Dr. Keisha N. Blain speaks to ROAR about the vital role of Black women leaders in the success of Black political movements in modern US history.
Originally published by Roar Mag.
On May 25, 2020, the Minneapolis police murder of George Floyd triggered a landslide of popular unrest and mass protests against racialized police violence and structural racism in the United States and across the world. For many, the uprising — compounded by an uncontrolled viral pandemic and a staggering economic crisis — is unlike any period in living US memory.
During these events, mainstream media and politicians have paid almost exclusive attention to ideas and images of Black men — whether as victims of police violence or as protesters against it. Yet Black women, who are no less subject to structural racism and violence, have been at the forefront of the multi-racial Black Lives Matter Movement for years.
ROAR associate editor Eleanor Finley had the opportunity to explore some of these subjects with Dr. Keisha N. Blain, an award-winning historian and Black feminist scholar at the University of Pittsburgh. Dr. Blain is also president of the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS) and author of Set the World on Fire, a history of Black nationalist women’s political activism.
In the following interview, Dr. Blain describes her work and explains what history has to teach the present moment about structural racism and police violence, Black transnational activism, and the vital role of women’s leadership in Black political movements.
First, can you tell us a little about your research exploring the historical role of Black nationalist women like Mittie Gordon and the Peace Movement in Ethiopia? What would the struggle for Black liberation in North America look like without Black nationalist women?
In Set the World on Fire, I tell the story of how a cadre of Black nationalist women, including Mittie Maude Lena Gordon, Amy Ashwood Garvey and Celia Jane Allen, worked to advance Black nationalist and internationalist politics during the twentieth century. As I demonstrate in the book, Black nationalist and internationalist movements would have all but disappeared were it not for women. They helped to sustain these movements — working to keep these ideas alive in public discourse. These women laid the groundwork for the generation of Black activists who came of age during the civil rights-Black power era.
During the 1960s, many Black activists — including Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Robert F. Williams, Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael — drew on these women’s ideas and political strategies. I would add too, that these women’s political activism provided the groundwork for contemporary movements such as Black Lives Matter, which draw upon the intellectual traditions of earlier movements.
One of the books I am writing now extends this story by examining the key role Black women played in shaping political movements for Afro-Asian solidarity in the United States. Similar to Set the World on Fire, this new project situates Black women as key theorists and leaders in the global struggle for freedom. And as much of my work does, this new project offers a direct challenge to the masculinist stories that historians often tell.
I am committed to telling the stories we often overlook and I am especially interested in centering the ideas and activism of Black working-poor women who are often sidelined in these conversations.
How did you get involved with Black feminism and Black feminist nationalism?
I credit my mentors and professors. I attended Binghamton University as an undergraduate, where I majored in History and Africana Studies. I took an array of courses with some of the nation’s leading scholars. They nurtured me intellectually and it was during those four years that I began to develop a better understanding of the dynamics of race, gender, and class.
In a course on global Black social movements, I began to read extensively about the history of Black nationalism and internationalism. I started probing the literature and its exclusion of Black women, and felt unsatisfied with the treatment of gender in many of the books and articles I read. I wrote a term paper for the course on Black women in the Garvey movement during the 1920s and that paper blossomed into an honors thesis.
When I started working toward a PhD in history at Princeton, I had initially planned to pursue a different line of inquiry. A visit to the archives changed my plans and I ended up coming back to the topic that had captivated me as an undergrad.
During my time at Princeton, my ideas about Black nationalism, internationalism, and feminism developed further and despite the challenges of doing this kind of work, I was able to complete my dissertation, which I went on to revise into the book Set the World on Fire. When I reflect on my journey over the years, I recognize that I ended up writing the book I wanted to read as an undergrad so many years ago.
To what extent does the current historical moment resemble — or, conversely, differ from — other periods of intensified political violence against Black people in the US? What do critical moments such as the 1917 East St. Louis “Race Riot” or the 1921 Tulsa Massacre have to teach us in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement?
There are so many parallels one can draw between the current uprisings and past historical developments. I recently wrote about the 1917 East St. Louis “Race Riot” because I noticed that it was not receiving as much attention in mainstream narratives as other historical developments.
The first thing that I would emphasize here is that none of these moments are the same as what we’re experiencing now. I think we can see connections — and echoes — between these events in US history and doing so helps us recognize that the current developments are certainly part of a longer struggle for Black rights and freedom.
A focus on these earlier developments also helps us see the various ways the state has been complicit on matters of racism and racial violence. In the context of the 1917 East St. Louis Riots, for example, President Woodrow Wilson looked the other way as Black people were being massacred in the streets. And African Americans could not find help and protection from law enforcement.
Not surprisingly, even at their moment of great need, local Black residents had to deal with the painful reality that they could not rely on anyone but themselves. And so they stood up together to try to fend off white mobs attacking their homes and communities. Some took up arms and others coordinated to escape the city. A relative of one of the victims of the 1917 East St. Louis “Race Riot” recently passed on a story that his grandfather had shared with him — and that was a painful memory of watching members of law enforcement join those who were attacking Black people. The circumstances today may not be the same but the parallels are so stark.
In terms of differences, I think it’s important to note the racial demographics of today’s protesters. The current make-up of those who are leading the movement stands out to me. The civil rights movement, for example, was certainly diverse and we see that in groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), an interracial civil rights organization. But that was not the case across the board. The widespread involvement of white Americans as well as Asian Americans, Latinx and others in today’s protests is significant and underscores how much has changed since the 1960s.
The impressive geographical reach of the protests is also striking. In the past, tensions have often emerged within Black communities — as was the case for the East St. Louis “Race Riot,” 1921 Tulsa Massacre, and the protests following MLK’s assassination — just to name a few. But today’s protests are erupting in diverse places and spaces, including wealthy white neighborhoods.
This last part is key because I think it not only speaks to the matter of diversity but also the fight for economic justice — an underlying theme of today’s protests that cannot be overlooked.
You have written about the importance of public space to Black nationalist movements. Today, many thousands of Black people throughout the US — often led by women and youth — are reclaiming the streets via mass demonstrations, occupying and tearing down the statues of slave owners which dominate public squares, and refusing to submit to unchecked police terrorism while simply living their lives. How are these activities and events reconfiguring the position of Black people in public space?
Black Americans have always found ways to dominate public spaces to demand change — even during periods of US history when doing so was especially dangerous. This is certainly true of Black women. I think immediately about Maria Stewart, an abolitionist and women’s rights activist, who delivered a powerful speech in 1832 at Franklin Hall in Boston before a racially mixed audience of men and women.
This was no small accomplishment. Among other things, Stewart gave this speech during a period in which women did not generally speak in public. And Stewart dared to address topics that were controversial at the time — civil rights and feminism.
She did all of this as a Black woman and I sometimes wonder what was going through her mind at the time. Millions of Black people were still in chains — primarily in the US South — when she delivered that speech. Even as a free Black woman living in the North, she could not escape racism and sexism and that speech could have ended her career — or her life.
Only two years before that speech, her close friend David Walker, who published the fiery text An Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World (1829), died under mysterious circumstances. Some historians believe he was poisoned by those who did not appreciate his radical message. Stewart was therefore not oblivious to the danger of speaking so freely and in a public space in 1832, but she did it anyway. And she did it over and over again.
A lot has changed in the United States since 1832. But some things have remained the same. It is still very dangerous for Black people to air their grievances with the state in a public setting. And today, the risk is especially great because people show up with smartphones that can immediately capture someone’s words and likeness. In a split second, the video or image can be uploaded to social media and circulated to millions of people.
In that sense, the notion of the “public” has vastly expanded in the 21st century and activists now have a much greater platform when they speak — and when they act — in public spaces. While this is certainly a reason to be concerned and even trepidatious, I think many activists are simply seizing the moment. They are “throwing caution to the wind” because they recognize that the issues they are addressing are too serious to be ignored or sidelined.
Silence is not an option. I think that’s what Maria Stewart was thinking during the 1830s.
International media discourse has overwhelmingly focused on the extra-judicial killing of black men. However, Black women are subject to similar forms and degrees of state violence and structural racism. What obstacles uniquely confront Black women when it comes to the US “justice” system?
Black women are vulnerable to state-sanctioned violence. This fact should be widely known and understood. But I have found in the process of doing research for a book I have been writing that is a history of Black women’s organizing around police violence that many people do not understand — or perhaps do not accept — this fact.
While we know that the majority of Black people killed by police in the United States are young men, we distort the narrative when we only focus on Black men. Despite several high-profile cases throughout the years that have placed a spotlight on how state-sanctioned violence shape Black women’s experiences — including Sandra Bland, Korryn Gaines, and most recently, Breonna Taylor — there is still a perception among many Americans that Black women are somehow shielded from the threat of police violence. Black women’s concerns are still sidelined in public discussions about policing.
I think the response to this issue — or lack of a response — is rooted in misogyny. And I would also emphasize a crucial point that legal scholar Andrea Ritchie makes in her work: “Women’s experiences of policing and criminalization and resistance [have] become unworthy of historical study or mention, particularly when those writing our histories are also men.”
As I write about Black women’s vulnerability to state-sanctioned violence, I think about this point often, which can also be applied to other topics and areas of research. Black women who experience state-sanctioned violence and seek redress through the courts, for example, have to contend with a myriad of other acts of violence and dismissal as they try to navigate a criminal “justice” system that already fails to see them.
So, in many ways, one of the first challenges is getting people to pay attention and take Black women’s concerns seriously.
The same is true for Black LGBTQ people. The recent police killing of Tony McDade, a Black trans man, for example, did not incite the same response and public outrage that followed the police killing of George Floyd and others. We tend to overlook Black women and Black LGBTQ people in public discussions about American policing. I think the #AllBlackLivesMatter and #SayHerName campaigns have been doing vital work to help change that.
What is the role of women’s leadership in the current moment uprising against anti-black police violence and structural racism in the US?
Black women are key voices in the struggle to end anti-Black police violence and dismantle structural racism. They are key voices now and they have always been key voices — especially because their lives have been directly impacted by police violence and racism. As I mentioned, these women are vulnerable to state-sanctioned violence.
It’s also important to emphasize that the loss of young Black men to police killings directly impacts these women’s lives. They are often forced into the spotlight, having to turn their grief into political action to demand justice for their sons, partners, friends and fathers. Nicole Bell, for example, emerged as a key voice in the struggle to end police violence and racism in New York City following the 2006 police killing of her fiancé Sean Bell.
Most recently, we have seen many Black women leading on the national level, inserting their voices in the public sphere and insisting that others listen. Sabrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, along with Democratic Georgia Congresswoman Lucy McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis, and Lesley McSpadden, the mother of Michael Brown, have run for public office in an effort to not only shape the national conversation but influence the passage of laws that govern law enforcement.
Finally, we cannot forget the courageous work of the three Black women founders of Black Lives Matter — two of whom are queer. Few would be even talking about police violence on a national level were it not for the organizing work of Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi.
Women’s leadership is therefore vital to the success of contemporary Black political movements. It’s no exaggeration to say that many of these movements would not exist were it not for women leaders and the role they have played — and continue to play — in working to dismantle systems of oppression.
You have written about the critical historical role of transnational alliances of Black women and activists from the Caribbean to North America and Europe. Until now, the Black Lives Matter movement has primarily been seen as a US phenomenon.
However, in recent weeks, demonstrations have swelled across the world — with especially fierce confrontations between protestors and police in former colonial metropoles like Paris and London. Do you see transnational alliances see emerging among Black feminists in these countries?
I think the Black Lives Matter Movement has always been internationalist. Some of the earliest BLM chapters were established outside of the United States in places like Toronto, Paris and Berlin. The fact that the current uprisings are taking a hold in these and other cities reflect the influence of these local groups and organizers who have been working on the grassroots level for the past few years.
In the case of Berlin, for example, BLM activists Mic Oala, Shaheen Wacker, Nela Biedermann, Josephine Apraku, Jacqueline Mayen and Kristin Lein have been working closely since 2016. In 2017, they collaborated to establish a feminist collective in Germany. As the groundbreaking work of historian Tiffany Florvil reveals, these activists are building upon a longer history and tradition of Black radical activism in Germany. The kind of work they are doing closely resembles the efforts of earlier activists such as Afro-German feminist May Ayim.
BLM activists in Berlin have forged a network with activists in other parts of the globe — and they have certainly formed many alliances. They have publicly acknowledged the importance of a transnational vision as well as the significance of seeing how anti-Black racism manifests in various spaces and locales.
But I think it’s also important to point out that they have worked to build a movement that attends to the specific concerns of Black people in Berlin — even as they acknowledge the commonalities of the Black experience that extend graphic borders. I think that approach — attending to local concerns while never losing sight of the larger global forces that shape local and national narratives and experiences — is effective.
This work has been going on for quite some time but I do think what has changed is the media attention. Mainstream media outlets today are documenting these movements and paying more attention than they did just a few years ago. Black activists are skillfully taking advantage of this expanded media attention to push their agenda forward. They are demanding an end to anti-Black police violence and structural racism on the local, national, and international levels.
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