Snapshot: The remarkable life and times of Harlem revolutionary Norma Abdulah

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Norma Abdulah is a proud member of Radical Women in Harlem, New York. A unionist and a radical, she has always been moved by the promise of liberation and has lived her life as an agitator for workers’ and women’s rights and Black freedom.

Abdulah was interviewed by Jennifer Laverdure, a community radio station host and Radical Women organizer in Portland, Oregon.

Laverdure: Where did you grow up?

Abdulah: I was born in Harlem in New York in 1921. I lived in a tenement with my parents and three brothers. I am African, East Indian, Chinese and French.

My father was educated at the Queen’s Royal College in Trinidad as a certified public accountant and secretary. When he went to seek employment as a public accountant in New York City, he was told that he was “applying for a white man’s job, not a Negro job.” Instead he was given a job as an elevator operator, where he was responsible for emptying large, heavy trash cans. On his first day he collapsed while trying to lift the trash cans.

Black men were expected to do strenuous manual labor, but my father couldn’t. So he stayed at home.

My mother was a domestic. She cooked and cleaned and sometimes baby-sat in the evening. At times she would come home as late as 2:00 in the morning, traveling home all alone on the subway.

Laverdure: What was it like with your father at home?

Abdulah: It was great. He took my brothers and me to all the places of culture we could afford. The Metropolitan did not sell opera tickets to Black people. But my mother was part Chinese and kind of light-skinned, and they thought she was buying the tickets for her boss. My father, brothers and I would climb the steps up high to the inexpensive seats in the Family Circle and watch the opera from there.

From where we lived, we could see the Low Memorial Library of Columbia University that seemed to reach the heavens. My father always used to say that he yearned for at least one of his children to enter that great edifice of learning and earn a degree. I said to myself, “I’m going to do that.”

Laverdure: What was your education like?

Abdulah: In the early 1930s we moved from Black Harlem to Spanish Harlem, a workingclass area of white immigrants from places like Russia and Yugoslavia and of Spanish-speaking Cubans and Puerto Ricans.

Going to school in Spanish Harlem, I was the darkest student in my class. They put me in the low-performing class. I rebelled. I said, “I’m not going to do any work.”

My mother said, “What?! If you don’t do the work they will assume they are correct, that you can’t do the work. You go there and show them — move to the top of the class!”

That’s what I did. They moved me up in the system of classes, and I was placed in the rapid-advance class. I later took an exam to attend Hunter High School. I completed my undergraduate studies at Hunter College in 1943. I then entered Columbia University’s graduate program in philosophy and science.

Laverdure: What was it like as the program’s first Black woman?

Abdulah: I was the only violet among the lilies. I was the only person of color in the program. The other students liked me and invited me to become a member of the Philosophical Society, of which I became secretary. I was invited to present a paper. I chose as my subject “Historical materialism: a scientific way of studying human history and society.”

At the time, I was a member of the Communist Party. I invited people who I thought were my comrades to support me when I presented this paper. They came. But when I got up and started to present, one of the women from the Communist Party got up and said, “Your job is to speak to the Negro problem!” And she stormed out, with the other party members following her.

I was flabbergasted! Given my topic, I didn’t expect the other white students to support me, but I thought my comrades would.

I pulled myself together and went ahead with my talk, but I was very low in my heart. I thought, “What did I do wrong? Why did they behave like that?” From then on, I disassociated from the Communist Party.

Still, I continued to read about the Soviet Union fighting Nazism and providing free education to the people. Communism was the best answer being presented to the problems of capitalism.

Laverdure: You went on to become a grade school teacher in the New York public school system. What was your experience there?

Abdulah: I talked to the other teachers about organizing a union, because all we had back then was the National Education Association, which would only go as far as advocating for teachers to receive sick pay. At first, my colleagues said, “We are professionals, not blue-collar workers.” They called me unpatriotic and a dirty communist.

But I educated the students about the need for a union, who then debated with their teachers. In 1967, we won the right to unionize from city government. We formed the United Federation of Teachers!

Laverdure: Did you become an officer in the union?

Abdulah: They completely ignored me. There was no recognition of Black women’s contributions to the union even though we fought for it. But I said, “My conscience is clear, I did the right thing.”

Laverdure: What has been your involvement in politics since then?

Abdulah: I continued to work in the union. I was active in the civil rights movement. My name is inscribed in the Southern Poverty Law Center building in Montgomery, Alabama. The inscription is a tribute to my contributions in the struggle for people of color to be accepted as first-class citizens in this country.

I worked with organizations on the Left. And I traveled to China to learn about and support the revolution there.

Laverdure: What advice do you have for women of color fighting for justice today?

Abdulah: I would tell them that no progress is made without struggle. They are not the first to help to make this a better world, and they will not be the last. But they will be among the greatest.

It is important to understand historical development so we know that what we are enjoying today is the result of others having struggled and sacrificed. Women today must understand that struggle is an integral part of living.

In Radical Women, I continue the fight for human liberation. I can express myself there and get respect for my ideas. I have been able to present on the contributions of African Americans to the Harlem Renaissance. I have always felt a certain freedom of participation in Radical Women.

To me, Radical Women represents the future of human development. Joining us will give women an historical understanding of their role and the role they need to play in the future. If women want humanity to progress, they must take a leadership role. I encourage all women to get involved with us!

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