Writing Black Activist Lives: An CBFS Interview

SNCC-affiliated protesters march in Montgomery, 3-17-65 (Wikimedia Commons)

Conversations in Black Freedom Studies (CBFS) is a monthly discussion series held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Curated by Jeanne Theoharis and Robyn C. Spencer-Antoine with Komozi Woodard, the series was established as a space to discuss the latest scholarship in Black freedom studies, bringing the campus and community together as scholars and activists challenge the older geography, leadership, ideology, culture, and chronology of Civil Rights historiography. In anticipation of the discussion on “Writing Black Activist Lives,” scheduled for April 6th, we are highlighting the scholarship of four of the guests.

Shanna Greene Benjamin is a biographer and scholar who studies the literature, lives, and archives of Black women. She has published on African American literature and Black women’s intellectual history in African American Review, MELUS, and PMLA, Studies in American Fiction. She is a coach who helps graduate students and faculty members write what only they can; she is a consultant who helps colleges and universities engage with inclusivity as a practice.  Her book, Half in Shadow, a biography of Norton Anthology of African American Literature co-editor Nellie Y. McKay, is forthcoming from the University of North Carolina Press.

Dan Berger is a historian of activism, Black Power, and the carceral state. His latest book is Stayed on Freedom: The Long History of Black Power Through One Family’s Journey, published by Basic Books. He is Professor of Comparative Ethnic Studies at the University of Washington Bothell and curator of the Washington Prison History Project, a digital archive of prisoner activism and policy. Follow him @dnbrgr or www.danberger.info

As a scholar, Shana Redmond pulls from multiple subjects, strategies, and approaches in her work and situates her scholarship in and between fields, including Black Studies, Performance Studies, History, Critical Ethnic Studies, Sound Studies, English and Literature, Cultural Studies, and (Ethno)Musicology. Her new book is an experimental cartography of the global polymath Paul Robeson and his repetition as vibration, hologram, and the built environment during and after his lifetime. Titled Everything Man: The Form and Function of Paul Robeson, the book forwards a theory of “antiphonal life” in order to announce his continuing influence and labor in the political life of artists, organizers, and intellectuals. Her first book, Anthem: Social Movements and the Sound of Solidarity in the African Diaspora, examines the sonic politics performed amongst and between organized Afro-diasporic publics in the twentieth century.

Patricia Romney received her Ph.D. from the City University of New York, where she won the Bernard R. Ackerman Award for Outstanding Scholarship in Graduate Psychology. She completed her internship in Consultation and Education at the Yale University School of Medicine and did post-graduate study at The College of Executive Coaching. For twenty years, she taught at the college level, achieving tenure at Hampshire College, where she taught for 10 years. Subsequently, she held a 10-year appointment as Visiting Associate Professor of Psychology and Education at Mount Holyoke College. Dr. Romney has authored over 20 articles and papers. Her book We Were There: The Third World Women’s Alliance and the Second Wave of Feminism was published by Feminist Press in October 2021.

Conversations in Black Freedom Studies (CBFS): How did you come to write about Nellie Y. McKay, Michael and Zoharah Simmons, Paul Robeson, and the Third World Women’s Alliance?

Shanna Benjamin (SB): Nellie Y. McKay (1930-2006) was my graduate adviser. I was led to write about her after learning that she had withheld details about her personal life from her friends and colleagues in the academy—she was ten years older than we knew and a divorced mother of two: a son, Harry, and a daughter, Patricia, who she introduced to her academic friends and colleagues as her sister. Initially, I wanted to know why McKay kept these secrets, so I focused on answering this question and this question alone. In my research, however, I learned that there was much more to her life than her withholdings, and I became curious about how my path to the professoriate had been cut by McKay and her peers decades before. The story I ultimately tell, the book I wrote, answers that initial question but with greater emphasis on McKay’s role in field formation: how did there come to be a place for me—a scholar of African American literature—in predominantly white colleges and universities? The book melds McKay’s life story with moments of memoir to name the strategies she used and the sacrifices she made to craft a life of her own design.

Dan Berger (DB): Stayed on Freedom is a book of serendipitous connection. I met Dr. Zoharah Simmons at the University of Florida when she started there as a professor the same year I entered as a freshman. She was my teacher, became an advisor to a lot of activism I did as an undergraduate, and she inspired me to begin a serious study of the civil rights and Black Power movement. I moved to Philadelphia after I graduated, where I promptly met her ex-husband, Michael Simmons. I even ended up living upstairs with his niece and nephew!

Like Zoharah, he began his political life as an organizer in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and, like her, continued to work for human rights and social justice. I was most struck by the discrepancy between their stories and the available literature on the origins of Black Power within SNCC. And I was moved by how their perseverance in organizing challenged declensionist or otherwise narrow accounts of the Black freedom struggle that reduced it to particular periods, organizations, or well-known leaders. I wrote Stayed on Freedom to honor the ever-expanding organizing tradition of long-distance freedom fighters.

Shana Redmond (SR): I came to Robeson as a college student. I had the rare opportunity to take a class from his granddaughter, Susan Robeson. While her class centered on his film career, I began serious study of his music as a grad student. He was my favorite troubadour from my dissertation, which became my first book, Anthem: Social Movements and the Sound of Solidarity in the African Diaspora (NYU Press, 2014). Even with the tremendous, transformative impact that he had on my thinking and heart, I never anticipated returning to his study over any long-form but he came back to me, over and over again, and I finally capitulated to his demand to pay attention. Seeing his global revival–spectacular or quiet–led me back to his voice, which sent me back to the lush, unfinished revolutions of the twentieth century.

Patricia Romney (PR): I wrote about the Third World Women’s Alliance because my students were not aware that there were women of color who were part of the second wave. I also wrote because nowhere did I find a complete history of the Alliance. Much has been written, especially in the time since I began the book, but there were inaccuracies and incomplete stories. I also wrote the book to honor my incredible sisters in the Alliance who went on to continue their progressive activism in many different forms after the Alliance ceased to exist in 1980.

CBFS: Please tell us about a piece of the life and work of the people you write about.

SB: At the beginning of Chapter Two, I set a scene: Nellie Y. McKay is on the tenure track at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She’s stressed, turning herself inside out to demonstrate excellence in research, teaching, and service at an institution that had institutionalized Black Studies as its own academic department in 1970, just seven years before her arrival in 1977. It’s the 1980s, and McKay’s Jean Toomer manuscript—a book based on her Harvard dissertation about the Cane author—is progressing at a glacial pace. To tip the research scale in her favor, McKay decides to interview Toni Morrison. Mind you, this was Morrison before the Nobel Prize, before Beloved. Known and appreciated by Black women, it was an era when Morrison and her contemporaries—Alice Walker, Gayl Jones, Toni Cade Bambara, and Gloria Naylor, among them—were publicly lambasted as race traitors for their portrayals of Black men. McKay’s review chair advised her not to conduct the interview. He thought it was a distraction from the real work that she was supposed to be doing. McKay conducted the interview anyway. What I love about this piece of McKay’s story is the way it captures how untenured Black women scholars took professional risks to elevate the lives and literature of Black women.

DB: One of the central events of Stayed on Freedom concerns the Atlanta Project of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The Atlanta Project began when racists in the Georgia State Legislature refused to let Julian Bond take his seat after he endorsed SNCC’s statement against the war in Vietnam. The project extended SNCC’s statement into anti-draft organizing. It also organized rent strikes, produced a newspaper, and became a driving force of what became Black Power. Yet most histories of the period describe the project as the villain of SNCC and even of the larger civil rights movement.

I tell a different story. Stayed on Freedom describes how Zoharah (then known as Gwen Robinson) came to co-direct the Atlanta Project after leading a local project in Laurel, Mississippi, for 18 months. One of their signature efforts involved a protest to shut down the Atlanta induction center that led to Michael’s two-and-a-half-year imprisonment for draft resistance. Conversations within the Atlanta Project ultimately produced the Black Consciousness Paper, which ultimately helped spark SNCC’s embrace of Black Power.

SR: There are so many pieces to tug at, but one of my favorites is simply a description of him by a neighbor in Philadelphia, where he spent his retirement and the last years of his life. She described that if you asked him to sing, he would sing. To me, this epitomizes his entire life–first, the focus on his voice, which drew the ire of many nations and the admiration of thousands (if not millions) around the world, and second, an acknowledgment of selfless act after selfless act in support of and pleasure for others.

PR: The Third World Women’s Alliance was an outgrowth of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. It was composed of working-class women of color (BIPOC). Members were black (African-American and of Caribbean descent), Latina (Puerto Rican and Chicana), Asian and Asian-America ( of Korean, Chinese, and Japanese descent), and Lebanese. Founded in New York, it later developed a branch in California. Its ideology was socialist and intersectional, based on fighting imperialism, racism, and sexism.  We worked to organize women and educate men of color. We were focused on enabling women to be full partners and leaders in the struggle.

CBFS: What possibilities have you found in biography and other forms of life writing for the field of Black freedom studies?

SB: I think the possibilities within Black auto/biography are the outgrowth of a long tradition of Black self-writing that dates back to the 18th century. Early Black self-writing strove to articulate what Jocelyn Moody calls a “credible” Black self. Articulating this credible self was delicate work, as writers like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs found themselves needing to practice a mode of self-presentation that placed them above the fray to justify abolition and Black folks’ right to full citizenship and equal protection under the law. In these early examples of Black self-writing, we see glimpses of a Black interior constrained by the pressure to craft a persona above reproach. Today, Black autobiographies and memoirs are not only varied in their approach, rich and layered in technique, but they are also brutally and wonderfully honest, vulnerable, and forthright in a way that distinguishes them from their predecessors. I see the proliferation of twenty-first-century Black biography as the flowering of seeds planted by Black Studies decades before, a project that, by centering Black subjects and interdisciplinary methodologies, has afforded Black writers a broader range of expressive possibilities and granted an expertly-trained generation of Black Studies scholars the freedom to tell stories that reimagine disciplines, challenge conventional wisdom, and reclaim the archive.

DB: Biography provides a different organizing principle than studies of specific organizations, particular time periods, or exact locations. Routing our attention through individual lives, biography allows us to see how people navigate and intervene in the complex social phenomena. And that focus better helps us appreciate the endurance of the freedom tradition: people form, join, and leave organizations at different moments; they travel over wide geographies and often live through multiple, distinct periods. Biography also brings into focus the emotional dimensions of life—people get depressed and inspired, betrothed and betrayed. Those seemingly “personal” aspects of life are not only often political in nature, but they often impact people’s participation in freedom movements. Biography emphasizes how people change over time while they work to change the world.

SR: Though facilitated by this incredible person, my work on Robeson is only possible by situating him as a collective rather than an individual. He was/is an entire symphony and more sent to model all that we might yet achieve.

PR: Telling the stories inspires young generations. Life writing fills in the gaps in the history written by the dominant groups and makes history accessible and actionable

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Lucien Baskin

Lucien Baskin is a doctoral student in Urban Education at the CUNY Graduate Center, a fellow with Conversations in Black Freedom Studies at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and an instructor of Sociology at John Jay College. Their work focuses on social movements, the Black Radical Tradition, abolition, and education. Much of Lucien’s work is rooted in the City University of New York, including a dissertation project on radical organizing at CUNY in the era following Open Admissions. They are also at work on a project about Stuart Hall’s educational and pedagogical work and the institutional contexts of his radical intellectualism. They organize with Free CUNY and the Cops Off Campus Coalition, and have written about campus policing and abolitionist organizing in the university, including “Looking to Get Cops Off Your Campus? Start Here.” with Erica Meiners in Truthout, and “Abolitionist Study and Struggle in and beyond the University” in the Abusable Past.