Public Thinker: Keisha N. Blain on Black Women’s Intellectual History

Thinking in public demands knowledge, eloquence, and courage. In this new interview series, we hear from public scholars about how they found their path and how they communicate to a wide audience.
Keisha N. Blain has quickly become one of the most innovative and influential ...

Keisha N. Blain has quickly become one of the most innovative and influential young historians of her generation. She serves as president of the African American Intellectual History Society and senior editor of its blog, Black Perspectives. Blain also worked on two widely read crowdsourced syllabi: Charleston Syllabus, edited with Chad Williams and Kidada E. Williams, contextualized the deadly 2015 white terrorist attack on parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina; “Trump Syllabus 2.0,” published here on Public Books, took a critical approach to race, gender, class, and disability to understand the political ascension of Donald J. Trump. I spoke with Prof. Blain about her new book, Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom, and considered how her approach to historical scholarship mirrors contemporary activist efforts.

N. D. B. Connolly (NC): Your book, Set the World on Fire, offers a first-of-its kind exploration of women’s role in the development of global black nationalism. It stops in places as disparate as Chicago, Antigua, Liberia, and the Mississippi Delta. What inspired you to tackle a topic of this scale?


Keisha N. Blain (KB): In many ways, I started conceptualizing this project during my undergraduate years at Binghamton University. At the time, I was taking a class with Prof. Michael O. West on global black social movements. The course was transformative—it was the first time in my life that I had encountered many of the figures we discussed. By its very nature, the class was diasporic—in the 15 weeks or so, we moved rapidly across geographical lines, delving into an array of readings on people of African descent across the globe. This was, for me, the foundations of my intellectual journey. From that moment on, it was difficult for me to even think about black history without thinking transnationally.

It was in that course that I first started thinking critically about women’s roles in nationalist and internationalist movements. I was struck by the masculinist framings of the historical narratives—many of the books I remember reading were about men, and if women did appear, they did so in brief, and often only in their capacity as wives and partners. As a young college student, I was still figuring out this history, but I knew these narratives had to be incomplete. In my quest to find out more about how women shaped these movements, I wrote a term paper on women in the Garvey movement, analyzing their writings in the Negro World newspaper. What started off as a term paper for the class later evolved into an honors thesis.


NC: It’s incredible that another topic didn’t pull you in a different direction. That’s what usually happens once a person transitions into grad school.


KB: I thought I would move in other directions in graduate school but I was passionate about the topic and as a result, I constantly found myself being drawn back to it. Of course, I expanded my focus in many ways and as I developed a greater command of the literature, I started to see more gaps in the history of black nationalism and internationalism in the 20th century. As I delved deeper into the research, I uncovered primary sources that countered much of what historians had written on these topics. By following the sources, I began to construct a new narrative that centered black nationalist women’s political activism in a period that historians have largely overlooked.


NC: Is there something about the history of black nationalism that changes fundamentally what we think we know about first-wave feminism? About women’s history more generally?


KB: Yes, I think so. Mainstream narratives on first-wave feminism tend to focus on women like Lucretia Mott, Lucy Stone, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony. Black women like Sojourner Truth, Anna Julia Cooper, and Ida B. Wells are just as critical to this story. I would also add that the black nationalist women I discuss in the book are central to this narrative. When we take seriously the ideas and activism of women like Amy Jacques Garvey, Amy Ashwood Garvey, Mittie Maude Lena Gordon, and Josephine Moody (whose writings inspired the title of my book), it expands our understanding of first-wave feminism.

Among other things, it underscores the diversity of feminist thought and emphasizes how African American and Afro-Caribbean women, in particular, were vital to shaping this history. It also extends the traditional chronology and scope of first-wave feminism, moving beyond 1920 (with the passage of the 19th amendment) and centering an array of issues with which activists were concerned in the 20th century, including individual and structural racism.


NC: Tell me about how you approached Afro-Asian solidarity. Books by Diane Fujino, Scott Kurashige, Gerald Horne, and Robeson Taj Frazier have advanced considerably our understanding of the intertwined histories of Asian- and African-descended people, especially in the decades bookending the 1955 Bandung Conference. Your work takes us to even newer places, gendering this history through interracial women’s activism nearly a half-century before Bandung. How were you able to do that?


KB: While writing Set the World on Fire, I came across a letter from Pearl Sherrod, a black woman in Detroit, that was sent to Mittie Maude Lena Gordon, one of the key figures I discuss in the book. At the time, Sherrod was very active in Afro-Asian political movements and wrote a letter to Gordon in the 1930s in hopes of forging an alliance based on their shared interest in Afro-Asian solidarity. That letter set me on the path to uncovering more about black women’s ideas about Afro-Asian solidarity during this period. I had read several books on Afro-Asia but could not find much on the subject before 1955 and I found very little about women—with the exception of references to Madam C. J. Walker’s critical role in helping to establish the International League of Darker Peoples (ILDP) in 1919.


Expanding the Black Geopolitical Imagination

By Jarvis C. McInnis

NC: It’s easy to forget the lesser-known black internationalist organizations, isn’t it? But there were so many doing such important work, with letters and ideas crisscrossing the globe.


KB: Yes, Pearl Sherrod’s story underscores this point. In the 1930s, she was actively involved in a lesser-known organization called The Development of Our Own (TDOO), a Detroit-based antiracist political movement that was established to advance Afro-Asian solidarity. The organization was small but very influential during this period. And when Sherrod reached out to Gordon, in the 1930s, she was working to expand the reach of this organization beyond the city of Detroit. Sherrod’s letter forced me to think more carefully about Afro-Asian solidarity. As I delved deeper into the research, I found other letters, newspaper articles, and a trove of exciting material that specifically captured black women’s ideas about Japan. These sources helped me to bring the theme of Afro-Asia to the forefront of the narrative and made it possible for me to capture the significant role black women have played in shaping this history.


NC: Let’s bear down on one of these women. Who was Laura Kofey? What does her story tell us about violence in the preservation of male-centered leadership?


KB: Laura Adorker Kofey was a very effective organizer in the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) who rose to prominence during the mid-1920s. Following Marcus Garvey’s imprisonment in 1925—on trumped-up charges of mail fraud—Kofey became a visible leader in the Garvey movement, traveling across the United States and other parts of the globe. She was successful in establishing new UNIA divisions and attracting new followers to the movement during a tumultuous period in the organization’s history.

Kofey’s position of prominence, however, was short-lived. By 1927, her reputation became tarnished, when a group of Garveyite men grew suspicious of her immediate success. Sometime around August 1927, they accused her of raising funds for her own business ventures. She was quickly dismissed from the UNIA and advised to discontinue her activities. Not long after her public dismissal, Kofey established the African Universal Church and Commercial League in Florida.


NC: That’s where I first met her, years ago, researching the history of Miami. I’d never heard of her before then, and rarely does she appear in more recent work. But you captured just how dangerous it seemed to Garveyites to have this black women daring to establish her own political organization.


KB: Yes, Kofey’s decision so angered black nationalist men that some of them began to harass her and tried to disrupt her meetings. And sadly, during an evening service in March 1928, Kofey was assassinated. Two male leaders in the UNIA—who had threatened her prior to the shooting—were arrested and charged with murder but later acquitted of the charges.


NC: Terrible.


KB: Kofey’s experience represents an extreme case, but it certainly underscores the patriarchal nature of black nationalist movements in the 20th century. It also reveals the extreme—and violent—measures that some were willing to take to limit women’s leadership.

When we approach our work from the basic premise that black women’s ideas and activities are valuable, it transforms our research and writing.

NC: Much about Set the World on Fire hinges on introducing readers to women about whom most people have likely never heard. How important was it for you to balance biography with some of the book’s more analytic elements?


KB: As I wrote the book, I tried to strike a balance between biography and analysis. As you mention, I knew that most people had never heard of many of these women, so I needed to introduce them to readers. But I also knew that if I wanted to fully capture their politics, I needed to delve into their personal lives. Their personal lives informed their political lives and vice versa. I wanted readers to get a full sense of who these women were—certainly as thinkers and as activists but also as friends, neighbors, wives, mothers, and so on. I tried to capture them at their highest moments—the ones that I think they would be most proud of—but also at their lowest—the moments when they were discouraged, hurt, and afraid.


NC: That’s so important, isn’t it, capturing activists as people?


KB: Absolutely. I think the best kind of history helps to illuminate the many aspects of a person’s life and helps readers to see them as human and not simply as “leaders” or “organizers.” I take this approach in my teaching as well—I think when we center the human experience that students, and readers in general, not only develop a more comprehensive understanding of history, but they also begin to examine their own potential influence in shaping it. They imagine the possibilities of how they too, as ordinary individuals, can shape the world in which they live.


NC: This book affirms, yet again, that, when it comes to black people’s fight against white domination, the lines between socialism and capitalism, nationalism and imperialism, and even Islam and Christianity can get easily blurred. At the same time, conflicts over minor ideological or political differences could tear organizations apart, or even cost people their lives, as occurred in Kofey’s case. What does a book like yours teach us about politics and the life cycles of organizations?


KB: There are so many lessons that the book teaches about politics, but I’ll emphasize one. It’s important to remember that ideas precede organizations and they certainly outlive them. When we focus solely on organizations or specific social movements, we often find ourselves telling declensionist narratives, because in the end, movements die, and organizations come to an end for a host of reasons.


NC: [Laughter] We historians get accused all the time of writing depressing books!


KB: [Laughter] We do! To be sure, there are some depressing aspects of the story that I tell in this book, but it also underscores the power of ideas. As I demonstrate in the book, ideas cannot be contained by one individual, organization, or movement, and they are often sustained in black communities for centuries, moving across time and space.


NC: It’s true.


KB: This is one of the reasons that I think black intellectual history is so valuable. It is one of the reasons why I became involved in the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS) during its formative period and why I am committed to helping to advance the field of black intellectual history through my public scholarship.

NC: I’m so glad you brought that up. AAIHS showcases brilliantly the countless ideas that have animated social movements for decades. I totally missed that connection between the arguments in your book and the larger argument animating the organization, but there it is.


KB: Yes, I think my research and writing reflect many of the underlying messages my colleagues and I hope to convey through our work in AAIHS. As scholars, we often get caught up in the discussion of which movements are successful or not, but in the end, I think it’s also important to consider how much we draw upon the ideas of those who come before us. Even in their physical absence, they continue to shape the way we think about certain issues and influence the methods we choose to employ in contemporary political struggles. Perhaps this is a better way of assessing the effectiveness—and measuring the success—of political movements.

To return briefly to the question you asked about what my book teaches us about politics, I would add that Set the World on Fire teaches a valuable lesson about the need to be somewhat flexible in our political praxis. We often cling to certain political approaches for one reason or another. But I think one crucial aspect of politics—and I would emphasize black politics—is the willingness to be open to trying a range of strategies—and at times, a willingness to forge new alliances—to overturn systems of oppression.


NC: That flexibility has really been a throughline in the history, hasn’t it?


KB: Absolutely. It’s an issue that has come up time and time again. I am always baffled when people engage in debates about which kind of protest is “acceptable.” Is it OK to launch a sit-in (or a “die-in”) but not OK to kneel during the national anthem? Should we disparage one approach over another? I think what the activists in my book demonstrate is that in the end, we need to be pragmatic about our approaches and understand that it always takes multiple responses and approaches to bring about the changes we desire.


NC: Speaking of being pragmatic—you point out in the book that in addition to their efforts to transform their communities in the United States, black people return, again and again, to the possibility of leaving America altogether. What seems to be the recurring difficulties black people face under US liberalism?


KB: Black nationalist women were often criticized for their stance on emigration. For many of their contemporaries, the idea of leaving the United States was foolhardy. The logic was that people of African descent had fought so long and hard to build the United States, and in return, they needed to stay and keep fighting, because change was inevitable; freedom and equality were just around the corner, if only black people would keep fighting.

The women I write about saw things differently. They viewed the United States as irredeemably racist and, in many ways, foresaw our current realities—that despite the gains of the Civil Rights Movement, we cannot escape racism’s powerful grip. The irony is that while the mantra of US liberalism is equality and justice for all, black people in the United States have always been fighting for both—and we’re still fighting for both. Black nationalist women saw the writing on the wall. For these women, the idea of leaving the United States and going to Liberia—or other parts of the African continent—was the logical response.


NC: How do black women uniquely help articulate and combat those difficulties?


KB: Black women are uniquely positioned to address the problem of inequality. Here I cannot help but think about Claudia Jones’s 1949 article, “An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Woman!,” in which she argues that black women are the most oppressed of all people. As the most subordinate group within the global racial and gender hierarchies, black women understood, more than anyone else, what it meant to live without full citizenship and human rights. In articulating a vision of freedom for themselves, black women are, in effect, also advocating for the liberation of all oppressed people.

I rejected the idea that it was impossible to tell this story.

NC: As yet another contribution of the book, you’ve uncovered Mittie Maude Lena Gordon, founder of the Peace Movement of Ethiopia, as a cornerstone in the making of modern black nationalism, on par, to my read, with practically any other seminal 20th-century activist. You describe her and other women as having, at one point, “dominated the black nationalist scene.” How had they gotten so overlooked?


KB: I think the stories we tell—and certainly the books we write—generally reflect the patriarchal society in which we live. The “Great Man” narrative has dominated history books for quite some time, and while we have come a long way, we still have much work to do. Mainstream narratives on the history of black nationalism emphasize the work of black men—in so doing, they reflect the masculinist nature of black nationalist movements. In this rendering, women are certainly present, but they are sidelined. My sense is that these women were overlooked because many scholars were not necessarily looking for them or interested in them.


NC: How can we fix this problem?


KB: I think it begins with a change in our thinking. When we approach our work from the basic premise that black women’s ideas and activities are valuable, it transforms our research and writing. I was certainly interested in telling these women’s stories, so I was actively looking for them in the archives and beyond. That intentionality made all the difference in my ability to find relevant information on these women’s lives.


NC: What did you need to do, archivally, to give them the attention they deserve?


KB: First, I needed to be creative. I understood that I was unlikely to find archival collections for these women, and I also realized very early in the process that it would be hard to find biographical information. That meant utilizing whatever sources I could find to the fullest.

Historians tend to privilege archival material, and I certainly understand why. At the same time, I think it’s important to acknowledge that every single primary source is biased in some way, so we need to approach them all with the same care and skepticism. With this approach, I used whatever I could get my hands on—including FBI files, songs, poetry, oral interviews, newspaper clippings, and photographs. I looked for clues in all of these sources and also used them to complement each other in order to help construct the narrative. I never dismissed a source, because each one—even the most slanted ones—offered clues that provided the building blocks I needed to tell this story.

I also looked in unconventional places. I had to plough through the collections of white supremacists, for example, because they kept a ton of materials, including some that were relevant for this project. And I had to dig to uncover obscure newspapers, especially if I had a hunch that I would find relevant articles written by women. Overall, I rejected the idea that it was impossible to tell this story, and that drive meant that I looked carefully through archival collections and even looked in places where others said I would not find anything.


NC: And you found so much!


KB: Yes—sometimes too much! [Laughter] Of course, there were instances where I came up short but then there were so many other moments where I was able to locate a source just as I was ready to give up. Those experiences motivated me to keep going and to keep searching to find the answers to my questions.

NC: What do you intend to write for an encore?


KB: One of the books I am currently writing is an outgrowth of Set the World on Fire. It examines how and why black women of various political persuasions advocated Afro-Asian solidarity in the three decades leading up to Bandung. This new book will show how black women activists and intellectuals deployed internationalist rhetoric to underscore the shared strategies of resistance and the political exchanges and historical connections between people of African descent and persons of Asian descent. Similar to my first book, this new book project takes seriously the ideas of black women who have fallen through the cracks of US and global history.


NC: And relative to your own organizational work? Where do you see AAIHS going? Might you do more work on public syllabi, as you did when you worked on the Charleston and Trump syllabi?


KB: I am proud of the work we have done at AAIHS, but I think we have the potential to do a lot more. I would like to see us develop initiatives that would help us broaden our reach. I can easily envision a mentoring program that allows us to work closely with high school students and undergraduate students who are interested in writing, research, and public engagement. In terms of our blog, we are working on launching a more interactive online platform to reach a wider readership of academics and nonacademics alike.

As for public syllabi, I don’t think I will work on another one. Of course, that could change at any moment—some event could motivate me to respond with a reading list. But for now, I am content just to know that people are actively using the Charleston Syllabus and “Trump Syllabus 2.0.” It’s also rewarding to know that my work has provided a model and source of inspiration for others who are involved in similar initiatives to help educate the general public. That’s really all I can ask for.


This article was commissioned by Ben Platticon

Featured image: Keisha N. Blain speaking at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture on September 1, 2016. Photograph by William Farrington