Writing Women Into Black Power

*This post is part of our online roundtable on Ashley Farmer’s Remaking Black Power

Members of the Third World Women’s Alliance in 1972 (Credit: Luis Garza)

In Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era, Ashley Farmer has remade how we will write the history of Black Power moving forward. Not only does she introduce ways that Black women transformed an era, but she provides a robust model for an intellectual history of the Black Power movement. She also demonstrates that Black Power theory and practice developed in tandem, each shaping the other. Here rest the two pillars of Farmer’s work. First, as we have long known, women were present at the creation of the movement and were keen promoters of Black Power practice. Second, because they were always present, Farmer argues, women both shaped and contested the theoretical underpinnings upon which Black Power organizations rested.

To demonstrate these claims, Farmer pushes the boundaries of women’s Black Power organizing back to the 1950s, analyzing “the political essays and satire of postwar women radicals” to reconstruct “their gendered political visions from multiple vantage points” (13). Chapter one introduces the “Militant Domestic Negro,” described as a “political activist who advocated for community control, black self-determination, self-defense, and separate black cultural and political institutions,” all of which were hallmarks of Black Power (21). Farmer argues further that the “militant domestic negro” forces readers to reimagine the labor debates of the post-war era with Black women’s work at the center.

Chapter two focuses on the “Black Revolutionary Woman” who joined the Black Panther Party (BPP). Here Farmer uses the artwork of Tarika Lewis to demonstrate the possibilities that Black women imagined for themselves in this highly masculinized version of Black Power. Of Lewis’s imagery Farmer writes, it “showed that black women were capable of identifying with, adopting, and embodying the Panthers’ revolutionary values, appearance, strategies, and politics.” Farmer also argues that “the common bond among Panther members—and the core of their new revolutionary identity—was not maleness but militancy,” (65) a trait that women in the party shared.

In chapter three Farmer moves from West Coast to East Coast, with an emphasis on the ways in which women embraced cultural nationalist organizations such as the US Organization (US) and the Congress of African Peoples (CAP). Both US and CAP, she notes, were “steeped in the idealism and the prevailing patriarchy of the day,” exhibiting “gendered ideals that had more in common with American values than African ones” (94). But rather than accept such notions of womanhood, Farmer informs us, cultural nationalist women pushed back, carving out space and ultimately re-envisioning party doctrine. Women such as Amina Baraka pushed for a revaluation of ideas about natural differences between the genders, eventually producing handbooks and doctrine that “codif[ied] the progressive vision of African Womanhood . . . [and] foregrounded their insistence on black women’s rightful place at the forefront of CAP’s ideological and organizational evolution” (121).

As Black Power reignited Pan-Africanist sentiment in the United States and activists planned for the Sixth Pan-African Conference of 1974 in Tanzania, women “formed a powerful organizing cohort” (143). We learn that women served as the logistical, organizing force stateside, and produced position papers that allowed them to “redefine their roles in Pan-African organizing,” conceive gender hierarchies anew and develop diasporic-focused ideas that could account for Black women’s gender-specific experiences alongside racist and imperialist oppression (146-147).

In her final substantive chapter, Farmer traces the evolution of the Black Women’s Liberation Committee within the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to the Third World Women’s Alliance. Here “black women activists [attempted] to harness their Black Power, feminist, and internationalist commitments into a cohesive organizational structure and political identity” (167). It is here that we see the culmination of women’s organizing efforts, which Farmer argues were “born of Black Power organizing but not confined by it.” (190).

Particularly impressive is the way Farmer mines sources created by women activists who “developed distinct but overlapping bodies of literature and artwork dedicated to diversifying public perceptions of black womanhood” (4). If the sources are not entirely new, they will be unfamiliar to many readers. Farmer also provides a compelling roadmap for how to read these sources. For example, when we think of prison letters, it is George Jackson who comes to mind. Or we may reach further back to Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In this context Farmer introduces us to the prison letters of Mae Mallory and Joan Bird, a member of the NY 21 and a political prisoner. Many of us will know of Emory Douglass and his incredible career as the artist of the Black Panther Party. For her part, Farmer introduces us to Tarika Lewis, the BPP’s “first Revolutionary Artist” who, between 1967 and 1969, “created over forty images under the pen name Matilaba” (62). Farmer uses such sources both to show how Black women understood their relationship to Black Power and to illustrate the kind of world they imagined for themselves.

If women did not precisely birth the Black Power movement, they certainly served as its midwives; a term Farmer employs throughout the text. While convincingly showing that women both theorized and conceived Black Power, she makes a strong case that it was women who nursed these organizations through crises as well as critical moments of evolution. Farmer notes that “women founded or headed many of these new branches” of the Black Panther Party early in its evolution, after the incarceration of Huey Newton and murder of Bobby Hutton (66). As the BPP entered the 1970s, we again see how “Panther women headed this phase of party organizing” (81). When the Committee for United Newark (CFUN) split ideologically and organizationally in 1969, Farmer notes, “women emerged as key organizers and leaders” (108). They also assumed the role of peacemakers and reconcilers, negotiating conflicts between male activists “amid mounting ideological and logistical tensions . . . strategically maneuver[ing] around activists’ egos and misgivings” (144).

Despite chapters entitled “The African Woman,” “The Pan-African Woman,” and “The Third World Black Woman,” Farmer’s text is not a global history of Black Power, as such. Rather, what she offers is an account of the ways in which Black women in the United States crafted identities around their “idealized concepts” of global women. In this way her work offers scholars of global Black Power movements novel ways of imagining sources, theoretical lenses, and approaches.

Farmer reminds readers of the incredible intellectual and organizational feat that was Black Power. She has provided a nuanced reading of the sources and, perhaps more importantly, of Black women’s lives and labors both within and without the movement. Farmer herself labors to read these women in their totality, with all their faults and foibles, attentive to the contradictions between and among them. For these reasons this text is a must-read for anyone interested in Black Power and allied movements.

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Laura Warren Hill

Laura Warren Hill is an Associate Professor of History at Bloomfield College, where she teaches courses in History and Africana Studies. She is the author of Strike the Hammer While the Iron is Hot: The Black Freedom Struggle in Rochester, NY, 1940-1970 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, forthcoming). Follow her on Twitter @mohojolo.