930s, his role as a war correspondent in the 1940s, and his brief tenure with the NAACP after the war, but few have extended their studies into German archives, attending to his political evolution and artistic expression living under “actually existing socialism.” This paper focuses on Harrington’s East German years, particularly the 1960s and 1970s, when he was classified by the state as an “unsafe contact person” for his critical views and support for global black liberation while simultaneously providing prized fodder for GDR propaganda. Drawing on his cartoons, his personal writings, his social and professional networks, his travels and border-crossings, and the extensive surveillance file maintained on Harrington by the East German State Security Service, I situate Harrington’s politics and self-imposed exile within the intertwined legacies of antifascism and the Black Popular Front, complicating competing Euro-centric antifascisms divergent along the East-West German fault lines which Harrington called home.

Presented By
Anna Faith Duensing, Yale University

Black German Women’s Grassroots Internationalism in the 1980s and 1990s

In 1986, Black German women created their own feminist and diasporic organization, ADEFRA, initiating a new stage within the Black German women’s movement. The organization, driven in large part by Black German lesbian activists of mixed-race descent, challenged heteronormative practices and racist presumptions in an ideologically-divided, post-Holocaust West German society. Local chapters sprang up in cities such as Berlin, Bremen, and Munich, enabling them to create new Black geographies and reinsert themselves into the fabric of nation. These local chapters and their subsequent organizational activities, which included international feminist conferences, cultural seminars, or consciousness-raising workshops, allowed Black German women to pursue a spatial politic that rendered their Blackness and feminism legible. This was important given their predicament in a majority-white German nation that saw itself as monocultural and monoracial. Black German women produced alternative forms of kinship through ADEFRA, their events, and their grassroots internationalism. They constructed feminist and diasporic spaces that challenged their erasure from the German nation. In doing so, they recognized how important place and space were in their efforts to gain recognition as fully-human citizens and to confront instances of sexism, racism, and homophobia. Drawing on a legacy of Black feminist activism on both sides of the Atlantic, Black German women built queer connections and practiced queer strategies within and beyond West Germany that informed their grassroots internationalism. In this way, Black German women’s activism privileged both the global and the local, helping them reimagine notions of Blackness, belonging, and feminism within West Germany.

Presented By
Tiffany Nicole Florvil, University of New Mexico

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Clayton Vaughn-Roberson, Carnegie Mellon Uiniversity
Dr. Clayton Vaughn-Roberson is a research associate at the Center for Africanamerican Urban Studies and the Economy (CAUSE) and an instructor of history at Carnegie Mellon University. Dr. Vaughn-Roberson earned his Ph.D. in history at Carnegie Mellon University in 2019. His manuscript, Fascism with a Jim Crow Face: the National Negro Congress and the Global Popular Front, is currently under external review with the University of North Carolina Press. He has published two peer-reviwed articles in the Journal of Civil of Human Rights and the Journal of American Communist History, respectively. He has been awarded the William Appleman Williams Junior Faculty Research Grant from the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, the Jean Harvey-Slappy Research Fellowship from the Marcus Garvey Foundation, and the Gilder Lehrman Scholarly Fellowship from the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.

Presenter: Anna Faith Duensing, Yale University
Anna Faith Duensing is a Ph.D. candidate in history and African-American Studies at Yale University. She is expected to graduate in 2021. Her dissertation is titled "Cold War Civil Rights and the Long Shadow of Fascism, 1945-1975." Her chapter, "Charlottesville and Beyond: Understanding Nazism at the Frontlines of the Battle Over Confederate Monuments," will be published in an edited volume titled Lessons and Legacies XV: Global Perspectives and National Narratives. The editors are Avinoam Patt and Erin McGlothlin. The manuscript is forthcoming by Northwestern University Press. She has received numerous fellowships and awards from the Yale Program for the Study of Antisemitism, the Truman Library Institute, and the Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Presenter: Tiffany Nicole Florvil, University of New Mexico
Dr. Tiffany Nicole Florvill is an assistant professor of twentieth-century European women's and gender history at the University of New Mexico. She received her Ph.D. in history at the University of South Carolina. Her manuscript, Mobilizing across Differences: Black German Women and the Making of a Transnational Movement, is currently under an advanced contract. She has published two peer-reviewed articles in the Journal of Civil and Human Rights and The German Quarterly, respectively. She has published four separate chapters in edited volumes, published by Berghahn Books, University of Illinois Press, Rutledge Press, and the University of Massachusetts Press. She has received numerous award, honors, and fellowship such as the AAUW American Postdoctoral Fellowship, the Dr. Richard M. Hunt Fellowship for the Study of German Politics, Society, and Culture, and the Berlin Program for Advanced German and European Studies.

Presenter: Joseph Fronczak, Princeton University
Dr. Joseph Fronczak is an associate research scholar and lecturer of history at Princeton University. He received his Ph.D. in history from Yale University in 2014. He has published two peer-reveiwed articles in the Journal of American History and Diplomatic History, respectively. His manuscript, Everything is Possible: Antifascism in the Making of a Global Left during the Great Depression, is under contract with Yale University Press. He has served as a faculty fellow at Harvard University's Charles Warren Center, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Instituion, and a Mellon Mahindra postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University