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The best books on African American Women’s History

recommended by Keisha N. Blain

Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019 by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain (editors)

Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019
by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain (editors)

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Black women's stories are often untold, but their critical role in American society and politics is finally being broadly acknowledged. Black activists today are building upon the legacy of African American women who have been using every open avenue to seek social justice for centuries. And "no matter how many obstacles are erected to impede them," says award-winning historian Keisha N. Blain, Black women "are unstoppable."

Interview by Eve Gerber

Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019 by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain (editors)

Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019
by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain (editors)

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Books about Black women’s history is our topic. Before we narrow our focus, I’d like to ask you about a new book you co-edited with Ibram Kendi which takes a broad look at four hundred years of Black history. Please tell me about Four Hundred Souls.

Four Hundred Souls is a community history of Black America. We begin in 1619, when the first group of captive Africans arrived in Jamestown, Virginia. We end the book in 2019 with the Black Lives Matter movement. We brought together 90 Black writers from different fields, including historians, philosophers, journalists, and even poets to reflect on that 400-year history. They draw connections between past and present, contextualizing the current moment.

In these brilliantly conceived and executed bite-sized pieces, one of the subjects you treat in the book is the instrumental role of African American women in abolition. Can you give us a sense of this subject?

One of my favorite pieces in the collection is written by philosopher Kathryn Sophia Bell. She covers the 1830s and highlights the life and activism of Maria Stewart, a Boston abolitionist who we identify as one of the first Black feminists to speak publicly before mixed audiences of both men and women. Stewart is just one example of the crucial role that Black women played in the abolitionist movement. In many ways, her story sets the stage for Black women’s political leadership that plays out for the next two hundred years.

W E. B. Dubois wrote in 1918 that “it is the five million women of my race who really count.” Harvard historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham begins the first of your five books on Black women’s history with this quote. Please tell me about her Righteous Discontent.

There is so much to learn from this remarkable book, which was published in 1993. It shows how the Black Baptist church—and Black churches in general—provided a crucial political space for African American women, during a time in which most Black women did not have access to the vote. The book focuses on 1880 to 1920, from post-Reconstruction through the Jim Crow period. Higginbotham shows that, despite the obstacles erected against their participation in American democracy, these women were able to still engage in political activity using the Black Baptist church as a public space. Higginbotham focuses on their work around racial and gender self-help in the Black community. She also demonstrates the significance of feminist politics in this era.

“Black women were central to the story of suffrage”

Perhaps the most significant contribution of Righteous Discontent is the concept of ‘the politics of respectability,’ which we still talk about today. Higginbotham argues that in their quest for racial uplift, these women endorsed what can best be described as ‘the dominant white Victorian ideal of the period,’ which imposed ideas about respectability and morality in the hope that if Black people would change the way that they lived, the way they acted, and even the way that they dressed, it would help end racism because white people could see that Black people were essentially worthy. This controversial framework is debated to this day. Righteous Discontent shows how this framework shaped Black life and culture. This book still informs a lot of our discussions about Black communities today.

In her intro, the author sets out her intention to “[r]escue women from invisibility as historical actors in the drama of [B]lack empowerment.” During this past year, which was the centennial of the 19th amendment to the constitution, you’ve pointed out that African American women were instrumental, if often invisible, to the suffrage movement. Please explain.

Black women were central to the story of suffrage. We tend to see the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 as a pivotal moment in starting the movement, which it was. But when we go back even further, we can see Black women’s activism, which began in churches way before Seneca Falls. Ideas about women’s rights and the vote were endorsed within the church context. Therefore the history of the suffrage movement in the United States cannot simply begin with Seneca Falls, it should be traced back to the earliest efforts among Black women in Black religious spaces. Here’s where I think we can see the connection to Higginbotham’s work.

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I’ve spent a lot of time writing about activists in the 1960s—and recently finished a book on civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer—to emphasize the point that even after the passage of the 19th amendment, many women still couldn’t vote. It’s not until the Voting Rights Act (1965) that we see Black women across the country having widespread access to the vote. So, when we’re talking about suffrage beyond the 19th amendment, Black women’s activism becomes even more important. A focus on someone like Fannie Lou Hamer in the fifties and the sixties shows that the fight for voting rights goes well beyond the 19th amendment.

Let’s turn to the generative work of Princeton historian Tera Hunter. Please tell us about To ‘Joy My Freedom,

To ‘Joy My Freedom is one of my favorite books. It centers Black working class women in the city of Atlanta. A lot has changed since Tera Hunter’s book, but labor history is still primarily the history of white men; oftentimes women, especially women of color, are excluded or marginalized. Hunter centers Black women. She shows the kind of work that Black women were doing in Atlanta and how crucial it was to the economic growth of the city and the political landscape of the city.

To ‘Joy My Freedom is one of my favorite books”

Importantly, the book helps us understand the transition from slavery to freedom. When the Civil War ended, Black women needed to carve out a space for themselves and their families. They had to figure out how to live out their lives, their work lives, their family lives, their social lives and their political lives. This book shows that freedom was very fragile and contingent for these women.

How did Hunter blaze paths for other historians and inspire you?

Reading this book crystalized my determination to become a historian focused on Black women. I was struck by Tera Hunter’s creativity, how she used the limited sources to offer such incredible insights into Black women’s lives and how she centered working class and working poor women in her work. That, to me, was truly inspirational. I wanted to do similar work. I decided to apply to the grad school where Tera worked after I read her book. She became my advisor at Princeton.

Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement, a biography by University of Chicago historian Barbara Ransby is next on your list of books about African American women’s history.

There are so many great biographies in Black women’s history; this is one of the best. Barbara Ransby really excavates the life of Ella Baker, who was instrumental to the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which was one of the most important civil rights organizations of the 1960s. SNCC was an interracial organization run by young activists, many of whom were Black.

Barbara Ransby is a gifted writer. She teases through the many complexities of Ella Baker’s life to help the reader see someone who was carefully thinking about how to improve the conditions of Black people, someone who had respect for younger activists and who pushed group-centered leadership.

Ransby writes, “Ella Baker understood that laws, structures, and institutions had to change in order to correct injustice and oppression, but part of the process had to involve oppressed people, ordinary people, infusing new meanings into the concept of democracy and finding their own individual and collective power to determine their lives and shape the direction of history.” How did African American women help generate grassroots politics and strategies for community organizing?

It’s a powerful story about how Ella Baker became a mentor for these students. Barbara Ransby shows that she inspired them, she listened to them and she supported them, but she never tried to control what they did. She played the nurturing and respectful role of a mentor and thereby catapulted a movement that played a key role in passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

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In a nutshell, what I think is so great about this particular book is that it provides context for understanding the Black Lives Matter movement. The Black Lives Matter movement adopts a model of group-centered leadership, which comes out of Ella Baker’s teaching. So, we see the influence of this historical figure, long after her death.

Sojourning for Freedom by University of Illinois historian Erik S. McDuffie is next.

This is an important book for Black women’s history. Generally, when we talk about Black radicalism, especially in the US context, it tends to be focused on men. What’s great about this particular book is that it centers Black women and gender politics. Sojourning for Freedom also helps us understand the lineage of intersectionality, a concept Kimberlé Crenshaw popularized. Erik McDuffie’s work shows that Black women in the Communist Party—individuals like Claudia Jones, Vicki Garvin and others—were already grappling with the intersecting dimensions of race and class and sexuality.

Another key aspect of this book is its internationalist dimension. The book helps readers see how Black women in the United States were thinking critically about what was taking place across the globe—especially on the African continent, in the Caribbean and in Latin America. McDuffie shows the threads of internationalism in a way that other books have not done as effectively.

Black communist women countered assumptions that underpinned radical politics. How did that reorient the movements they stood at the intersection of?

The book is groundbreaking for helping us see how the Communist Party, a party that’s predominantly white, male dominated and led by white men, ends up becoming an interesting space for Black women. Even though they are, for the most part, marginalized, Black women still use their presence in the party to articulate a vision of intersectionality that informs later movements.

Even though Black women were sidelined within the organization, they still asserted their voice and their authority. They spoke out about the plight of Black women in the organization, and in Black radical politics generally. Exclusion or marginalization does not deter these women, it propels them. Black women who were not respected demanded respect.

You explore the international impact of African American women in Set the World on Fire.

All of the books that I just described informed the way I decided to write Set the World on Fire. In Set the World on Fire, I center working poor Black women and talk about the ways that these marginalized women led a vibrant political movement that connected activists in the United States with activists in the Caribbean, Latin America, Africa, and even in Asia. These women lacked the means to travel, but found ways to make an impact around the world.

It’s a story about grassroots internationalism, looking at the creative ways that Black women tried to improve conditions for Black people abroad. They created connections using letter writing campaigns, for example, to reach activists all over the globe. They created discussion groups about events all over the globe. Often that work takes place in churches or other religious spaces. So you see the connections to Higginbotham’s work and Hunter’s focus and Ella Baker’s ways of organizing within communities.

In her first speech as Vice President-elect, Kamala Harris said Black women “too often overlooked, but so often prove that they are the backbone of our democracy.” These books seem to back up that assertion. How do the diverse approaches developed by African American women continue to nourish American activism and politics today?

Today’s Black activists are building upon the rich and dynamic legacy of all of the women in these books. One way is in their use of public spaces. We see the Black Lives Matter movement, often shut off from formal spaces, getting across their message by occupying a park, for example. In the pre-COVID world, they’re bringing people together on street corners to talk about the challenges facing the community. Like the Black activists on whose shoulders they stand, they’re using every open avenue to make change.

Like the Black women these books are about, Black Lives Matter activists are not waiting for invitations to take a seat at the table. They’re using any platform open to them—Twitter and Instagram, street corners and local parks. Black women today are just as creative as the activists of the civil rights movement. Their strategies are similar to their marginalized predecessors but also skillful and innovative. And like the African American women in these books, no matter how many obstacles are erected to impede them, they are unstoppable.

Interview by Eve Gerber

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Keisha N. Blain

Keisha N. Blain

Keisha N. Blain is an award-winning historian of the 20th century United States with broad interests and specializations in African American history, the modern African diaspora, and women’s and gender studies. She is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh and the president of the African American Intellectual History Society. She is currently a 2020-2021 fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University. She also serves as an editor for the Washington Post’s ‘Made by History’ section. Blain has published extensively on race, gender, and politics in both national and global perspectives.
@KeishaBlain

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Keisha N. Blain

Keisha N. Blain

Keisha N. Blain is an award-winning historian of the 20th century United States with broad interests and specializations in African American history, the modern African diaspora, and women’s and gender studies. She is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh and the president of the African American Intellectual History Society. She is currently a 2020-2021 fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University. She also serves as an editor for the Washington Post’s ‘Made by History’ section. Blain has published extensively on race, gender, and politics in both national and global perspectives.
@KeishaBlain