- Writing against the Grain: Biography, History, and the Long Freedom Movements
Several recent biographies extend the critical work of challenging the conventional narrative of the civil rights movement in ways vital to the scholarship of the past two decades. The intellectual work of accounting for the long Black freedom movement has changed the practice of historians and history teaching for some time now, in the writings of Gerald Horne, Nikhil Pal Singh, Penny Von Eschen, Brenda Gayle Plummer, Glenda Gilmore, Cedric Robinson, George Lipsitz, and Robin Kelley, and notably, Jacquelyn Dowd Hall in her 2004 presidential address to the Organization of American Historians.1 But it bears repeating. Even the most famous of these activists—Rosa Parks and Kwame Ture (nee Stokely Carmichael)—remain frozen in time for broader publics, known in the popular imagination for a single act (the Montgomery bus boycott or the call to Black Power, respectively), or for their civil rights work prior to their popularization, but not for their longer years of struggle subsequent to that distinguishing incident. [End Page 935]
These four books decenter the popular conception of the civil rights movement to show the work of ordinary people and collective, sustained struggle (away from the Great Man narrative), of everyday work (away from the spotlighted spectacular events), of women (away from a male-centered history), and of geographic diversity. They extend the freedom movement back in time to the vibrant movements of the 1930s, World War II, and the early Cold War as well as forward to the 1970s and beyond. They also, to varying degrees, bring an international focus to US-based activism or intertwine global and local struggles while also centering, in uneven ways, on intersectional race, class, gender, and sexuality resistance. Finally, these texts uncover the histories of the unknown or less known, or they highlight little-known aspects of the famous. It may seem contradictory to focus on an individual in a review of books focused on the collective, but biographical studies enable us to examine the strengths and struggles of particular activists while using their lives to examine the development of social movements in specific historical and social contexts. Collectively, such studies recover critical knowledge about the possibilities and pitfalls of organized resistance in ways that challenge the desire for linear progress toward justice and demand complex thinking about personal and societal change. Further, as history’s most broadly accessible genre, biographies often do yeoman work in moving historians’ revisionism out to a wider audience.
Jeanne Theoharis’s The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks recounts the life of a woman made famous for initiating the Montgomery bus boycott and thereby launching the civil rights movement, or so the conventional narrative goes. The extensively researched biography is framed by Theoharis’s earlier writings that center the local, women, and civil rights activism outside the South to help create a historiography of the “long” Black freedom movement.2 Her most compelling argument insists on reframing “the mother of the movement” away from the dominant image of a “sacrificing mother figure” defined by “one solitary act” (ix) on a bus in 1955 to present a fuller, more complicated and contradictory history, or herstory, of a decades-long commitment to activism that occurred in the South and North and that intertwined civil rights and Black Power philosophies. This common representation of Rosa Parks as “quiet,” “dignified,” and “never angry” reproduces inaccurate notions of gendered participation in social movements (viii–ix). Theoharis’s biography problematizes the framing of Parks as an accidental “midwife—not a leader or thinker or long-time activist,” yet Parks...