Andaiye, Caribbean Radicalism, and a Black Woman’s Critical Imprint

Andaiye, one of the co-founders of the political party the Working Peoples Alliance (WPA), in partnership with the late historian and activist Dr. Walter Rodney, died on May 31, 2019. She was a dynamic African-Guyanese activist and intellectual who stood up for the rights of women, children, and the disenfranchised for most of her life. She was a force of nature in Guyanese and global politics. Most well known for her work to develop the Red Thread Women’s Development Organisation and for her work with the WPA, Andaiye’s political activism and history offers important insight into how black women helped shape socialist ideologies and a grounded practice of solidarity in South America, the Caribbean, and beyond.

Courtesy of N. Burrowes (2019)

Born Sandra Williams on September 11, 1942, into a middle-class family in what was then the colony of British Guiana, Andaiye changed her name in 1970, amid the heat of Black Power politics and four years after Guyana had become an independent nation. She was part of that generation of Caribbean radicals who were deeply committed to transforming the region in the postcolonial moment. For this reason, after tumultuous times in New York, she returned to Guyana in 1978 to work with the WPA. She would go on to serve as a founding member when the alliance transitioned to a political party in 1979. 

At a time when African- and Indian-Guianese were at political loggerheads, the WPA strove to provide an alternative to the two major political parties, focusing on anti-polarization work, democratic opening, and sustained political education. She and other members tried to model their vision for Guyanese society. “Bread and Justice” would eventually become their rallying cry. “Bread” stood for human rights for the people in Guyana—the right to have the practical needs of daily survival met. “Justice” included economic justice, the right to organize, the right to have a government free of corruption, the right to free elections and the right to freedom of speech. Andaiye had been elected to the executive committee, she worked as an editor for the party’s newsletter, and eventually organized a women’s arm of the WPA.

Rodney, one of the party’s leading members with an international reputation, was assassinated by the government in 1980. Andaiye edited one of his most important works, A History of Guyanese Working People, 1881–1905, published posthumouslyShe went on to become the International Secretary and the Women’s Secretary of the WPA and remained active until 2000. 

Andaiye co-founded Red Thread in 1986, with a cadre of six radical contemporaries: Karen de Souza, Jocelyn Dow, Bonita Harris, Diana Matthews, Vanda Radzik, and Danuta Radzik. These women were dedicated to mobilizing across African-Guyanese, Indian-Guyanese, and Indigenous communities. In the words of Guyanese feminist Alissa Trotz, they committed to building “viable nodes of connection that do not assume a priori differences(of race, class, or gender) as fixed points of departure.” 

In the racially polarized context of Guyana, this antiracist work was (and is) indeed critical. For decades, Red Thread members have engaged in a range of strategies including cooperative economics initiatives, creative research projects, domestic violence education, anti-violence work, challenging state violence, consciousness raising, supporting domestic workers, making women’s invisible work visible by counting it as productive labor, and building community and larger networks. 

Red Thread continues to exist, and their mission statement explains that their “goal is to organize with women, beginning with grassroots women, to cross divides and transform our conditions. We provide services to women and children exploited in unequal power relations and simultaneously work to change those relations.” In August 2019, they launched the first children’s camp of the Andaiye Foundation.

Further, Andaiye was an instrumental guiding force in many organizations. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, she worked with the Women and Development Unit of the University of the West Indies. She would move on to work withCARICOM, serving as a resource person for the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995. In 1996 she worked to help develop a postconference regional plan of action for the Caribbean. She later became active with Global Women’s Strike (GWS) and in 2012 she went on a speaking tour with the founder of GWS, Selma James.Andaiye also served as an executive member of Caribbean Association for Feminist Research and Action (CAFRA).Given her own long-term health struggles, she founded the Guyana Cancer Society and Cancer Survivors Action Group. 

Andaiye’s articles provided critical interventions in a number of political situations. Her 1997 article, “An Open Letter to Young People,” was recently reprinted in the Stabroek News. She wrote of how “‘ordinary’ people could transform their world…That people, poor and some not poor, women and men, from the races that were despised, could organise together and refuse to stay in their place.” She lamented that her generation did not leave the youth of Guyana in a better place, but she encouraged them, arguing that they should cross the ethnic and party divisions that have stifled the country:“Sometime soon, some of you have to try walk across the divisions between you and join yourselves together to become the power you can be. Only then, whichever party or other group you belong to, can you work out your demands (not your requests) as young people, work out how you will make them happen, and make them happen.”

In 2002, she discussed the gendered consequences of ethnic conflict at the National Library, and encouraged women to form coalitions to resist: “if we see ourselves as women, capable of thinking freely, without party blinders, we can return to the position that we reached so easily when we were organising for Beijing—that the sexual subjugation of women can never, ever, be acceptable to us, whoever the subjugator(s), whatever the cause.” Earlier that same year, she penned a letter to the editor of the Stabroek News,decrying the ethnic violence that was plaguing the country, stating clearly, “no, not in my name.”

Several interviews and articles examine Andaiye’s thinking and work, including 

Kimberly Nettle’s “She Who Returned Home: The Narrative of An Afro-Guyanese Activist” in the 2004 issue of Meridians; David Scott’s “Counting Women’s Caring Work: An Interview with Andaiye” in the 2004 issue of Small Axe;and Kamala Kempadoo’s 2013 article, “Red Thread’s Research: An Interview with Andaiye” in the Caribbean Review of Gender Studies.

Most recently, her close comrades Karen de Souza and Alissa Trotz set up a tribute website shortly after her death that includes a comprehensive bio. It is fittingly titled, “The Point is to Change the World,” in honor of Andaiye’s book, an anthology of her writing, that will be published posthumously. 

And as elder Eusi Kwayana has argued, the most powerful way we can honor her is to follow her praxis. 

Nicole Burrowes is an Assistant Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas, Austin.