Women and the the Radical Tradition: A review of Want to Start a Revolution?

This week’s book for American Studies 525, a course on social movements, is Want to Start a Revolution? Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle, edited by Dayo Gore, Jeanne Theoharis and Komozi Woodard (New York University Press – 2009).  Pushing back against historic erasure and a tendency to merely mention “various women as key participants and note the damage of sexism” (8) – “dominance through mentioning” – this book documents the political, philosophical, intellectual, organizing and activist contributions of several radical women.  Moving beyond a discourse of “firsts” (249), it spotlights visionary women who challenged movements to “imagine a different kind of politics,” to create alternative paths to freedom, and to expand the struggle.

Along with its efforts to chronicle the contributions of “radical women in the Black Freedom Struggle,” to highlight their impact as leaders, organizers, theorists, strategists, intellectual forces, and in a myriad of other ways, the collection pushes the conversation regarding social movements in a broader sense.  Writing against “single-game” analysis and those that focus on individual movements/leaders or the rise and fall of organizations/ movements, the collection speaks to continuity between movements.  From Vicki Garvin to Shirley Graham Du Bois, from Rosa Parks to Flo Kennedy, the history of radical women of color is a story that transcends boundaries.  Whether talking about Garvin’s “journey from old left to black liberation and Third Word solidarity” or Shirley Chisholm’s presence in multiple types of movements, or Flo Kennedy, Ella Baker, Yuri Kochiyama, and Rosa Parks’ presence and influence across various organizations, this collection “resists marking these women as activists defined exclusively within any singular movement,” making “visible the ways these black women radicals redefined movement politics” (4-5). The breadth of many decades of activism and organizing, intellectual and creative works, is illustrative of the range of influences.  To talk about radical women is to talk multiple points of influence, multiple organizations, and multiple movements.

The book’s cover, which shows Rosa Parks holding a picture of Malcolm X speaks to the orientation of the book: a refusal to see the contributions and influences of radical women within the Black Freedom Struggle in a single snapshot.  The history is too dynamic. The influences extend beyond a struggle against a single injustice but instead are seen in the intellectual and theoretical impact and the confluence and bridges that existed between communities, organizations and movements.

These women, and the ideologies, organizing tools, and influences that brought into these movements can be seen across multiple spaces and organizations; their influence was not limited to a single issue, organization or movement.  Here lies one of the most powerful aspects of the book: the influence of a feminist black radicalism across generations and movements, which are often imagined as distinct and at times in opposition.   Dayo Gore, Jeanne Theoharis and Komozi Woodard make this clear in their introduction, arguing:

Black women radicals continued this fight for equality into the 1960s and 1970s.  Unwilling to keep silent about gender issues within all-black organizations, many of these women highlighted gender oppression as part of their political analysis.  They opened up conversations about gendered structures and assumptions in the organizations in which they worked…. Black women radicals fought to make feminist politics an intrinsic part of the black left and Black Power mobilizations, just as they pushed white feminist to address racism and economic exploitation as crucial to women’s liberation (p. 15).

Writing about Flo Kennedy, Sherie Randolph notes, “Kennedy was simultaneously a Black Feminist and a black nationalist who built alliances between the mostly white feminist and Black Power movements during the postwar period” (225).  Kennedy, like Parks, Garvin, Fannie Lou Hamer, Denise Oliver, and countless other Black women radicals were immerse inside many movements.  Their imprint can be seen in their day-to-day impact of various organizations and struggles, and also in their intellectual and theoretical influence within these same spaces. Again from the introduction:

Each woman proved a long-distance runner and embraced a range of strategies.  Each woman traversed a host of movements and invested in innovative coalition building and each woman articulated an intersectional analysis that made connections between multiple movements for social justice: black freedom, women’s equality, anticolonialism, and the redistribution of wealth.  Taken together, they show the day-to-day work necessary to sustain a radical movement, women’s intellectual contributions to the advancement of the struggle, and the broad vision of black liberation that was forged in the post war era” (4).

For example, Shirley Graham DuBois intellectual work and “freedom dreams” brought issues of colonization and the Diasporic struggle into focus within both the Communist and Black radical movements, pushing each to also interrogate gender privilege and patriarchy.  To deny the intellectual theorizing and the imprint on the radical theorizing and thinking is to further the erasure of women from this history.  This collection refuses to follow this tradition.

While the book offered many important interventions, the collection and the individual chapters are organized around three thematic interventions: (1) throughout the book, there is a clear emphasis on how the radical women discussed worked from an intersectional approach.  This approach, which was brought into the organizations and movements, and their theorizing around the interplay of race-gender-sexuality-class-nation, is crucial to understanding this history.  For example, Erik McDuffie highlights the ways that Ella Baker, Marvel Cooke and Esther Cooper Jackson challenged the tendency among white communist women to imagine “’woman’ as a universal ahistorical category.”  To talk about labor and class required talking about race and gender, racism and sexism within a capitalist culture.  “Like Baker and Cookie, Cooper Jackson singled out the Bronx slave market to make the case that African American women encountered unique forms of exploitation and intersections of race, gender, and class positioned black and white women differently vis-à-vis one another” (33).  Understandings of intersectionality, long before academic discourses reflected on the “intersectional turn,” guided the activist work, which included day-to-day organizing and the production of intellectual/artistic works.

(2) A second point of intervention rests with the book’s refusal of the binary that posits “respectable and radical” in opposition.  Speaking to the ways that these women “adhered to and destabilized notions of stability,” spotlights a complex and dynamic history.  At times using the middle-class sensibilities and the class-based privileges, they also “reshaped dominant notions of respectability as a vehicle to promote radical change” (12).  Often donning a style coat and hat (12), Juanita Jackson Mitchell used her “social competency and confidence in her social role… to speak to multiple audiences, crossing racial, religious and class lines to convey political messages that were important, relevant, accessible, and inspirational (50).

A third intervention resists the tendency to seeing “women’s work in the movement” as being “solely behind the scenes, local activists.” Speaking to their national influence, and the influences as leaders, the collection moves beyond the story of “slow and respectful work” as it relates to the contributions of radical women within the Black Freedom Struggle.

On one end of the spectrum, this included charismatic leadership.  Women like Lillie Jackson, Shirley Chisholm and Denise Oliver took public leadership roles, pushing aside barriers of sexism in their organizations. … On the other end of the spectrum, many women (and men) believed in participatory democracy and resisted public leadership and national roles.  Activists like Yuri Kochiyama and Rosa Parks understood that no movement could be built without people creating an infrastructure, without the day-to-day work to enable the dramatic public action.  These movement organizers rejected notions of the charismatic individual and instead heavily in building democratic organizing structures and completing the behind-the-scenes work the struggle entailed.  Still others, like Toni Cade Bambara and Erika Huggins, created alternative structures and institutions to nourish themselves and others in order to provide political spaces free from racism, classism, sexism, and homophobia (13).

The radical women highlighted in the book were organizers but they were also leaders, theorists, and activists both visible and in the background; “their radicalism was hidden in plain sight” (3).  Shirley Chisholm often described herself as “unbought and unbossed” – this description applies to the women spotlighted in this book, each who in different ways changed the contours of post-War radicalism.  The collection speaks to their many important contributions, giving voice to their histories and their powerful words.  The book, like the videos below, speaks to the many “freedom dreamers” who in the face of racism and sexism, refused to accept, demanding the world anew.






Discussion Questions

  1. What do Dayo Gore, Jeanne Theoharis and Komozi Woodard mean when they argued that “their radicalism was hidden in plain sight” (3)
  2. Michael Apple argues that 2nd wave of historiography has often engaged in “dominance through mentioning” – what does he mean here and what impact does it have on our understanding of social movements?
  3. Why is the book pushing us to move beyond “first” and documenting the untold stories?
  4. What, according to collection, are the dangers of seeing women purely as organizers, or as bridge leaders?
  5. In what ways does the book document the influences of a larger history of black radicalism on the southern civil rights movement, feminist movements, Black Power  movements, and the White Left?
  6.  Robin Kelley argues, “The collapse of an organization does not necessarily signify the destruction of a movement or the eradication of traditions of radicalism” – what examples does the book supply to illustrate Kelley’s point; why do you think that this sort of historic framework further obscures presence and influence of radical women
  7. Has the focus on the influence and importance of World War II on the civil rights movement contributed to these generated narratives?
  8. In what ways does the book document a history of diversity, breadth, and longevity of movements?
  9. Why is the “long distance runner” metaphor so prominent within this book; why is this an important intervention?

10. In what ways does this book speak to the transnational nature of post-War movements?  What role did radical Black women play in articulating these understandings?

11. Horne and Stevens describe Graham Du Bois as having a “series … of many lives” – why is this sort of historic memory so uncommon within historiography and why is this such an important intervention?

12. Several chapters challenge the flattening if black radical women within the historic imagination – why have movements, historic narratives, and the broader culture invoked black women as symbols – Rosa Parks, Assata Shakur, Angela Davis, Coretta Scott King?  What does this visibility and invisibility speak to?

13. From Septima Clark’s work as a teacher to Garvin’s work as “mother hen” (84) to Huggins’ involvement with “survival programs” and Johnnie’s Tillmon’s welfare rights organizing to Chisholm’s role as a politician, much of this work gets positioned outside a history of radicalism – why? What does this tell us about definition of radicalism and violence?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s