Illustration by Jon Key. Based on original artwork by Diedra Harris-Kelley
When I heard that this magazine was going to be named Hammer & Hope — a riff on my 1990 book, “Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression” — my first reaction was to laugh.
I’m a sucker for puns. But I also recoil at anything resembling a tribute to my work. The title, which was suggested by a friend, the legal scholar Derecka Purnell, is one of the highest honors I’ve ever had to swallow. I relented because it fits, perfectly encapsulating the magazine’s aim of covering Black politics and culture. Let me explain.
“Hammer and Hoe” was obviously a play on the Communist movement’s hammer and sickle, first adopted by the fledgling Soviet Union in 1918, less than a year after the October Revolution. According to some historical accounts, the Moscow City Council asked the artist Yevgeny Kamzolkin to create a symbol for the May Day banners that year. His simple, dynamic sketch of the hammer and sickle illustrated Lenin’s call for unity between workers and peasants. In the Southern United States, the “peasants” were Black, and their tool was the field hoe.
That hoe showed up in other socialist countries’ iconography. One of my first published articles examined the history of the People’s Republic of the Congo (P.R.C.), a “Marxist-Leninist socialist state” whose flag featured a hammer and a hoe. The article was quite critical, arguing that the P.R.C. was neither a workers’ state nor a popular democracy but a military dictatorship claiming Marxist bona fides. President Marien Ngouabi, assassinated in 1977, sought to educate Congolese workers in Marxism-Leninism while insisting that trade unions function as arms of the state. I argued for an independent labor movement that could “begin to build strong political links with the peasantry.” The hammer and the hoe expressed this idea of a militant, independent labor movement uniting city and countryside.
I carried this unbending belief in the capacity of working people to make their own history and build a genuine democratic socialist movement to my doctoral dissertation on the Communist Party in Alabama. I discovered in the people who joined the party and its various auxiliaries, in their culture, aspirations, ethics, beliefs, and liberatory dreams, what the late political theorist Cedric J. Robinson called “the Black Radical Tradition,” which he described as “a revolutionary consciousness that proceeded from the whole historical experience of Black people,” not just from our oppression. For example, Black people brought their prophetic Christianity to the Communist movement. They frequently invoked God and initially opened party meetings with a prayer. The Bible was more important than Marx and Engels’s “Communist Manifesto.” John Garner recalled being recruited by Communist “agents” who told him the same thing that “Jesus Christ himself told us”: that “our burden was gonna be heavy like this.” In a letter to Southern Worker, the party’s regional paper, a Black woman from Orrville, Ala., wrote: “Your movement is the best that I ever heard of. God bless you for opening up the eyes of the Negro race. I pray that your leaders will push the fight. … I am praying the good Lord will put your program over.”
The political lessons I took from those courageous folks who risked their lives to bring revolution to Dixie reflect many of the core principles behind Hammer & Hope and the movements that inspired it. Black Communists taught me that we need not choose between anti-racism and class solidarity; they are not mutually exclusive but rather mutually constitutive. The same holds true for the fights against all forms of oppression: sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism. The Black Communists of Alabama also taught me that local struggles exist in a global context. The forces arrayed against us are no respecters of nations, and the same ought to hold true of our movements.
Perhaps the most important lesson of all is that ideas, and the radical movements that produce them and are informed by them, really do matter. This band of rebels took time to think, read, and sometimes write. They had their journals, such as Southern Worker, The Daily Worker, The Negro Worker, Labor Defender, and The Liberator, to tell their stories, connect with struggles around the world, and wrestle with ideas. Hosea Hudson and his Birmingham comrades loved The Liberator because it “always was carrying something about the liberation of Black people, something about Africa, something about the South. … We would read this paper and this would give us great courage.” At the same time, party organs are constrained by the party line; they are not spaces for free-wheeling debate, disagreement, or provocation. Hammer & Hope belongs to no party.
The symbol of the hammer has its limits. Its arcane, masculinist imagery makes it an unsuitable representation of a working class that today is concentrated in health care, the service sector, and the apparel industry, and, especially if we count unpaid household labor, is overwhelmingly female. White nationalists march behind Thor’s hammer, while cops have used “the hammer” as a symbol of their authority. In 1988, the Los Angeles Police Department launched Operation Hammer, ostensibly to address gang violence in South Los Angeles. All it did was criminalize Black and brown youth by charging them with minor offenses or stopping anyone who looked “suspicious” and lodging their names and addresses into the L.A.P.D.’s gang lists. Three decades later, Clay County, Florida, a majority-white county outside Jacksonville, introduced Operation Hammer and Hope, meant to be a kinder and gentler strategy in the war on drugs. They would use “that hammer to take drugs off the streets” through arrests, while the hope takes the form of treatment programs offering free doses of buprenorphine, the treatment drug for people suffering from “opioid use disorder,” overwhelmingly associated with white drug users. Prison and methadone were reserved for “addicts,” Black, brown, and crime-prone. The ghettos and barrios get the hammer, not the hope. Meanwhile, the biggest drug dealers — the pharmaceutical companies — suffer nothing more severe than fines, settlements and a little public shaming.
Our Hammer & Hope has a different goal. It aims to expose the system of racial capitalism tearing up neighborhoods, filling the state’s cages, and extracting value from working people while leaving them in a state of insecurity and precarity. Our hammer will smash myths and illusions. It will tear down the master’s house, as Audre Lorde would say.
And our hope? It is not the false optimism of liberals or the fatalism of armchair revolutionaries or the pessimism of pundits waiting for the end of the world. James Baldwin understood hope as determination in the face of catastrophe: “I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive. To be a pessimist means that you have agreed that human life is an academic matter, so I’m forced to be an optimist. I’m forced to believe that we can survive whatever we must survive.” The Alabama Communists knew the odds of a socialist revolution in the Black Belt were damn near impossible, but they fought anyway. They understood that victory is never certain but if we don’t fight, we can only lose. Hammer & Hope is here to fight.
Robin D. G. Kelley is a professor of American history at U.C.L.A. and the author of “Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression” and “Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination.”