Living Theory: On Elma Lewis’ Black Feminist Political Praxis by Judy Pryor-Ramirez

It was a bright and crisp Sunday morning in Baltimore. I just finished my panel presentation at the National Women’s Studies Association Conference (NWSA). Before boarding my train, I walked from my hotel to Saturday Morning Cafe. As a self-proclaimed foodie, I was attracted by the mouth-watering photos and the high praise in online reviews. I walked into the cafe and was greeted by the familiar warmth in the faces of the Black women behind the counter. After a quick scan of the space, it was clear to me that this was a Black-owned establishment. I ordered the egg skillet with a southern biscuit and began talking with the women over coffee. They were the owners’ cousins and shared their family’s Alabama roots and commitment to scratch cooking. I learned that the family owned two other Southern-inspired restaurants in Baltimore, in addition to Saturday Morning Cafe. One woman beamed with pride as she shared the newspaper clippings on the wall that featured the newest restaurant. Thirty minutes later, my food arrived piled high on a black skillet, made with love. A meal that took me home to Virginia in the first bite. As I ate, I couldn’t help but think that I had encountered a contemporary form of the very theory I went to Baltimore to present about: intercommunalism.

Intercommunalism

“Where there is courage, where there is self-respect and dignity, there is a possibility that we can change the conditions and win.” — Huey P. Newton

In the fall of 1970, Huey P. Newton, chief theoretician of the Black Panther Party delivered a speech at Boston College which shifted the direction of the party’s intellectual orientation — one from a Black Nationalist and Internationalist framework to that of Revolutionary Intercommunalism. Intercommunalism drew heavily on Marxist theory and interrogated economic and political power structures. While critical of the status quo, Newton also prefigured a future in which communities around the world would be controlled by and for the people. Newton’s intercommunalism served as a theoretical entry point for my co-panelists and I at the NWSA conference. We came together almost ten months ago in search of a platform to share our individual case studies of Black women engaged in a specific kind of Black feminist activism. In the spirit of the conference theme — 40 Years After Combahee: Feminist Scholars and Activists Engage the Movement for Black Lives — we saw fit to engage Newton from a Black feminist standpoint.

Miss Lewis’ Black Feminist Political Praxis

“Women’s problems belong to white women, because it is in that white dominant group that men are keeping women from utmost dominance. The black man is oppressed, and I can’t imagine a man brave enough to oppress me.” — Elma Lewis  

Elma Lewis was a feminist. I am almost certain of it. I say almost because Miss Lewis may not have explicitly identified that way, and yet I see an opportunity to ground my understanding of her work in Black feminist theory. Not only was Elma Lewis a feminist, she was a Black feminist in the tradition of Maria Stewart, Pauli Murray, and Ruth Batson to name a few. Like other Black women activists, Elma Lewis began her involvement as an advocate for other Black people, the poor, and marginalized by establishing three cultural institutions in the city of Boston. She founded the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts, the National Center for Afro-American Artists, and the Museum of the Center for Afro-American Artists between 1950 and 1969.

I grounded my research for this conference paper in sociologist Patricia Hill Collins’ book, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. I found what Collins calls the “dialectic between Black women’s oppression and activism” very much alive in Elma Lewis’ work. The institutions Lewis created and led in her community benefited Black people not only in Boston, but around the world. Furthermore, Elma Lewis engaged in intercommunalism within a specific Black feminist tradition by having established her own organizations rather than joining others. Elma Lewis, a Black woman in her fifties, had been activating Newton’s revolutionary idea in Roxbury twenty years prior to his speech.

While her artistic and civic accomplishments are well-documented in press interviews, short biographies, oral histories, doctoral dissertations, and master’s theses, little work has been done to situate Elma Lewis’ work within the context of Black feminist thought. My conference paper identified ways in which Elma Lewis embodied the Black feminist tradition of “lift as we climb.” From the Franklin Park Coalition cleanup efforts to establish the Playhouse in the Park to the partnership between the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts and the Suffolk Correction Facility to teach incarcerated men employable skills in the arts to prevent recidivism, Miss Lewis lifted as she climbed. As such, I am not surprised that she was selected for the inaugural class of MacArthur Fellows Grant in 1981. It is also why I find it incredibly important to examine her political praxis from a Black feminist standpoint. As my co-panelist Dr. Rashida Harrison put it, we are engaged in Black feminist “recovery projects.” According to Collins, “much of Black women’s intellectual tradition occurred in institutional locations other than the academy,” and that is precisely the case for Elma Lewis. Lewis knew this, remarking in an interview:

“They like to see me as a little fat lady with children singing and dancing, or they like to see me as a quote, “Community Leader” cleaning up debris. They don’t want to see me as a scholar. They don’t want to see me an artist. They don’t want to see me as a visionary.”

To honor Miss Lewis, I am focusing my research on making sense of her contributions through Black feminist frameworks as an act of recovery. My work seeks to highlight the body of knowledge she left behind for us to recover and push forward. Lastly, I would argue that we don’t have to look very far to find examples of people who are living theory in everyday life, just as Elma Lewis did. This is what it means to bring feminism home as Sara Ahmed writes in her book, Living a Feminist Life. Just like the Black family in Baltimore that opened up Saturday Morning Cafe, there are people who bring feminism and intercommunalism home and to their communities each day. Who are the modern day Elma Lewises of the world making change unapologetically for oppressed people? I want to hear from you. Share your stories with me on Twitter and Facebook using #ElmaTaughtUs!

Want to know more about Elma Lewis?

  • Buy tickets and check out Black Nativity on-stage at the Paramount Theater now through Saturday, December 17.
  • Attend the free conversation, Explaining Elma Lewis: The Cultural and Political Legacy of an American Icon, with Boston scholars, artists and leaders on Thursday, December 14, at Grove Hall Public Library.
  • Join me as I present my ongoing research on Elma Lewis at Emerson College’s Critical Scholars Series on Thursday, February 22, 2018.

Elma Taught Us is a special column of The Luminary blog where staff members of the Elma Lewis Center contribute posts that connect contemporary issues to Miss Lewis’s life and legacy. Posts will highlight women of color feminisms as well as broader ideas related to civic engagement and social justice. Follow #ElmaTaughtUs on Twitter and Facebook for weekly notations related to these themes.

Judy Pryor-Ramirez is scholar-in-residence at the Elma Lewis Center for Civic Engagement, Learning, & Research. She is the co-author of Hidden Figures Syllabus and Voices of Mixed Heritage, digital curriculum resource projects. Follow her tweets about #BlackGirlMagic and other musings at @JPryorRamirez.

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