Our historical and contemporary images of black nationalism privilege the masculine. This is true whether in distant or recent memory. Images of black men dressed in crisp black uniforms marching in unison to military dirges as part of the Black Legion of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement (UNIA) dominate our historical memory. Our contemporary understandings routinely feature members of the Black Panthers, primarily the male members, marching in formation with guns in the 1960s and 1970s.
These pervasive images accentuate as much as they mask. Women played central, if not pivotal roles in these organizations. They were founders, organizers, theoreticians, foot soldiers, and sustainers. Keisha N. Blain’s Set the World on Fire shows us what is hidden in plain sight. More importantly, she lays bare the foundational elements of black nationalist thought and practice. In short, women were not simply helpmates to men, but the creators and constructors of the intellectual, ideological, and organizational underpinnings of the black nationalist project in the 20th century.
Casting her intellectual net long and wide, Blain begins with the Garvey movement. Amy Ashwood Garvey and Amy Jacques Garvey figure prominently in this analysis. Blain underscores their central role in the everyday organizational work of the UNIA and their contributions to the woman’s pages of UNIA’s publications. Challenging the masculinist presentation of the organization, women faced challenges to their desire to lead and were often relegated to secondary roles in the organization. Nonetheless, they carved out independent paths by articulating a maternalist discourse that situated women as important factors in nation building and maintenance.
Garvey’s deportation in 1927 did not signal the demise of nationalist agitation. Nor did it mean the exclusive turn to the Old Left, given that he was the insurgent leader in racial activism. Rather, as Blain reveals, the interwar period witnessed vibrant working-class activism led by black women that laid the groundwork for subsequent activity in the 1960s. Here Blain’s work compliments and extends existing dynamic scholarship on black women, activism, and working-class culture. Her exploration of the Peace Movement of Ethiopia (PME) crystallizes this point.
The PME was founded by Mittie Maude Lena Gordon, a Garveyite woman, in 1932. Gordon’s movement drew on several strains of African American organizational and religious thought. She drew liberally from Garveyite structures, including a strict protocol at meetings, the active solicitation of donations known as “street strolling,” the establishment of branches in cities throughout the Midwest, and the formation of the Protective Corps, which was an all-male unit based on the African Legion. Gordon also utilized the religious ideas of Noble Drew Ali’s Moorish Science Temple of America, whose members referred to themselves as “Moors” and added the surname Bey or El to their names. Although she derived inspiration from this group, the core beliefs of the organization remained Christian.
Beyond the traditional tropes of black nationalism, Gordon also accentuated other important components of this philosophy. Perhaps one of the most important was emigration. Derisively and inaccurately characterized as a “Back to Africa” movement, it proved far more complex. The PME’s engagement with Africa drew on the exigencies of the Great Depression and a long transnational interest in Africa and Asia. While it is common to think of the Depression in terms of the ways it fueled the growth of the self-help and communal responses to financial crisis, its impact on the collective needs of African Americans is rarely examined. Utilizing a well-established practice of petitions, the PME worked tirelessly to promote the Greater Liberia Bill (1939), which was designed to enable the emigration of African Americans to the West African republic.
Blain uses the Greater Liberia Bill as an important lens to understand the complexities of transnational politics, interracial and intraracial coalition, and the fraught politics of class. Conceived as a collective response to the dire plight of African Americans, the bill asked the US government to appropriate funds for the resettlement of persons of African descent in Liberia. Rather than being exclusively separatist, it reflected economic realities. Undergirded by thousands of signatures, the bill drew attention to the myriad ways black working-class people perceived their collective reality.
Racial pride, African redemption, self-sufficiency, and internationalism were just a few of the strategies and organizational constructs utilized by black women.
The bill also created strange allies. Black nationalists found themselves in league with white supremacists such as Earnest Sevier Cox and Theodore Bilbo. While black nationalists were not typically racial purists, they deployed the language of self-help and political self-determination to encourage the emigration of black people and to garner support from the government. These aims often intersected with those of white supremacists, whose sole preoccupation involved ridding the United States of its African-descended population. Blain’s treatment of this question illuminates a further level of complexity in the history of black thought. Demonstrating their capacity to forgo essentialism or other reductionist approaches, black nationalists aligned themselves with a wide variety of political actors to effect change.
And then there was the question of class. The work of emigration coincided with the civil rights movement, which was concentrated on the amelioration of domestic racial inequities. The focus of Gordon’s PME seemed out of step with these goals. The group was widely maligned and ridiculed for its working-class affiliations and internationalist focus. These occurrences demonstrate the class tensions and contestation that characterized the period. These tensions are often overshadowed in the push to present black life in this period as narrowly focused on domestic interventionist goals. The efforts of these working-class actors complicates this reductionist narrative.
Beyond complicating the aims and motives of working-class nationalists, Blain also finds that their work took place in unlikely geographical spaces. Largely conceived as a Northern phenomenon, Blain examines the PME’s organizational reach in the South, namely Mississippi. Here, we are exposed to the work of Celia Jane Allen. Allen used the tenets of black nationalism to engage in grassroots organizational work. The organizational endeavors of individuals such as Allen laid the groundwork for subsequent grassroots activism throughout Mississippi. The fact that this organizational work occurred prior to WWII demonstrates the long trajectory of Southern black activism as a forerunner of subsequent civil rights engagement and agitation.
Racial pride, African redemption, self-sufficiency, and internationalism were just a few of the strategies and organizational constructs utilized by black women. These concepts and strategies found voice in the complex race, class, and gender spaces created by black women. Not surprisingly, the active work and saliency of the PME’s programs continued into the 1960s. The movement often inspired and undergirded the work of former Garveyite Queen Mother Audley Moore’s Universal Organization of Ethiopian Women. The earlier PME work around emigration as a response to racist violence was echoed in the Nation of Islam’s demands for a separate state or territory reserved for African Americans.
Black women as nationalists and internationalists cast a long shadow over the first half of the 20th century. The biblical admonition that “the women shall lead us” is a truism that spans the ages and proves extremely relevant here. It is clear that black women’s leadership, vision, and constructive and creative work in domestic and international spaces proved foundational in the 20th century and continues to do so today.