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Remembering Jane Marcus: CUNY Prof Was A Tenaciously Brilliant Scholar, Activist

Conor Tomás Reed Jun 9, 2015

One of our movement’s most tenaciously brilliant radical women, Jane Connor Marcus, passed on May 28 at the age of 76. An archivist, author, organizer, and teacher-comrade to many across the globe and at the City University of New York, Jane transformed our landscape of cultural histories with her work on socialist feminism, Black liberation, and internationalist modernism of the early 20th century. Jane’s oeuvre still crackles with resonance, from her ground-breaking work Virginia Woolf and the Languages of Patriarchy (1987), to her incendiary essays Art and Anger: Reading Like a Woman (1988), edited collections on Suffrage and the Pankhursts (1987) and Rebecca West (1989), defense of anti-racist feminisms in Hearts of Darkness: White Women Write Race (2004), and revelatory introduction to Virginia Woolf’s anti-fascist classic Three Guineas (2006).

For over half a century, Jane dedicated her life to creating spaces for emancipation in the here and now. In 1964, she and her husband Michael taught in Roxbury, Boston freedom schools. They soon moved to Chicago and worked in the peace movement, establishing the Midwest branch of the Peace and Freedom Party in 1968. A co-founding member of Women’s Studies Programs in the University of Illinois-Chicago and the University of Texas (where she collaborated with Gayatri Spivak), and a long-time advocate for Women’s Studies self-determination at CUNY, Jane’s fierce dedication to “departments of one’s own” earned her lifetime friendships for social justice, as well as scorn, dismissal, and mansplaining. As early as 1978, her essay “Art and Anger” defined the stakes that impelled her intellectual project across generations:

Anger is not anathema in art; it is a primary source of creative energy. Rage and savage indignation sear the hearts of female poets and female critics.[…] Out with it. No more burying our wrath, turning it against ourselves. No more ethical suicides, no more literary pacifism. We must make the literary profession safe for women as well as ladies. It is our historical responsibility. When the fires of our rage have burnt out, think how clear the air will be for our daughters. They will write in joy and freedom only after we have written in anger.

I first met Jane as an undergraduate student at the City College of New York in her Spring 2008 seminar on the Spanish revolution and civil war. 70 years old and raucously vibrant, Jane animated the colliding worlds of anarchism, communism, fascism, liberalism, and pacifism each week with an urgency of gunpowder and air-raid sirens. We explored Martha Gellhorn and George Orwell war journalism, Mercè Rodoreda and Javier Cercas novels, Langston Hughes and Muriel Rukeyser poems, and documentaries like Land and Freedom, Libertarias, and Spirit of the Beehive. While dissecting the political economy and cultural barricades of the Spanish revolution, Jane also devoted time for us to savor the grace and style of resistance. We assessed the shoe heel curves of a mujer libre kneeling to shoot a pistol in a Gerda Taro photograph, xthe stout solidity of “La Pasionaria” Dolores Ibárruri speaking to a crowd of thousands, and the steady-gaze poise of Salaria Kee, a Black Communist Harlemite who served as a nurse in the Abraham Lincoln Brigades.

With her long view of CUNY’s insurgent history, Jane encouraged my first dive into the CCNY archives to document how an anti-racist/anti-fascist European Jewish campus milieu propelled at least sixty CCNY students to enlist in the Lincoln Brigades to fight in Spain (where thirteen died), a rowdy generation whose memory little else but a small plaque retains on a campus wall. During one of our office hours dialogues, Jane mentioned with delight the late 1960s SEEK program at CCNY that brought feminist poets Toni Cade Bambara, June Jordan, Audre Lorde, and Adrienne Rich to teach Black and Puerto Rican students, who in 1969 took over multiple campus buildings to transform admissions, curricula, and neighborhood involvement. Guided by her clues, I returned to our library archives again and again, feeling the brittle pages of protest leaflets and student newspapers hum with inherited energies.

Over the next few years, I learned from Jane about two documentary projects that dramatically re-centered my view of the turbulent Red and Black 1930s. Jane revealed the suppressed and discredited record of cultural militant Nancy Cunard and her massive invaluable Negro anthology (1934)—with 855 pages and 150 contributors, of whom two-thirds were Black, that documented the vast global reach of the African diaspora. Encircled in hushed communion, we navigated Cunard’s alliances with Langston Hughes on Scottsboro, networking with George Padmore to gather anthology contributors, and foregrounding voices like Marcus Garvey and C.L.R. James in Authors Take Sides on the Spanish Civil War (1937). As Jane stated in her 2002 essay “Suptionpremises,” such pivotal “queer moments in cultural history” saw a “rare coming together of radical politics, African and African American art and culture, and white internationalist avant-garde and Surrealist intellectuals.” Jane’s last unfinished work, the concurrent projects White Looks, Black Books: Nancy Cunard and Modernist Primitivism and Poets Exploding Like Bombs: Nancy Cunard and Her Comrades on the Spanish Civil War, could help us further re-imagine these historical contours if they one day see print.

With the same vivid energy, Jane introduced to us the book that had long been a compass in her own work, perhaps in part because it was published on the year of her birth—Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas (1938). The 2006 edition with Jane’s expert introduction and the text’s original photographs launches a searing condemnation of the academic-church-family-industrial-military-prison-state complex that implicitly draws more than a few parallels between European fascism (and democracy) and our own militarized epoch in the United States. Jane reminisced how women’s liberation groups read passages from the book in anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, and we traced how writers such as Adrienne Rich, Susan Sontag, and Alice Walker responded to Woolf’s enduring analyses. As a lesbian socialist feminist intellectual, Woolf convened a “Society of Outsiders” in the text that Jane enthusiastically invited us to join.

An exception to much of the academic world, Jane refused to sever activist/teaching/scholarship labor, and understood the need to push back at any instance of university or state repression dealt to her, colleagues, and students. Some personal cases in point: After a November 2011 incident at Baruch College—where CUNY security and NYPD attacked a crowd of us peacefully entering a Board of Trustees hearing on tuition increases—Jane joined a group of professors who demanded that charges be dropped against the fifteen teachers and students arrested in the melee. And in June 2012, Ashley Foster and I (both students of Jane) were detained at the Canadian border en route to the International Virginia Woolf Society Conference to deliver papers on Three Guineas. Unresolved charges for some of my Occupy Wall Street civil disobediences raised red flags with Border Security, who searched through our belongings while insisting that their actions were entirely legal. Upon hearing this news, Jane instantly leaped into defense mode: she contacted the conference organizers to rally the Woolf scholars community (a mighty force to be reckoned with), all the while theorizing on Woolf’s command to “burn the college to the ground” as her own prescient “Occupy the Universities” statement.

One of Jane’s last published essays, the afterword “Some Notes on Radical Teaching” in Communal Modernisms: Teaching Twentieth-Century Literature and Culture in the Twenty-First Century Classroom (2013), documents this need for feminist solidarity as pedagogical and political survival:

The whole weight of the war culture is working against us.[…] The literary canon is a product of the war culture and its maintenance supports the war culture. The world of men (and now women) in uniform with guns—dominates everything we and our students do. Communal spaces once respected—schools and universities, public places where people gather—have become the sites of bombings and shootings. The war has invaded our communal home places as citizens. How do we insist on our right to safe free spaces and places where we may gather to express ourselves, especially when that expression is often at odds, if not opposed, to the war culture’s dictates?[…] To lobby for peace, to occupy public space for peace and freedom, and to teach for peace is our imperative. The example we provide in feminist pedagogy in the classroom frees us and our students to critique the war economy and the war culture, and provides a model that may be used in other more overt political situations.

Revisiting her writings, our email exchanges, and sudden memories this last week, I more deeply realize Jane’s ample generosity and unsparing critique as a radical feminist mentor. She knew how History erased rebellious people’s lives, and demanded that in our own resurrective appraisals of their work, we get the record right each time. I marvel at how Jane readily offered contacts for a wide network of elder and youngblood feminist scholars, pointed out unsung archival troves, and celebrated each small victory of scholarship and movement work, even as she frequently traveled, balanced dozens of writing and mentoring projects, and endured a range of illnesses across the several years I knew her. Jane chose not to suffer silently, but she also chose not to let suffering consume her joy for life—one of the most dazzling lives I’ve yet encountered.

Jane’s transformative legacy is the kind that we need to both defend and expand. As she advised in the 1982 essay “Storming the Toolshed,” “It is far too early to tear down the barricades. Dancing shoes will not do. We still need our heavy boots and mine detectors.” Her generation’s gains for social change created foundations on which a new liberatory milieu emerges, but the ground is never settled. We must share Jane’s writings, speeches, and teaching/archiving practices inside and outside of the university (i.e. at our present demonstrations). We must inaugurate her into the counter-canons of our People’s Histories of CUNY and the United States. Meanwhile, we must honor her example as a fallible, finite person who nevertheless radiated hope and communality in everyday acts of beloved rebellion. On the eve of her death, Jane had been traveling with her husband by ship around the world, visiting Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and the South Pacific, before passing away in the Tonga archipelago. Let her ideas continue to widely circulate, even as her body comes to rest. 

A memorial service was held for Jane on June 7, 2015, at the Riverside Memorial Chapel, featuring tributes by colleagues, students, and family members, a violin and cello performance, and some of Jane’s favorite poems recited—Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Dirge Without Music,” Adrienne Rich’s “Final Notations,” and Marilyn Hacker’s “Rune of the Finland Woman.” Jane’s memory is sustained by husband Michael Marcus, daughter Lisa Marcus and husband James Albrecht, son Ben Marcus and wife Heidi Julavits, son Jason Marcus and wife Jessica Alan, several grandchildren, and all of us who were exceptionally blessed to know her. ¡Jane Marcus, presente!

A prize in Feminist Studies in honor of Jane will be established at the Graduate Center of the City of New York. Those wishing to contribute may send donations to: Graduate Center Foundation, 365 Fifth Avenue, Suite 8204, New York NY 10016-4309. Please state that your gift is in honor of Distinguished Professor Jane Marcus.

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