Jeffrey B. Perry (1946-2022)
Jeffrey B. Perry (1946-2022), indefatigable working-class activist and scholar, beloved by family, friends, and comrades, passed away on September 24, 2022. A hybrid memorial event will be held on February 4 from 2-4 PM in NYC. The registration link will be posted on Perry’s Facebook page and website in January.
Perry was born in the Bronx, New York, to a working-class family that later moved to Northern New Jersey. He excelled as an athlete and student in the public schools and received a scholarship to Princeton, the first in his family to attend college.
Perry was educated at Princeton (B.A., 1968), Harvard (Education 1968-1969), Rutgers (Labor Studies M.A., 1974), and Columbia (History M.A., 1977 and Ph. D., 1987). He was deeply affected by the 1960’s movements for social change and inspired by the civil rights struggle. His work focused on two working class auto-didacts—Hubert Harrison and Theodore W. Allen on—postal, labor, and left issues, and the centrality of the struggle against white supremacy to progressive social change in the USA.
In college, Perry was in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). After college, he hitchhiked through Mexico and South America, did draft resistance work (1969), joined the Venceremos Brigade to Cuba (1969-1970), and was active in the Puerto Rican Socialist Party in New Jersey from 1971-1974.
As a postal-worker activist and member of Local 300 of the National Postal Mail Handlers Union (division of LIUNA) from 1974-2007 Perry was: a shop steward; elected administrative vice-president at the New Jersey and International Bulk Mail Center in Jersey City from 1984-1988; elected Local Treasurer of the Tristate Local 300 in New York City from 1988-2007; and editor of newspapers at the rank-and-file, branch, local, and national levels. He was fired by the USPS in 1978 for leading protests against the tentative agreement but won his job back in 1979. While active among postal workers, he co-chaired the 1986 NJ State anti-apartheid parade. Also, in 1988, he went to the West Bank and Gaza and returned to testify before the U.S. Trade Representative on behalf of Palestinian Trade Unionists.
As a working-class intellectual, Perry authored the two-volume biography; Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918 (Columbia University Press, 2008) and Hubert Harrison: The Struggle for Equality, 1918-1927 (CUP, 2020). He also edited and introduced: A Hubert Harrison Reader (Wesleyan University Press, 2001); and the reprint of Harrison’s When Africa Awakes: The ‘Inside Story’ of the Stirrings and Strivings of the New Negro in the Western World (Diasporic Africa Press, 2015).
Perry scrupulously documented Harrison’s contributions including his “signal roles in the development of what were, up to that time, the largest class-radical movement (socialism) and the largest race-radical movement (the New Negro/Garvey movement) in US history.” He described Harrison as “the most class conscious of the race radicals and the most race conscious of the class radicals,” and “one of the truly important yet little known figures of early 20th century America.” The historian Joel A Rogers, a contemporary and friend of Harrison, described Harrison as “the foremost Afro-American intellect of his time” and “one of America’s greatest minds.”
As a friend of the Harrison family Perry helped to place a gravesite marker on Harrison’s previously unmarked grave at the Woodside Cemetery, Bronx NY. The marker includes Harrison’s image and words drawn from Andy Razaf, outstanding poet of the New Negro Movement - ”Speaker, editor, and sage . . . What a change thy work hath wrought!”
Prior to his research on Harrison, Perry was an organizer for the Puerto Rican Socialist Party in Hoboken NJ in the early 1970’s when he was first introduced to and began working with Theodore W. Allen (1919-2005). Allen wrote “Can White Workers Radicals be Radicalized” in 1967 (https://credo.library.umass.edu/view/pageturn/mums1021-s02-i047/#page/9/mode/1up) which had been widely debated in SDS. Perry was drawn to Allen’s historical analysis that focused on the centrality of the struggle against white supremacy to progressive social change in the US.
In 1975, Perry printed and distributed, in pamphlet form, Allen’s article, “Class Struggle and the Origin of Racial Slavery: The Invention of the White Race.” This essay served as a precis for Allen’s Invention of the White Race, Volume II: The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America (Vol 1 1994, Vol II 1996 Verso). The pamphlet was reprinted with an introduction from Perry by the Center for the Study of Working-Class life at SUNY Stony Brook in 2006. Perry concluded his introduction by quoting Allen on the “four basic challenges for the work ahead:
1. To show that white supremacism is not an inherited attribute of the European-American personality.
2. To demonstrate that white supremacism has not served the interests of the laboring-class European-Americans.
3. To account for the prevalence of white supremacism within the ranks of laboring-class European-Americans.
4. By the light of history, to consider ways whereby European-American laboring people may cast off the stifling incubus of “white” identity.
After Allen completed his two-volume magnum opus published by Verso, (part of The Haymarket Series edited by Mike Davis and Michael Sprinker), Allen named Perry as his literary executor and described him as “the individual most intimately acquainted with the development of the book’s argument.” After Allen’s passing, Perry edited and wrote introductions and new notes for The Invention of the White Race Vol. 1: Racial Oppression and Social Control, Vol. 2: The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America (Verso,2012); and the 3rd composite edition (Verso, 2021).
Perry, following Allen, repeatedly emphasized that the “white” identity is a social control construct invented by the bourgeoisie, leading them both to say: “I am not white.
In his introduction to the second Verso edition, Perry described the work as “…a full-scale challenge to what Allen refers to as “The Great White Assumption” – “the unquestioning, indeed unthinking acceptance of the ‘white’ identity of European-Americans of all classes as a natural attribute rather than a social construct.” Perry argued that Allen’s magnum opus contains the root (from the seed planted by W.E.B. Du Bois in Black Reconstruction) of a new and radical approach to U.S. history, one that challenges master narratives taught in the media and in schools, colleges, and universities. “With its equalitarian motif and emphasis on class struggle, it speaks to people today who strive for change worldwide.”
Based on feedback from readers and to his numerous presentations, Perry’s “Introduction to the 2021 Edition” addressed a number of common misconceptions regarding Allen’s work. He emphasized that the “white” racial identity is not merely a social construct. It is the particular form of bourgeois social control based on a system of racial privileges and racial oppression put in place by the plantation bourgeoisie in response to labor solidarity between European and African laborers in seventeenth-century Virginia and Maryland. As Allen wrote on the back cover of Volume 1 in 1994: “When the first Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619, there were no ‘white’ people there; nor, according to the colonial records, would there be for another sixty years.” Others living in the colony at that time were English; they had been English when they left England, and naturally they and their Virginia born children were English, they were not “white.”
Many of Perry’s talks on Harrison and Allen are on YouTube. Numerous other public talks and writings may be accessed through jeffreybperry.net.
As an archivist, Perry worked with the Harrison family to place the Hubert H. Harrison Papers at Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library where they are posted online in a permanent searchable database. (https://findingaids.library.columbia.edu/ead/nnc-rb/ldpd_6134799 )
Perry placed the Theodore W. Allen Papers and parts of his own Papers at the Archives of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
In addition to writing over 700 articles related to postal and labor issues, Perry has written extensively on Harrison and Allen and delivered hundreds of talks (domestically and internationally), produced dozens of videos on Harrison, Allen, postal issues, and the struggle against white supremacy. Links to these articles and videos may be found at Jeffreybperry.net
Writings by Dr. Perry have appeared in Against the Current/Solidarity, African Globe, AlterNet, Amsterdam News, Black Agenda Report, Black Commentator, Black Past.org, Black Perspectives, Black Star News, Claridad, Communist History, CounterPunch, Cultural Logic, DSAUSA, Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, Encyclopedia of African American Literature, Facts For Working People, Hartford Guardian, History News Network, Journal of American History, Journal of Pan-African Studies, Labor Notes, Lies of Our Times, Local 2627 AFSCME, Local 300 Mail Handlers News, The Mail Handler, Mail Handler Voice, New Labor Forum, New Politics, Pambazuka News, Socialism and Democracy, SocialistWorker.org, Souls, Stansbury Forum, Truthout, The Truth Seeker, Your Union News, Z-Net, and various other encyclopedias, journals, newspapers, and labor publications.