Selma James, activist, political thinker and writer. She is the founder of the International Wages for Housework Campaign and helped launch the Global Women’s Strike. She is the author of numerous publications, including, most recently, Sex, Race and Class — The Perspective of Winning: A Selection of Writings 1952-2011.
Watch Amy Goodman’s complete interview with the pioneering activist, writer and political thinker Selma James. For six decades, James has been on the front lines of working-class movements for women’s liberation and against racism. She launched the International Wages for Housework Campaign three decades ago, controversially arguing that women should be paid for housework. That argument is still timely today as a debate over women’s work rocks the presidential race. Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen sparked a firestorm last week when she said Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s wife Ann has "actually never worked a day in her life." Selma James, who coined the term "unwaged" labor to describe the work of housewives, notes that much of the world’s work consists of unpaid labor performed by women. "There’s an international division of labor of which we are all part, including those of us who are unwaged,” James says.
In this extended interview, Selma James takes us through six decades of her trailblazing activism, from the writing of her seminal 1952 essay "A Woman’s Place," which she penned with encouragement from the late West Indian scholar C.L.R. James, who later became her husband, to today’s SlutWalk protests in London, England. Among her many acts of resistance over the years, James recounts how she sat with masked prostitutes in 1982 as they occupied a church to protest police abuses. She discusses her late husband, C.L.R. James, and how she joined his Johnson-Forest Tendency as a teenager and later worked with him in the Caribbean. Finally, she weighs in on today’s Occupy movement and the imprisonment of Mumia Abu-Jamal, whose book she edited. "The fact that so many people are in prison in the United States not only shapes the lives of millions ... but it means that the whole society is much more repressive, because the standards of prison are constantly imprisoning the rest of us," she says.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, and I’m joined by Selma James, longtime activist, writer, political thinker, known for her pioneering work on women’s rights and against racism, credited with coining the phrase "unwaged labor" to describe the work of housewives. And she’s argued women should be paid for housework. Selma James’s new book is called Sex, Race and Class—The Perspective of Winning: A Selection of Writings 1952-2011. The book spans six decades of her work, beginning with the groundbreaking 1952 essay, "A Woman’s Place," all the way up to articles to today’s women’s movement. In a series of arguments that have remained remarkably consistent over six decades, Selma James argues unity across the lines of race, class and gender. Among many other topics, she’s written about the great West Indian scholar C.L.R. James, who also happened to be her husband.
Selma James, welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about where you were born.
SELMA JAMES: I was born in Brooklyn, New York, in what was then called "Bronzeville," because the immigrants couldn’t pronounce "Brownsville." But it’s Ocean Hill-Brownsville today. And I come from a working-class family. My father was a truck driver, and my mother was a factory worker, until we were born, in which case—when she became a housewife.
AMY GOODMAN: What year were you born?
SELMA JAMES: I was born in 1930, just as the economic crisis had hit. And my father worked right throughout the Depression, although he was blacklisted because he formed a branch of the Teamsters union in Brooklyn, which was then taken over by the Mafia. And he went to hospital and to jail and all the rest as a result of that. That was the education that I received before I went to school.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, that’s quite a training ground. Talk about your early activism.
SELMA JAMES: The movement was very big, the movement of the ’30s, and all the families we knew were part of the movement and part of the—part of those—among those who fought for Spain and who were concerned that the Spanish people were not defeated against Franco, which of course they were. I used to collect the cigarette—the silver paper that cigarette packets—
AMY GOODMAN: The foil.
SELMA JAMES: Yes, the foil. And we made big balls of them. When I was six, I got the whole neighborhood to—all the kids to gather that, and that was supposed to be for bullets for Spain. And I don’t know if they were, but—
AMY GOODMAN: This is for those who were fighting against Franco.
SELMA JAMES: Up against Franco, that’s right. I was raised to be part of the movement. I remember being on my father’s shoulders when the parade went by of nurses for Spain, and we all threw money into this big red banner that they held on the four corners. That’s—I was just part of that.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about age 15, what you started doing then.
SELMA JAMES: I knew that I had to join some kind of organization, and my family had been pro-communist, and my sister had become pro-Trotskyist. And I had to decide between the two. I knew I had to do that, so I went around organizations, and the people I liked most were the Trotskyists, so I joined the Trotskyist youth group. And I was soon involved in what I knew to be the Johnson-Forest Tendency, which C.L.R. James had founded and led. And it suited me. I liked what they said. They said there was going to be a revolution in the United States, and that’s why I was there. I was there to make that revolution so. And the others were not saying that.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, revolution? What needed to be overthrown?
SELMA JAMES: Oh, you know, I don’t think I could have put my finger on the big international issues, but I knew that my family had suffered as a result of the economic crisis and the terrible relations between women and men. I had watched my mother and her neighbors talk about things, and I was always listening to what they said. And this man beat his wife. And this man didn’t bring the money home. And this man couldn’t find a job, and his wife had to struggle to feed the children. And all of that, I knew that had to go. That had to change. We had to overthrow the whole lot of them. But I couldn’t be more specific than that; I just knew that’s what had to be done.
AMY GOODMAN: And explain who C.L.R. James was.
SELMA JAMES: Ah, that’s a big question. He was a West Indian born in 1901, Trinidad. And he was a writer and, in general, an intellectual and a cricket player and a cricket critic. And he went to England in 1932 to become a writer. But in 1933, Hitler took power, and you had to do something more serious than write novels, he thought, and was soon involved in the movement and in Trotskyism. In 1938, he was invited to come to the United States on a lecture tour by the Socialist Workers Party, which was the Trotskyist organization. And he got involved in a political split here, and he had to find out really what he thought and what Marx was really about and what Hegel was really about. And as a result of that, he dug very deep into what kind of organization we needed, because if you make a revolution, as they did in the Soviet Union, and then Stalin took power and negated everything you had fought for and risked for, then your own organization has turned against you. And that was happening not only in the Soviet Union; it was happening in the unions. It was happening in other working-class organizations. And the question is—and still is—what do you do when your own organization turns against you? He addressed that, and he said, "What kind of organization do we want to build, that doesn’t prevent that, because it’s clearly bigger than prevention, but at least that fortified you against that and that you were aware of and that the grassroots could hold on to their own leadership?" That’s what he addressed himself to. I was part of that learning and experimenting. And we built the Johnson-Forest Tendency.
AMY GOODMAN: And who was Johnson and Forest?
SELMA JAMES: Johnson was C.L.R. James. His party name was J.R. Johnson, not that the government didn’t know exactly who he was. I don’t understand why those names were used, really, looking back, because they knew exactly who Johnson was. Forest was Raya Dunayevskaya, and she was a woman who had come—she had come as a child from Russia before the revolution. And she was a Russian speaker. She could study the Soviet economy and find out what was wrong with it, or rather, how it related to other, what we considered to be, capitalist economies. And Johnson and Forest both said and studied and, to my way of thinking, proved that Russia was not a workers’ state, but state capitalism, and that other societies that were capitalist were also more and more controlled by the state, that that was where we had reached and that we didn’t need any vanguard party. That was the other thing that they both really agreed on and built their organization on.
AMY GOODMAN: So how did you end up in England? Talk about your life’s trajectory.
SELMA JAMES: When he was about to be deported during McCarthyism—you know, McCarthyism is not talked about very much, but it was really a watershed in the movement in the United States. McCarthy—we lost our jobs. We had our phones tapped. We were persecuted. And those of us who were not born in the United States were always in danger of being kicked out. He was put on Ellis Island in detention, immigration detention—as today, only in another place—for some months. He came out—
AMY GOODMAN: On Ellis Island?
SELMA JAMES: On Ellis Island.
AMY GOODMAN: I don’t think most people understand that it was a jail there.
SELMA JAMES: Oh, I see. Well, you know, I went to see it a couple of years ago. I went to Ellis Island to see where C.L.R. had been detained. And it was just, you know, a prison. And he was in prison because he wasn’t an American citizen and because he was a socialist. And then, they were going to deport him, and he left.
AMY GOODMAN: Did he ever meet Emma Goldman?
SELMA JAMES: Don’t know. I think not. He met Virginia Woolf. He met a number of people who were prominent in the U.K. more than in the U.S. And he went to England. He returned to England. He had been there before. He had always earned his living as a cricket journalist, among other things.
AMY GOODMAN: And what does that mean, to be a—well, he was not just a cricket player, as you said, but a cricket critic?
SELMA JAMES: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And don’t say that three times fast.
SELMA JAMES: Well, he played cricket, but he never played cricket professionally. It was—he just loved cricket, loved cricket. And he was a great critic of the game and its finer points and who was a great player and what was good about it and all the rest.
AMY GOODMAN: What did he say it said about the world, cricket?
SELMA JAMES: He saw cricket as an expression of people’s opposition or really devastation by city society when they had come from the countryside. This was a more leisurely game. It took five days, you know, for an international match. And he thought that it was an expression of people’s creativity, and it was an art form that people had developed. And he just—he saw it as a civilizing influence, that that’s how people expressed themselves, an artistic and physical expression. He thought sport in general was that, but cricket was absolutely the most expressive of that.
AMY GOODMAN: You ended up going to England.
SELMA JAMES: I had no—we had got together here, and the only way that we could be together was for me to go to England. By that time, I had a six-year-old son. I had married in ’47. And he and I, my son Sam and I, went to England.
AMY GOODMAN: You had married as a very young woman, at 17.
SELMA JAMES: I was 17, yes. And I had a baby at 18. That was not uncommon, especially young women who wanted to do something independent. The only way to do it was to marry, because it—you know, your parents can drag you back, otherwise. So that was very common. And it still is, I think, although less common, perhaps, now. And so, we made our life in London. And he was writing. We spent some months in Spain so he could finish a book and live cheaply, at that time. And then he was invited to the celebration of West Indian Federation in 1958, and he was asked to stay in the West Indies and to help with the independence movement. And so—
AMY GOODMAN: In Trinidad.
SELMA JAMES: Pardon me?
AMY GOODMAN: In Trinidad?
SELMA JAMES: Yes, in Trinidad. But we were in the other islands, as well. And then, Sam and I, my son and I, joined him there and lived there for almost five years. It was a great experience. I learned an enormous amount. In fact, I learned that the independence movement was really not as important to the people as the federation movement. They wanted to be together. They knew they were independent from British imperialism. They knew they had rejected that, and they could walk out at any time. But the question was, how to be together. And the politicians—
AMY GOODMAN: All the West Indian nations.
SELMA JAMES: All the islands, 10 islands, to be a nation. That’s what they were really interested—that’s what the grassroots was interested in. But the politicians were interested in power for themselves, and the federation didn’t succeed. It was one of the tragedies of my life, really.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about your relationship with and C.L.R. James’s relationship with George Padmore and who he was?
SELMA JAMES: Yes. When we—when I went to England, I met George and Dorothy, and they were a team. George lived in a little council flat. That meant, you know, government housing, small government housing. They didn’t have a telephone, I remember. But they fed all those who came from various colonies fighting for independence from the British Empire, and sometimes also from the French Empire. And he was—he knew everything. He was enormously knowledgeable. He was enormously dedicated. And so was Dorothy. And they particularly were concerned with the liberation of Africa, but they were internationalists, really. And when, in 1941, George was asked to join the British army, he wrote a letter, and he said, "Look, I am against the British Empire. I am against all its ways and work, and I will have absolutely nothing to do with your army." And they left him alone. They didn’t touch him. He was a great man and very modest and very unassuming and just lovely to know. And you had to fall in love with him, you know, and Dorothy. Dorothy and I were really close mates, and she took me under her wing, really, because she had been there before. And here I was, the wife of someone who was involved in the independence—the anti-imperialist movement.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, unlike you and C.L.R. James going to the West Indies, he remained in Britain and ultimately went to Africa, to Accra, Ghana?
SELMA JAMES: When he was in Britain, he didn’t want to do anything with West Indian politics—George didn’t.
AMY GOODMAN: Though he was from Trinidad.
SELMA JAMES: He was also—they had been boys together, George and Nello. I call C.L.R. Nello. That was his family name. But when Nkrumah went back and made the struggle there, and always consulting George in London—
AMY GOODMAN: Nkrumah, the founding president of Ghana.
SELMA JAMES: Kwame Nkrumah. When Kwame Nkrumah got the independence for Ghana in 1957 on the 6th of March, George and Dorothy left London to be at the service of the first black African country to have independence. He worked on the co-operatives, and he was Kwame’s adviser. And it was very difficult. I know they had a lot of trouble. George was—didn’t live very long after that. By 1959, he was dead. And when the BBC announced his death, they said he was the father of African independence, and that was not untrue. That was what George deserved to have said about him.
AMY GOODMAN: W.E.B. Du Bois, how did he fit into this picture?
SELMA JAMES: I didn’t know Du Bois. He was—but he was a man who was doing an encyclopedia of Africa, really, and he had gone to Ghana to do that. He was a very old man then. He was enormously respected. And it was great that a man like him had a place to go, you know, where he was welcomed, honored, at home and able to do his work. I knew about it, but I didn’t—that was one of the people I unfortunately never met.
AMY GOODMAN: So during all of this time, you were writing, as well. Talk about when—
SELMA JAMES: Uh, no, not really. You know, there wasn’t time for me to do any writing. I was typing. I was cooking. I was entertaining. I was trying to, you know, keep things together. Nello had a hand tremor, and therefore his handwriting was difficult, and you had to learn the code, so to speak. And I was one of the few people who knew to read his script. And I typed his book. And then, of course, you know, when there were no computers, you typed the draft, then he put corrections in, and you retyped the draft. Then he put some additional corrections in, and you retype the draft. It was a lot of work. And I remember when he wrote Beyond a Boundary, the book about cricket. I knew passages by heart, because I had typed things four or five times, at least. That’s how it was then. So, writing, it was—that was not in it.
In any case, I was not interested in writing, per se. Everything that’s in this new book that you mentioned is written for a purpose, as part of a movement. I wrote A Woman’s Place because Nello had urged me to do it. And he called me one day and said, "Have you written, you know, your pamphlet?" And he said—I said, "No." And he said, "Why not?" And I said, "Because I don’t know how to write a pamphlet." And he said, "Well, you—it’s very simple." He said, "You take a shoebox, and you make a slit at the top. And every time you think of something, you put it on a piece of paper, and you put the piece of paper in the shoebox. Then, one day, you open the shoebox up, and you put the sentences in order," he said, "and you will have your pamphlet." I said, "OK." And so, I took a day off work. I was working in a factory wiring and soldering, and I left at the same time I would have left the home if I had gone to work. I put my son in child care at the same time as usual. But I went to a friend’s house instead, because if I had stayed at home, I would have cleaned the cook. I know I would have. And I put the sentences together. And by the evening, I had the draft of a pamphlet. He had been absolutely right. It was great advice that he’d given me.
I look back now, and I know that one of the ways he found that out was because Nello had helped organize with sharecroppers in southeast Missouri, and he had told me that the men had said—and Booker was the leading person—had said that they needed a pamphlet. And Nello had said, "All right, Booker." And he sat down at the table with a pen, and he said, "OK, what do you want to say?" And the man was not expecting that; he was expecting Nello to write a pamphlet for him. So he knew how to deal with grassroots people. He knew how to be useful to them. And he was a very creative person in that regard, as well. So by the time he got to this young woman who was a housewife and factory worker, he knew the advice to give me. And that’s how the pamphlet was written.
AMY GOODMAN: And talk about your main thesis in A Woman’s Place.
SELMA JAMES: Well, you know, I didn’t have a thesis, per se. But reading it, what, now—and a lot of women have liked it, and it’s the only thing I wrote that my mother liked. My mother said, "Yes, this is good. Now you’re on the right track." It was that women are engaged in the work of making society, of making children—that is an enormous job—and that the separation between women and men is harmful to all of us.
After I wrote A Woman’s Place — you know, I remembered a lot of things, writing this or getting this anthology together. I remember walking into a neighbor’s house, and all her children’s clothes were lined up, were hanging from a line that she had put in her living room. And I said—I thought she’d gone mad. And I said, you know, "What is this about?" She said, "I’m selling them." I said, "Why?" She said, "If I don’t get any money of my own, I’m going to go crazy, so I’m selling all the clothes that the children have grown out of." And that stayed with me, you know, always. And I understood, you know, that we needed money of our own without having to go out to work and do the double day and all the rest. And that was an important part of what was in my mind when I wrote A Woman’s Place, and it’s still very important in my mind.
AMY GOODMAN: And then talk about the organizing you did and coining this phrase, "unwaged work."
SELMA JAMES: Well, when the new women’s movement burst out in the early 1970s in England, I thought, oh, well, they will be way ahead of where I was, and I must go to learn, and all the rest. And they were, in many respects, but they still had not grappled with the housework. They still had not grappled with that lack of financial independence and how crucial that was. They still—and they had a very peculiar notion of what this work is. They said women will go out to work, as if it was some liberation to go out to work. They clearly—the work that they were thinking of doing was not the work that I had done of wiring and soldering and, in the machine shop, getting very dirty trying to make holes in metal. You know, they had never done or didn’t know about the kind of work that most women did who went out to work, who were working-class women. And so, I had to find out a number of things. I had to find out how to tell them about the lives of most women, which they didn’t seem to know about. And I also had to work out what was the role of women in relation to capitalism. What were we doing, you know, that made our work so essential? And I had just been reading Capital in a study group, because I just wanted to find out what the guy said—
AMY GOODMAN: Karl Marx’s Das Kapital.
SELMA JAMES: —by myself. Karl Marx. And he had said that we sell our labor power to capitalism. And I said, "Labor power? But women make labor power, and why haven’t they told me this?" Because I thought all the Marxists knew this and had neglected to mention it to me. That was my first thought. And then I realized that they had never understood that women produce the whole labor force and that that work is not acknowledged and not even considered as work. It’s like, "What did you do all day?" was a very popular way that men would greet women when they came home from "real" work.
And so, we then, you know, talked about the unwaged work that women were doing. That is, you got some payment, you got your food and board, if you were a housewife, but you didn’t have the autonomy of money, which ensured that everybody knew you were working and which gave you the independence of having money of your own. But that was really only the beginning, because then we began to understand that most of the world had no wages, that we—that the subsistence farming in Africa—you know, 80 percent of the food that is eaten in Africa is grown by women, unwaged—you know, no money, nothing, just very, very hard work—and that all of this work, the volunteer work, you know, the reproduction of the human race, really, that women do, not merely, you know, in giving birth, which is quite important, not merely in giving children the food that they want and that they need, which is breast milk, but just caring for everyone and fighting for everyone. You know, it’s women who fight to get justice for their children and for men. You know, we have a slogan in London: "Mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, fighting for our loved ones’ lives." And that’s not a Romantic view of women’s work that—women’s justice work. That is the reality. That’s who does it. That’s who’s on the line in front of the prison where men and women are held unjustly. It’s women who are doing this work. And it’s an extension of the caring work that we have always done.
Now, I want to make it absolutely clear: we do this work, and we are civilized by this work, we women, and have a much greater understanding of human beings, because that’s what we’re dealing with all the time. But we don’t want to be the only ones to do it. Men need to do this work, because men need to be civilized by this work as we have been. Men don’t—we don’t want them to be doing this work for capitalism and not doing this work for ourselves, for each other, you know, for the society generally. Men have to start making society, along with women, not to help—I’m not talking about men helping. Sometimes we have to fight so that they give us a little help, but I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about that being the aim and purpose of our lives, to be with others, to care for others, and to, as I say, to make society with us.
AMY GOODMAN: What form did the International Wages for Housework Campaign take? And how was it received?
SELMA JAMES: There were four of us in four different countries. And—
AMY GOODMAN: England?
SELMA JAMES: England, France at that time, the United States and Italy. Not everybody stayed the course. But the fact was, it was international from the beginning. 1972 is—it’ll be 40 years at the end of this month when I first put it forward. And we didn’t really know what to do with it. We knew that we wanted women to get money for the work that we were doing and that anybody who did unwaged work was entitled to a wage for it, especially for the caring work and for the subsistence farming. But we didn’t know what to do with it. But immediately, I put it forward. The government said they wanted the family allowance, which every woman in Britain, including the Queen, is entitled to, you know, every week for every child—the government said they wanted to take that away. And we immediately plunged into a campaign to keep family allowance. And it was an extraordinary experience.
We did, among other things, go to the post office on a Tuesday, which is when it was family allowance day, when women went to the post office to get their money, when mothers went. And you would approach a woman at that time—this was 1972—you would approach a woman, and she would say, "I don’t sign anything. I ask my husband if I should." And I said, "But they’re going to take your family allowance away." And she would say, "Where do I sign? This is the only money I can call my own." And, you know, we had a national meeting of all of us who were in this campaign, and everybody reported that the women were saying the same thing everywhere: "This is the only money I can call my own." And, you know, we were so confirmed in the view that wages for housework was the way not only to mobilize women, but to mobilize women across the spectrum. All kinds of women thought that, who didn’t think they had anything in common with each other. So it was a way really of bringing women together across all kinds of boundaries, of race, even of class, or apparent class. So, you know, that gave us a head start. And then, we were soon involved in protecting money that came to women or urging that money should come to women, prostitute women, single mothers—
AMY GOODMAN: Explain that, because you became a champion for the English Collective of Prostitutes in 1975.
SELMA JAMES: That’s right, yes. In 1975, prostitute women across France took over churches against pimping and against the police. They were got out of the churches by the police and the pimps coming together to get them out. But it was such a massive mobilization that women in a number of other countries began to organize who were sex workers. And that happened also in England. And they wanted to come into the campaign. And they used to say, you know, "We’ve seen the money they say doesn’t exist, you know. When they tell you that they have no money for wages for housework, it’s not true. We’ve seen it. We’ve seen it." It was a great power for us.
And they came to me, and they said, "Look, none of us can be public. One or two of us are mothers, and we stand in danger of having our children taken from us. And others of us would lose our housing. Various things can happen. And I don’t want my mother to know I’m on the game. Various things. Would you speak for us? You’re a respectable married woman." I said, "Sure." I said, "But I don’t know anything about it." And they said, "We’ll educate you." And they did, very quickly.
And a woman said to me—she saw a picture of my husband, and she said, "Oh, is that your client?" And I was shocked. But I kept my mouth shut and thought about it. And I said, "Yes," because what they were saying was that the relationship of women to men is a relationship of client to hooker, because if you—not only if you have money of your own, but even—don’t have money of your own, but even if you do, the relationship between women and men, especially at that time, was one of the dominance of the man and that you had to work to get some more things out of him, as a woman, so you were really hooking, in a way, all the time, whether you loved him or not. That wasn’t the question. And it was a revelation to me, and it made me a good spokeswoman. They never complained after that. I knew what I was talking about, because I had made—and that has been true in all kinds of ways, because, you know, if any sector of women begins to spell out their own situation and how life is for them, others can identify, say, "Yes, that is an element of my life, as well." That’s been true with lesbian women. It’s been true with single mothers. It’s been true with prostitutes. It’s been true with women with disabilities also. You know, you know the ways in which you are constrained better by hearing the experience of others who are even more constrained than you are. And it’s certainly true with women in prison, as well. I think a lot of women—when you relate to women in a particular situation, you learn a lot about yourself.
AMY GOODMAN: You wrote the original piece, "Sex, Race and Class," which is the title of the book of essays that you’ve put out now.
SELMA JAMES: It really came from the United States. I wrote it in England, but I went on a lecture tour in 1973, and I heard all the opposition to wages for housework, how it was going to institutionalize us in the home. I was thinking, wouldn’t that be nice to institutionalize—I have all these records that I want to listen to and all the rest, and I can be at home and not have to go out to work. But aside from that, it was just an education. I began to understand what wages for housework was and how it was a political perspective, how you began with unwaged, rather than waged, workers. And you got to the waged workers, but when you began with the waged workers, you never got to the unwaged workers. And so, I was smarter by the time I got back. And somebody—we had written a book. Mariarosa Dalla Costa and I had written a book called The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community, and there was a brilliant review of it. That is, it was very favorable. But he had said that women knew what the black movement didn’t know. And I had to answer it. So I wrote a letter, but the letter kept getting longer and longer and longer, and pretty soon it was the pamphlet, Sex, Race and Class.
AMY GOODMAN: The shoebox got very full.
SELMA JAMES: You could say that. The point was that by that time, there were—there was a real problem with how do you balance the movement of black people, the movement of immigrants, the movement of women, the movement of lesbian and gay people. How do they relate to each other? And there was a kind of competition for priorities. And I wrote the pamphlet to say, "Look, we are all in the same struggle, and there is a connection between all of us that we must draw out. But in order for that connection to be made, each sector will make its own autonomous case, and on that basis we can unite." How exactly? I don’t know, because I wasn’t the left in that way. I didn’t feel I had to have the answers, only the questions. And that’s what "Sex, Race and Class" is about, really. And it said that, for example, black women, or women of color generally, they’re the women’s movement, and they’re the black movement. And so, what’s wrong? I mean, there are—you know, people are many things, and that we are all in that hierarchy, because there’s an international division of labor of which we are all part, including those of us who are unwaged.
AMY GOODMAN: How was your interracial relationship treated here in this country versus in England?
SELMA JAMES: Well, I don’t know how it would have been here, because we never really were here, you know, together publicly. There was a court case where—the campaign to get him, against his deportation, was very—was very strong when we were together here. But in England, I was very struck, when I came, when I went to England in ’55, that there were a lot of interracial relationships, especially among working-class people. In working-class neighborhoods, you saw that. Today there are so many people, mixed race, so many, and so integral to the society, generally, that Americans would learn something if they came.
AMY GOODMAN: 1982, the London occupation of the church. Explain.
SELMA JAMES: The English Collective of Prostitutes had formed a legal service for women. Our center was in a red light area. And the women came and said, "Look, if I’m working and he arrests me, OK. But I was taking my child to the dentist. I was at a bus stop, and he arrested me. Is that fair?" Well, we decided to go to a lawyer and for the woman to plead not guilty. Now, that was a new departure, because women were told when they were arrested, "Plead guilty. You’ll be out on the street in 15 minutes. You’ll be able to make the fine. And you’ll just be going on with it." And we said, "No, you can plead not guilty." They said, "OK, let’s try it." And the women began to plead not guilty, and the judge would find them not guilty.
And the police were getting very uptight, indeed. And they pulled some things on women, you know, going to their homes, threatening their children to be taken away, and just terrifying all of us. And we didn’t know how to stop it, because we didn’t have the forces to deal with the whole of the Metropolitan Police, who seemed to be coming down on the women. They had somebody outside, not very far from the center door, so that women came in, and we had to go out with them, so they would not be arrested just for coming to visit the women’s center.
And so, we were just desperate, and we were exhausted, because we just had an international conference. And somebody leaned over to somebody else and said, "Maybe we should take over a church." And they said, "Mmm, let’s think about it." The next morning, we had a meeting and decided to do that. And we didn’t tell anybody what church, but we told people to bring their bedding. And some came, and some didn’t. And we went into the church that night, expecting to come out the next morning. So we went in while the service was going on, and we took the back row.
AMY GOODMAN: Were you wearing masks?
SELMA JAMES: No, no. We were just members of the congregation. And when the congregation—when the service was over, people left, and we went to the priest, whom we knew, and we said, "Look, we’ve come here, you know, because we’ve been persecuted, and we want to spend the night here." He said, "Of course." And then we slept on the floors and all kinds of things, and the next morning we got up, and one of the women said, "We’re not going anywhere. We’re just going to stay right here until we get some justice." And that began the 12-day occupation, which was a very big experience for all of us. We had some babies. One was two-and-a-half months, my grandchild. One was three months, the child of another woman. Another was three months, as well, a very, very public prostitute. Her son was there with us. He was three months old. And we tried to get—we just—we opened the church to the women’s movement and to the politicians and to anyone who wanted to discuss with us. We had—we closed the church every time we had a meeting. And it was a tremendous experience of what to do when, you know, how to keep the police at bay, how to keep the priest not wanting to kick us out.
AMY GOODMAN: How did you do all this?
SELMA JAMES: We barely managed. We did. We walked out. We were never thrown out. But it was a balancing act all the time. And people just learned a great deal about what life was like and, you know, how to organize and how to get people together and how to work out strategy and how to handle all kinds of people and how to speak to the press and how to speak publicly about what you were doing and how to get women together to support what you are—what you were doing, as women who are prostitutes—
AMY GOODMAN: Were people afraid of being identified if photos were taken of them in the church?
SELMA JAMES: Yes, that’s when we wore the masks. As soon as anybody from the public who—we didn’t let the press in. They had to go to the women’s center in order to get the right to interview us. And we did wear masks inside of the church when there was anybody there from the public.
AMY GOODMAN: Like Zorro masks? Black masks over your eyes?
SELMA JAMES: Like that, yes, so they could never identify us absolutely. They had a big picture in one of the newspapers of me, but I wore—but I had a mask on, and people didn’t know who it was.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Selma James, activist, author, political thinker. She came to the United States for the Left Forum and for the release of her book, Sex, Race and Class—The Perspective of Winning: A Selection of Writings 1952-2011. Selma, I saw you in President Aristide’s house last year. The Haitian president had just returned from exile in South Africa with his wife, the former first lady, Mildred Aristide, and their two daughters, after being in exile for seven-and-a-half years, ousted twice, the first time in 1991 in a U.S.-backed coup and then again in 2004. I was very surprised to see you in his house, as thousands of people crowded around the house to try to get a view of the exiled president, then returned. What were you doing there?
SELMA JAMES: I had worked with Mildred Trouillot, Mildred Aristide, to try to get an article into The Guardian in England from President Aristide. And I’d done that. And we had never met, but she knew of me, because I was kind of the widow of the Black Jacobins. You know, Nello had written the book The Black Jacobins, which was the history of the Haitian revolution, which had meant so much to so many movements, because it said the lowest of the low can get it together and win. You know, that’s what the Haitians did. And so—
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, Haiti, born of a slave uprising.
SELMA JAMES: In 1804, the first black republic.
AMY GOODMAN: In the world.
SELMA JAMES: In the world. And the first—the first time that any slaves in the Americas had liberated themselves. It was the first. It was—they brought civilization to slave societies. You can put it that way, too. And so, that book was famous, and had become famous. You know, it had been written so many years before, 1938. And so, she knew me as the person who was married to the great man, and that gave me an in, kind of.
AMY GOODMAN: To C.L.R. James.
SELMA JAMES: And I said, "Please, you know, we want President Aristide to write." And she helped, with me. We did it on the internet—on the, you know, email. And the article was published. And we got on very well by email. And when they were coming back to Haiti, when they were finally going to be let back in, despite the opposition of the American government and President Obama calling the president of South Africa to say, "Don’t let them come," well, he came. And she said, "I want Selma James to be there when we arrive." And I knew it was an honor for me, but it was really an honor for C.L.R., and I was ready to accept it on his behalf. He deserved it. And so, I was there, and then the crowds came in. Lavalas is the name of President Aristide’s party. And Lavalas means "flood." And there was the flood, thousands upon thousands, celebrating their victory, because they had risked and sometimes lost their lives fighting for their leader to come back. And so, we waited for an hour or an hour and a half before a message came to say President Aristide says you can come in now. And I walked in, and President Aristide greeted me warmly and graciously and said something like, "Well, you know, they pushed people aside and prevented you from coming in, but they had a right to do that." And I said, this is a man after my own heart, you know. He didn’t mince word. He wasn’t apologizing for his people. He was defending their right to have the precedence and the priority. And I met them, and I think that Mildred and I really made a strong bond, because we continue the relationship.
AMY GOODMAN: And did you go back to Haiti to—
SELMA JAMES: No, I haven’t been—I haven’t been back to Haiti since then. But we have very strong ties in Haiti now with various people, people who are doing all kinds of grassroots work. And we try very hard to raise money for Haiti, not for the NGOs, which have stolen those millions that people have donated. After the earthquake, you know, there was an appeal, and people responded with great generosity. But the NGOs have not done—almost all of them—have not done what they were given money to do, and people don’t have water and food. We go through the Haiti Emergency Relief Fund, which doesn’t take any money off the top for themselves, and all go—and we say, absolutely, we want the money we give to go to women’s projects, very often self-help, on the countryside growing food, education, etc.
AMY GOODMAN: Why did C.L.R. James write The Black Jacobins?
SELMA JAMES: He wrote it because it contradicts and wipes away all the racist myths about Africa, Africans and people of African descent. It says—you know "Yes, we can"? With this, "Yes, we have." We have done this. We have wiped slavery off the map of Haiti.
AMY GOODMAN: Who were the Jacobins?
SELMA JAMES: The Jacobins were the people in the French revolution who had fought for the grassroots. They were part of the grassroots movement. And the Haitian revolution, in a way, came from the French revolution, because when the French revolution began, some Haitians said, "Why—you cannot be for liberation here and keep us as colonies enslaved." And they helped to convince, you know, the revolution to support the liberation.
AMY GOODMAN: So, 1789 was the French revolution.
SELMA JAMES: ’89?
AMY GOODMAN: 1804, 15 years later, is the French—
SELMA JAMES: Is the end, the final—they fought for about four years, from 1800. But by that time, you see, Napoleon had taken hold of France. And the Black Jacobins defeated him. They defeated the English. They defeated the French. They defeated anyone who came to put them back into slavery. It seems to me that since then, the imperial powers have wanted to destroy Haiti and obliterate that history, because it is such a power for oppressed and exploited people everywhere. Haiti stands as a beacon, and they want to turn that light off. And what was striking to me, being in Haiti, was that the revolutionary spirit had never died. People were as uncompromising about their own freedom as they must have been during the revolution in the beginning of the 19th century. The spirit remained there. And Aristide’s spirit was really the spirit of the Black Jacobins.
AMY GOODMAN: Selma James, in your new book, Sex, Race and Class, you talk about interviewing Mumia Abu-Jamal when he was on death row, the imprisoned black journalist in Pennsylvania. And you wrote the introduction to the British edition of his book, Jailhouse Lawyers: Prisoners Defending Prisoners v. the U.S.A. I want to play a clip of Mumia Abu-Jamal, and then I want you to talk about why his case, why Mumia Abu-Jamal is so important to you.
MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: When we were young, and we used—back during the Vietnam War, we used to talk about the military-industrial complex. Well, now you have the prison-industrial complex. And you have what is the ultimate solution to America’s economic problem: those who are poor, those who are powerless, those who have no access to the wealth that one needs to survive—and, you know, perhaps "wealth" isn’t—or the resources one needs to survive, in an area where there is corporate downsizing, and there are no jobs, and there is only a service economy, and education is being cut, which is the only rung by which people can climb, the only growth industry in this part of Pennsylvania, in the eastern United States, in the southern United States, in the western United States, is, quote-unquote, "corrections," for want of a better word.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Mumia Abu-Jamal speaking from death row. He is now in a different prison in Pennsylvania, and he is in the general population. He is no longer facing death, but is facing life in prison. Selma James, how did you come to know Mumia Abu-Jamal, encourage him to write this book about jailhouse lawyers, and why is his case so important to you?
SELMA JAMES: I went to ask him some political questions, because we wanted to know something about his campaign. And we said, "Look, the best way to do it is to go and visit him and ask him." And so, he let me come, because I’m so well connected, you see? I have this Black Jacobins connection, such an open door for so many people who are very serious. So he—and he had seen, I think, something of what I had done, as well. And so, we began to talk. I never got to ask him the questions, because we were so engaged in conversation, there were so many ideas that we were exchanging, that I never got to that. But in the course of it, he said, "Well, here’s something about a jailhouse lawyer."
I said, "What?" He said, well, so-and-so is a jailhouse lawyer. I said, "What is that?" And he said, "Well, you know how lawyers are." And of course I did know how lawyers are and how careless and how indifferent and how connected with the opposition they often are. And he said, "Well, some of us have studied law, because we had no recourse, we had no other opportunity—no other access, except what we would make for ourselves." And I said—I said, "Look, write that. Write a book. I will edit it. And I promise, sight unseen, to publish it." So he looked at me like, "Sister, you don’t know what you’re taking on." And I said, "I do mean it." And I left that day, after some hours. We had really talked well together. And about two months later, he wrote me and said, "I’m going to do the book."
And thus began a kind of adventure for me. He had written books before, of course, but I had not edited a book like that before, and I had to learn to do it and also set up a system, because he had no computer, he had very bad typewriter ribbons, which that’s all he could get in the prison. And so, we—you know, to make a picture of the—what do you call it—scan it, you know, was a problem, because the typewriter ribbon was so grey. But we did that. So he would send his manuscript to Philadelphia, which was the cheapest way to do it. They would scan, send it to me via email. I would edit. I would send it back to Philadelphia. They would print it out and send it to him. And that was going on with every chapter, sometimes two or three drafts of the same chapter. And finally, the book was written. It was published first in the United States, and then we published it in England. Now, by the time we published it in England, I understood a great deal more about the situation, but also we had got into touch with jailhouse lawyers in England, because if you’re going to publish a book about jailhouse lawyers, you don’t want to publish it only about the U.S. We said—we advertised and asked for jailhouse lawyers to write to us. And they said—first they said there are no jailhouse lawyers.
AMY GOODMAN: And explain what you mean by jailhouse lawyers.
SELMA JAMES: A man or a woman who sits down and tries to read the law as it relates to their own case, so they—
AMY GOODMAN: They’re in prison.
SELMA JAMES: They’re in prison, oh, yes. You have to be in prison to be a jailhouse lawyer. And you become an expert, first of all, on your own case. Then people see that you did something, so they say, "Well, would you do mine?" And then you have to do a bit more reading. And sometimes you’re caught by it. You find it interesting, exciting and a really good way of beating the system, or at least trying to, because you don’t always win. You don’t often win. But you have a chance of winning. There’s something there. And so, a lot of people have done this and have been punished for it, because if you are litigating against your prison guard, you know, your prison guard is not going to like it and is going to punish you for it. And in fact, in the book, Mumia gives the statistics of how many more people go into the hole—that is, into solitary confinement—or some other punishment as a result of having the audacity to go for justice independently of lawyers and of all those who can sell you out.
And it was—it was very important for me to do that, once I had heard about jailhouse lawyers, and for my colleagues, you know, my sisters and brothers in England and in the Wages for Housework Campaign, generally, because here was another instance where the movement was moving, was acting, was trying to liberate, which was completely unknown. And it’s really—it’s another kind of Black Jacobins. It’s another example of how our movement is so much broader and wider than is ever acknowledged and advertised and how crucial it is for people to know that people are not merely victims, that we are protagonists in our own struggle. And this was such a classic example, because nobody knew that the prisoners inside were doing this important work. And I think it’s done a lot of good work already. We had our launch of Jailhouse Lawyers in the House of Lords, my dear. And a member of the House of Lords cheered and was absolutely delighted with the book and really has spoken well of it and for it.
AMY GOODMAN: At the Left Forum, where you spoke in the United States on the sixth anniversary of the Occupy movement, the six-month anniversary, you said, "I think we have to know that prison is part of society."
SELMA JAMES: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?
SELMA JAMES: I mean what—in order for them to incarcerate so many people and in such horrendous ways, with so much solitary confinement, for example, and all kinds of conditions, aside from the exploitation we know about, people working for free—by the way, by the time the book was published, we were able to put a stop press about the Georgia prisoners refusing to go out of their cells. But when—in order for so many people to be incarcerated, they have to convince the population that this is no part of their life, that prison is outside of their society, that it’s not something they should be concerned about and fighting about and supporting, that it is other than the life we are living. But in fact, in my view, the fact that so many people are in prison in the United States not only shapes the lives of millions—the families, etc.—but it means that the whole society is much more repressive, because the standards of prison are constantly imprisoning the rest of us in crucial respects. But the number, the millions of people, of children who are growing up with a parent inside and who will themselves be part—you know, Mumia’s son is in prison. You know, I mean, the thing is absolutely mind-blowing, the kind of brutality that the prison system has launched in the society, generally. It’s not the only force of repression, but it is one serious source of repression.
AMY GOODMAN: Selma, do you think there’s a place for prisons at all in society?
SELMA JAMES: No, I’m with Eugene Debs, who said, "If there’s any one prisoner in prison, then I’m in prison, too."
AMY GOODMAN: And he ran for president from prison.
SELMA JAMES: He did indeed. He didn’t win, but he won a lot of votes.
AMY GOODMAN: And yet, what about all those who are calling for corporate executives, who have stolen so much money from people, to be imprisoned?
SELMA JAMES: Well, I’m definitely in favor of that, and I’m definitely in favor of rapists going to prison, and I’m definitely in favor of, sometimes, of men who beat their wives to go to prison. I am not saying that the prisons have to stop today. The first thing we have to do is to get the people out who are innocent and put the people in who are guilty. And as the society generally can handle that and as the society generally comes together more, because we’re so divided that we perpetrate crimes against each other. And prison is useful in doing something about that, or at least preventing some of that. But most of the time, prison is used against us, not to—not to help those who are being pushed around, but to put people in prison who are fighting for liberation and against exploitation.
AMY GOODMAN: Selma James, you wrote recently about SlutWalk.
SELMA JAMES: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Slut is a big conversation in the United States now, because Rush Limbaugh, one of the right-wing radio talk show hosts, who plays such a major role in the Republican Party, called a young law student who was calling for health insurance coverage of contraceptives, he called her a "slut" and a "whore," a "prostitute" who should have sex videos. She should have to put—post sex videos of herself online. And it has caused many, even of his past supporters, to stop supporting him for saying this. Why do you talk about SlutWalk?
SELMA JAMES: What the SlutWalk women did was to make it impossible to use those words in a way that is hurtful and insulting. I was astonished by the march. I went on the SlutWalk march. First of all, it was started by a 16-year-old who had had enough of women being raped and the police not paying attention, and who had refused, like women everywhere, to accept that if we dress a particular way or if we speak a particular way or if we do a particular thing, we can be accused. She said, "Accuse us as you like. We accept it all, and we then refuse everything that you accuse us of." So, they were very anti-racist. They were very pro-prostitute. They were very anti-rape. They were very diverse. And they were the new women’s movement. They were very young.
And I didn’t feel, walking with them, that I was surrounded by women who were ambitious. I think that’s really crucial in the women’s movement today, because a lot of feminism has gone into individual careers and into ambition, and there’s some evidence that the class line between women is much greater now with feminism, because a whole set of women have gone into the part of the elite. They get pay equity. They get a lot of kudos, a lot of—they are very accepted in the society. And the rest of us are getting screwed. I mean, our pay is not going up. The child care doesn’t exist or is very bad. Welfare has been abolished. And we really need to have another reason to be together, which is the real conditions of our lives, rather than an individual ambition. And I felt that the SlutWalk was part of that new movement, which says it’s not ambition we want. We want to have the freedom to live the lives as we like them, and we are together for that. It was very exciting.
AMY GOODMAN: You’ve said that the divisions between men and women have—have diminished, but the—with feminism, that the class lines between women continue.
SELMA JAMES: I think that, in some respects, we are as far apart from men as we ever were, but in others, a lot of men have acknowledged that they don’t like being separated from their children in the way that the previous division of labor has ensured. That is, the man goes out to work, and the woman stays home, and the men hardly know their children. Now, a lot of younger men want to know their children. They want to take care of their children. They want to have relationships with their children. And they think that that’s more of a priority than the job, and they’re not dedicated to the job in the way that they used to be. But something else is happening in the society, which is really very dangerous for all of us, because the reproduction of the human race, you know, has plunged as a social priority. It’s as though it doesn’t really matter what happens to children, as long as, you know, women go out to call centers or to work filling shelves in supermarkets, anything except staying with their children and caring for them. And that’s absolutely—it’s anti-life, and it’s outrageous. It’s as though what happens to us in the course of making society and taking care of each other just isn’t important. We have to worry about the market, how the market is doing, how the banks are doing. Why? We wanted—first of all, human being have to be our priority. And women are the ones who have traditionally worried about human beings and cared for human beings. And shouldn’t we all be caring for each other?
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think things have improved since 1952, when you started writing "A Woman’s Place"?
SELMA JAMES: Well, I think, in some respects, we’ve made enormous leaps forward. But in others, we thought that caring was important then in a way that sometimes we forget it’s true today. I think women are more independent. I think we have more choices in some parts of the world. But in other parts of the world, we are just worse off. The climate change has been terrible for women who do subsistence farming, for example. You go to Uganda, and you see that people—the water they’re drinking is bad or probably worse than it was before. The poverty is greater, in some respects, than it ever was. And I think sometimes in the United States some people don’t know that, and that’s very pathetic.
AMY GOODMAN: Selma James, the Crossroads Women’s Centre, the work you’re doing today?
SELMA JAMES: We just bought a new center that we have to pay for, and I’m hoping to find a millionaire on this tour who will help us to pay for it. But the Crossroads Women’s Centre houses the All African Women’s group, who are asylum seekers, Women Against Rape, which has done fantastic work, not with the police, but against them. You know, a lot of women’s organizations that are anti-rape have worked with the police in ways that have not been useful to women, but useful to their funding. And we’re not happy with that at all.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?
SELMA JAMES: Well, you know, they offer you funding if you work with the police. You know, you try to help with women. You know, you give them help when they’ve been raped. But we want to stop rape. We want to end rape. We want every single rape to be pursued and the rapist found and put outside of our community, you know. That’s where prisons have a use at this moment in time, not as a permanent feature. And we have fought for that. Black Women’s Rape Action Project, another organization at our center. The English Collective of Prostitutes is going strong and has sister organizations here and in Trinidad and one or two other places. We have an organization of women with disabilities. We have Single Mothers’ Self-Defence. And we have the Global Women’s Strike, which really grew out of the Wages for Housework Campaign, which the campaign coordinates to this day. And there are a number of countries that come together every International Women’s Day to take action. And we are constantly building our international network of countries that are industrial and countries that are non-industrial.
AMY GOODMAN: Selma James, what is your assessment of the Occupy movement that began right here in New York, Occupy Wall Street? It didn’t really just begin here, because, of course, inspired by the Arab Spring.
SELMA JAMES: Absolutely.
AMY GOODMAN: But this Occupy movement as we know it.
SELMA JAMES: Which was in turn inspired by the Palestinian refusal to accept the occupation. That’s an important part of what the Arab Spring was about.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, why don’t you actually address that before we go on to Occupy, because you are seminal in founding an organization called International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network?
SELMA JAMES: Yes, I think it’s really crucial for Jewish people, who have a history of struggle, which is unparalleled, I think. We’re always in—disproportionately in organizations for change. We also have some big bankers who are Jewish. But we at the grassroots have always been strugglers for liberation and for justice. And what the Israelis have done in our name is absolutely horrendous, not only the occupation of Palestine, but the Zionists have found themselves supporting every dictator, every counter-revolution, from Pinochet in Chile to the dictatorships in the Middle East, you see, the ones they say, "Well, we are the democracy, as opposed to the dictators," but they’ve been funding the dictators. And they were the ones who broke the boycott against apartheid, was Israel. On behalf of whom? On behalf of the American military, not on behalf of Jewish people. And so, we thought it was absolutely appropriate that we speak up as Jewish people and refuse to be identified with what Israel is doing to Palestinians, you know, bombing civilians in Gaza. I mean, Jewish people who have been through the genocide that Hitler perpetrated against us, to do this is to dishonor all those of us who fought in the Warsaw—the uprising of the ghetto in Warsaw. And for everyone who has died at the hands of a dictator, to support a dictator is really to dishonor our whole history, and to deny it. And, you know, from Brooklyn, I know Jewish people have always been fighting for justice. And I can’t—not only I, but none of us can tolerate, allow that to go on without our absolute refusal.
AMY GOODMAN: The Occupy movement?
SELMA JAMES: It’s changed the world. Whatever are the weaknesses of Occupy, the fact that they said, "We are the 99 percent," the fact that they took a piece of turf, not only in Wall Street but in hundreds of other places, and in many other countries, and said, "This here, we are together against the greed of the banks. We are the 99 percent against the 1 percent," has absolutely transformed what I hear is called the "conversation," the discussion, the debate, the public exchange on what the world is about right now and what people are trying to do about it. It has been infiltrated by the police. Of course it has been. I mean, you have to understand that. But what people are getting from the occupation, it seems to me, those who are occupying are getting a whole political experience. And it has been liberating all kinds of people to do all kinds of things who are not part of the Occupy movement. The very existence of such a movement has been a power for everyone. And, you know, Mumia told somebody—somebody came to see him when the Occupy movement began. He was absolutely over the moon about it. And they said, "But, Mu, you know, it’s very white." He said, "Then get yourself over there. You know, this is a wonderful thing. This is a power for all of us," is what he was saying.
AMY GOODMAN: Selma, you have said you can’t confront the American state spontaneously.
SELMA JAMES: You always spontaneously react against the American state. You know, it is one of the most brutal ever in history. But on the other hand, you must organize against it. Spontaneity is not enough. Spontaneity is the basis on which you organize. And the question that C.L.R. James posed all those years ago is still our question: how do you organize in a way that does not prevent the spontaneity and the experience and the outpouring of all that you feel and think? You know, organization has tended to be a kind of repression, in spite of the fact that you’re going for liberation. And how do you form an organization that is not a repression, that is a discipline that demands accountability, but does not repress either your experience or your ideas or your spontaneous responses? That’s what we’ve been addressing for 40 years. This month is the 40th anniversary of the Wages for Housework Campaign, so I’ve spent 40 years of my life doing this. I’ve learned an enormous amount from others and with others.
That’s the thing about Occupy. It’s a big learning experience in cooperation, in drawing the talents of many people together in one cause. It’s a practice round, and I think it’s going to—I don’t know if the Occupy movement will spread, per se. But what the Occupy movement has begun is bound to spread. And I found at the Left Forum, that you mentioned earlier, that people’s minds are far more open now than they used to be, that people are asking very practical questions. The academics are still talking in ways that I can’t really understand, but there are a whole set of people, including academics, who are saying, "Well, how do you do this? And how have you done that? And do you think we can do this? And is this a practical proposition?" All the practical questions, where all the theoretical questions really come into their own, because what you do and how you do it is really everything you think.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, President Obama. As you look across the pond from Britain to the United States, though you’re visiting now, what is your assessment of the first African-American president in U.S. history?
SELMA JAMES: Well, you know, the president of the United States is really the president of the world. And some people have said, "Why can’t we vote? We’re influenced entirely by whoever is elected." President Obama is enormously talented. He’s enormously skilled. He’s enormously clever. He’s enormously good-looking. He’s enormously presentable and charming. And he didn’t know that, without us, he’s enormously weak. He thought he could manage—because of his enormous talents, he could manage the American military. Well, it takes more than that to beat them. And they seem to be, at this moment in time, very much in charge of Obama. And that feminist Clinton is there fronting for them and really undermining him. He knows that now. I mean, he must have learned that in the first few months of his presidency. And I don’t know what, if anything, he’s going to do about it.
On the other hand, having gone through the experience of a black man in the presidency, we got rid of that. You know, like with Thatcher becoming the first woman, we got rid of the fantasy that just electing a woman and just electing a black man, we’re on the road to success. We’re not. It takes far more than that. It’s much more complicated than that. But it does give people a certain kind of confidence that we can get together across race divisions. It was an amazing thing, his election. I thought it was a fantastic anti-racist movement, which he was the center of, but it was the people who moved, people who got themselves together and saw that if they do get together, they can get something done. And that’s going to be very handy for the future. We need that desperately.
AMY GOODMAN: Selma James, I want to thank you very much for being with us.
SELMA JAMES: It’s been my pleasure.
AMY GOODMAN: Selma James, our guest today, her latest book is Sex, Race and Class—The Perspective of Winning: A Selection of Writings 1952-2011. The book spans 60 years of her work, beginning with the groundbreaking 1952 essay, "A Woman’s Place," all the way to her articles today about the women’s movement and organizing around the world. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report.
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