Feminism, Gender Politics, and Black Nationalist Women

*This post is part of our online roundtable on Keisha N. Blain’s Set the World on Fire

(Photo: Johnny Silvercloud, Flickr)

Keisha N. Blain’s Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom offers a compelling portrait of the vibrant world of Black nationalist politics in the first half of the twentieth century. This was a world in which activists thought in global terms, envisioning African Americans’ struggles for freedom as bound up in movements of people of color across the world. It was a world in which people fought ceaselessly for emigration to Africa, mobilizing their communities and lobbying elected officials. And it was a world shaped significantly by a circle of fiercely determined Black women: Ethel Waddell, Celia Jane Allen, Ethel Collins, Amy Jacques Garvey, Amy Ashwood Garvey, and Maymie Leona Turpeau De Mena. These were not the women who worked through middle class organizations such as the National Association of Colored Women, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or the National Urban League. Lacking financial resources and the support of well-known institutions, Black nationalist women forged their own paths outside of the mainstream.

Blain advances the globalization of US history in her emphasis on the “global visions of freedom” embedded in Black nationalist women’s thinking and organizing. Believing that people of African descent constituted a distinct group based on their unique culture and shared history, Black nationalists advocated racial separatism, Black pride, political and economic self-determination, Pan-African unity, and African redemption from European colonization. Many of the women we meet in Set the World on Fire participated in Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), the major Black nationalist organization in the US and worldwide after World War I. But after Garvey was imprisoned in 1923 and deported to Jamaica in 1927, new opportunities opened up for women to assert their leadership and build transnational and transracial alliances with people of color in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean.

In a subtle yet vital intervention, Blain foregrounds Black nationalist women’s pragmatism, emphasizing their willingness to explore a range of ideologies and experiment with different political strategies. This flexibility, she suggests, represented their willingness to frankly assess the situations they confronted and change course when their efforts were not yielding the results they desired. In making this argument, Blain asks her readers to question what is gained when activists resolutely promote a political philosophy or tactic that might be abstractly compelling but does not result in tangible achievements. In many situations, she suggests, activists face hard choices. And some decide that compromise and even questionable alliances are the only way to achieve the results they desire.

By carefully reconstructing Black women’s pragmatic decision making, Blain offers a densely layered intellectual history of a group of people not typically considered intellectuals because of their poverty and limited formal education. She highlights the sophisticated political arguments embedded in their writings and explains the complicated reasoning that guided their actions. We see women melding their ambitious political goals with a practical understanding of the opportunities available to them in a highly constricted social and political landscape.

“Desperate” conditions, Blain suggests, often called for “desperate measures” (5). Steamrolled by the Great Depression, Black people faced increasingly dire poverty, rampant discrimination, disenfranchisement, and ceaseless racial violence. Seeing no evidence to suggest that their situations would substantially improve, they called for emigration to Africa. Not a pipe dream nor a fantasy, women’s efforts to organize Black communities to support emigration represented a “logical response” to the racial hatred that had been part of the nation since its inception and showed no signs of relenting during a global economic crisis (81).

Over time, desperate circumstances resulted in some Black women pursuing controversial alliances with white supremacists who supported Black emigration for racist reasons. Blain probes women’s motivations for pursuing this course, ultimately concluding that the impetus was “neither irrational nor haphazard.” She points out that white supremacists and Black nationalists often found common intellectual ground in their rejection of racial mixing. After assessing all of their options, Black women determined that negotiating with white supremacists offered the best opportunity for them to further their goal of escaping an “irredeemingly racist” country (105-6).

Setting a high standard for historians of social movements, Blain is clearly sympathetic to her protagonists, but she does not sugarcoat their life histories nor shy away from documenting tensions, missteps, and contradictions. We see this not only in her exploration of women’s interactions with white supremacists but also in her richly-layered discussion of their imagined relationship to Liberians. Several Black nationalist women subscribed to ideas about racial uplift that mirrored the same kinds of imperialist thought they claimed to reject. Promoting a “civilizationist” discourse, they envisioned their relocation to Liberia as an opportunity to “Americanize native Africans” and improve conditions for the people already living in that country (141, 107). Black nationalism and anti-imperialism, Blain astutely argues, often went hand-in-hand with “imperialist and hegemonic aspirations” (122).

Blain suggests that a different set of contradictions shaped women’s gender politics. Black nationalist women were trailblazers who seized leadership opportunities within activist organizations and fundamentally rejected perceptions of women as inferior to men. They directly challenged the male leadership of the UNIA, played central roles in community organizing, negotiated directly with federal politicians, and penned feminist writings in movement publications. At the same time, many of them believed men and women were fundamentally different. They embraced their “natural” roles as mothers and wives even as they argued for more power within their organizations and communities.

Blain describes this mindset as “proto-feminist consciousness,” which she defines as “an opposition to gender inequality that predated the feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s” (9).1 Yet she never fully explains what made them proto-feminist rather than feminist. While they did not self-identify as feminists, scholars such as Premilla Nadasen and Erik S. McDuffie have encouraged historians to include women of color and working class women in narratives of feminist thought and activism, even if they did not use that label. While there is an argument to be made for not identifying people as part of a movement they did not themselves claim, Blain does not make it. Portraying Black nationalist women as laying important groundwork for Black feminists in later decades, she positions them as part of a longer lineage of feminist activism.

By invoking the term proto-feminist, Blain’s narrative, perhaps unintentionally, posits a teleology of feminist consciousness. It implicitly suggests that the earlier generation of Black nationalist women were not fully feminist because they still held onto ideals of men and women having naturally different roles. Yet there is a long strand of feminist thinking, including many who were active in the 1960s and beyond, that embraces gender distinctions and women’s roles as mothers. And one of the most powerful contributions historians make to our understanding of social movements is to remind us of how people’s politics reflect their social and political circumstances. Today’s Black organizers promote analyses of gender and racial politics that differ from the theories promoted by activists in earlier decades. But that does not mean contemporary activists are more enlightened than those who came before. While Blain’s analysis of Black nationalism makes this point brilliantly, her portrayal of Black feminist thought is less fully realized.

Ultimately, To Set the World on Fire offers a deeply human portrait of a group of brave and brilliant women navigating a hostile world. Activism is messy. It exposes people’s contradictions, creates friction, and often requires compromise. Activism is also a slog. People spend an inordinate amount of time on thankless tasks and rarely achieve their goals. In foregrounding these realities, Blain underscores Black nationalist women’s tenaciousness and reminds us of their steadfast belief that Black people everywhere deserved a better future. Most of all, Blain’s powerful recounting of Black radical women’s struggles for freedom relentlessly reminds us of the urgency of struggle for racial justice then and now.

  1.  Blain cites the political theorist Joy James, who uses the term “protofeminist” to describe “historical women” who “preshadowed contemporary Black feminist radicalism,” see Shadowboxing: Representations of Black Feminist Politics (New York: Palgrave, 1999), 41.
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Lisa Levenstein

Lisa Levenstein is Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She is the author of the award-winning book 'A Movement Without Marches: African American Women and the Politics of Poverty in Postwar Philadelphia' (UNC Press, 2009). Her current book project is on the reconstitution of US feminism in the 1990s and beyond (under contract with Basic Books). Follow her on Twitter @lisalevenstein.