BOOK REVIEWS: ‘Lady Presidents’ and Black Radical Dreams Between Garvey And The Civil Rights Movement


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Set The World On Fire: Black Nationalist Women And The Global Struggle For Freedom.
Keisha N. Blain.
University of Pennsylvania Press, 264 pp., $34.95.

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James and Esther Cooper Jackson: Love and Courage in the Black Freedom Movement.
Sara Rzeszutek.
The University Press of Kentucky, 384 pp. $30.


Reviewed by Todd Steven Burroughs

ONCE UPON A time in the 20th century, ideas mattered. They were once so powerful that, depending on which ideas won, the socio-political direction of the entire world seemed up for grabs.

In that last century’s early years, Marcus Garvey, the leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, wanted Negroes to return to Africa in order to claim a land of their own. Meanwhile, the Communist Party USA called Negro America “a nation within a nation,” a concept it would back-track on as the century progressed.

The time period that Keisha N. Blain and Sara Rzeszutek individually write about was filled with intellectual energy and political promise. Essays, manifestos, petitions abounded. American optimism met European radicalism, and the idea grew that social problems could be resolved through work and thought, through rally, meeting and marches. Utopia could be within sight, thought the activists, if one worked to create it, in America or in Liberia.

Blain’s book is brand-new, while Rzeszutek’s joint Jackson bio is new to paperback.

“Set The World On Fire” chronicles the history of the Peace Movement of Ethiopia, an emigrate-to-Liberia group and its leader, Mittie Maude Lena Gordon. (Gordon is a member of the Black America’s nationalist camp who updated and evolved Garveyism, activists like Carlos Cooks.) The group is one of many intellectual children of the UNIA, the male-based movement that called its female leaders “Lady Presidents.” Although it doesn’t necessarily want to be, “Fire” is about the long reach of Garveyism throughout the 20th century. It uses letters and other documents to show how Gordon, and both Amy Garveys, were part of a generation of female Black nationalist leaders who grew through, and past, Garveyism. The book’s core is on the PME’s and Amy Jacques Garvey’s attempts to emigrate to Liberia, and its careful lobbying of segregationist U.S. Sen. Theodore Bilbo to help them.

Blain argues that the Liberian emigration movement, travelling from the Garvey center of the Harlem Renaissance increasingly to the socio-political margins as the decades progressed, fizzled when Ghana became independent in 1957 and that increasingly radical Black people, civil rights-era integrationists as well as Black nationalists inside and outside the Nation of Islam, decided to accept America as their theater of struggle, if not their home.

Another movement that went from central to the margins in the 20th century was Communism. Rzeszutek’s book details the history of the Communist Party USA’s most important Black leaders, James and Esther Jackson.

By the 1950s, the Jacksons were at the same turning point as other radicals. The Left and the liberals split at the end of World War II. The new United Nations grew within a McCarthyite-influenced nation. So did the NAACP, now purged of Communists and Black radicals; there would be no more intellectual room for European-theorized world unionism or, as of that point, Negro dreams en masse of African-ness. Uncle Sam’s flatulence blew cold, and dreamers, like James Jackson, went underground to re-assess and escape.

Ms. Jackson turned to radical journalism. Her career as the editor of Freedomways, a left-of-center, quarterly “little magazine,” put her in the Black radical mainstream through the Civil Rights Movement into the Reagan Era.

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THESE BOOKS ARE for academics only, which is a pity. Rzeszutek has a lot of unnecessary explanation and narration, and in-text scholarly context. And although Blain is successful in ensuring that the “new” Africana scholarship is more gender-balanced, she and Rzeszutek are also very clinical, out to prove their social science points, justify their grants and, ultimately, to make Black history fit the framework of other academic categories.

Looking at these two works, the feeling emerges that somehow, something almost intangible is being lost with the constant explanation of social dynamics in post-modern Africana Studies: the overriding organic heroism of the Black/African struggle against white/European systemic oppressors, and those dynamics being defined clearly and unapologetically as that. Black American history should sting on the page; as Eldridge Cleaver once said of the goal of his writing, it should throw a spear into America’s heart. Here, in these two important places, the reader is blinded by social science. In 2018, Lerone Bennett Jr. is missed.

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SINCE SCHOLARSHIP IS supposed to have some currency, there is an obvious question that both authors seek to answer. Are Gordon, the Jacksons, et. al., revolutionary failures, the Black political losers on the wrong side of (African-)American history? The flea-market section of the marketplace of 20th century ideas?

Not necessarily. No one knew how fast World War II-America was going to move, or that Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and the Black Panther Party were about to mau-mau into the nation’s consciousness. Or that capitalism would expand, and that its leader, the United States, would become the master of granting concessions to any and all radicals it didn’t kill. Or that American mass media would become as powerful as it did, providing a never-ending American dream. Ultimately, liberal democracy and capitalism turned out to have wielded the biggest, bloodiest sticks, force-feeding the world carrots provided by Microsoft and Disney.

In the closing years of the second decade of the 21st century, there are no new political solutions, or even new discussions of solutions, because there are now no new political situations. So, individual freedom reigns as 2020 approaches; the capitalized “WE” and “US” of yesterday’s sustained mass movements has turned into a small, digital “i,” with an occasional mass march thrown in for good measure. From this vantage point of the reluctant and (relatively) comfortable acceptance of this reality, the ideological struggles in these two books–battles that seemed to have, as an outcome, deciding the future direction of an entire race—can be seen with a mixture of envy and nostalgia.

These significant works prove that perhaps the highest level of freedom—the freedom to fight to create a new world, and to live and die in that external battle—is not only not free, it’s not for sale. It must be acquired through public ideological battles, personal sacrifice and, if the lives of Gordon, Jacques Garvey and the Jacksons are to be emulated, pragmatic compromise to the current hegemonic reality while not intellectually accepting it. That alone makes them important reading.

Todd Steven Burroughs, Ph.D, is the author of “Black Panther: A Comic Book Biography, From Stan Lee to Ta-Nehisi Coates” and Warrior Princess: A People’s History of Ida B. Wells,” both published by Diasporic Africa Press. He is researching a book on Freedomways.

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