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Active Learning and Research
Active Learning and Research
Government professor Valerie Sperling and undergraduate Devon Tarmasiewicz shared an interest in the intricacies and global impact of events in eastern Europe and Russia. Sperling traveled to Russia to investigate women's activism and Tarmasiewicz explored documents once belonging to the American Communist Party.

Meet the researchers: A good question for investigation

Interview with Devon Tarmasiewicz
Government major Devon Tarmasiewicz '02 is one of the first researchers to explore documents belonging to the former American Communist Party that are now on microfilm in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Her research project is being supervised by government department professor Valerie Sperling and is financed by the Anton Fellowship Program. Devon will be presenting her research findings at Academic Spree Day 2002.

What did you have to do to apply for the Anton Fellowship?

I had to write an essay describing my research question and how I got the idea for it. I described my research plan and submitted a budget. I worked with Professors Sperling and Cook on it.

What is the subject of your research?

My project stemmed from a question that I had in one of Professor Sperling's classes, Mass Murder and Genocide under Communism (Government 214). I had a question about the way Stalin was picking people to be purged-I wasn't sure whether it was along racial lines or ethnic lines. Professor Sperling suggested it would be a good question for investigation.

I decided to look specifically at American Communist Party ideology relative to race in the early 20th century. I started by doing background reading in late spring of this year and then I went to the Library of Congress in August for two weeks and studied the Party archives there. I was looking for evidence of African-Americans using Communist Party rhetoric as a political tool to advance the status of African-Americans.

The American Communist Party documents had originally been sent to Moscow for safe-keeping. After the fall of the Soviet Union, they became available on microfilm at the Library of Congress. They include letters such as those from a leader in one section of the American Communist Party to a leader in another section. Other letters are directives from the Central Party in Moscow to the Communist Party in the United States. The letters talked about things like propaganda and how to use it, how to start different groups, how to organize meetings, what the meetings were like, and how much money was generated at the meetings. I also found flyers from Communist Party meetings in Worcester and evidence relating to a man who left my hometown for Russia. I looked for evidence of other people who made that ultimate political decision and moved to the Soviet Union.

There must be a lot of material in these archives. How do you go about narrowing down what you need for your particular purpose?

One way to do it was to use the very good index that accompanies the archive. The archive is organized by department--for example, the Finnish department of the American Communist Party, the Negro Department, etc. But since the information is on microfilm, I could also find interesting things just scrolling through, stopping at different places and looking for key words.

What other kinds of things did you find out?

I found that the American Communist Party had a big affirmative action campaign relating to African-American recruitment. The prejudices that existed in the Party seemed based not so much on race as on ethnicity or religion. In fact, it seemed almost a goal to recruit a certain number of African-Americans in each state, and there was information on how to do that. The Party also provided lawyers for the Scottsboro case. There was, though, a definite restriction on the level in the Party that African-Americans were allowed to achieve. (Interviewer's note: The "Scottsboro Boys" were nine black teenagers who were arrested for the alleged rape of two white girls in 1931.)

I recently finished reading the autobiography Black Boy, in which African-American author Richard Wright described his involvement with the American Communist Party during this time.

Yes. Wright eventually became disenchanted with the Communist Party. I cited an excerpt from an essay he contributed to a book called The God That Failed. In this essay he described walking in a Communist Party parade. At some point he fell down and looked around for support from the Party members, but no one helped to pick him up. That was a transition point for him. He wasn't as much a part of the Party as the propaganda said he was.

Were most of the materials you looked at written by whites or were some of them generated by African-Americans in the Party?

Most of the materials I looked at would talk about "the Negroes" or "the blacks" so it made me think that they were white Communists. Also, from the leadership positions the writers were in, it seemed like there was affirmative action only up to a certain point-there was a ceiling past which African-Americans couldn't rise.

So, it sounds like even though the Party rhetoric was not prejudiced, perhaps many individuals in the Party were?

I think it may have depended on the geographic area you were in. Communists in the South might have had a different interpretation about what it meant to have African-Americans involved. In the North, it was fine for them to be involved in the group, but I actually found a letter saying that African-Americans were expected to be involved in the group, but not to hold office.

How are you finishing your project?

I'd like to visit Lamont Library at Harvard. They have the FBI files on African-American actor Paul Robeson. I also plan to visit the Center for Cold War Studies in Cambridge, and then hope to spend some concentrated time on my research over January term.

Can you comment on the advantages and disadvantages of doing your own research, as opposed to the way you ordinarily go about learning things in class?

I think that when you do your own research, it's harder to a certain extent, motivation-wise, because you have a large block of time that you're working with. You have to motivate yourself to do the research, then you have to motivate yourself to write it, then there are certain points when you feel very alone, and there's no set structure. It's a big responsibility to set the structure and the timetable for yourself. But those factors are also all advantages, because after you're finished you can be really excited because you did it by yourself and now you have it as a part of your resume. It's a big advantage to be able to say you received a fellowship.

Do you meet with Professor Sperling on a regular basis during this process?

The meetings haven't been regular, but we email back and forth. Whenever I've had questions she's been there to answer them. I'm sure when I start to write up my research, I'll be seeking her out much more. She's been extremely helpful.


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