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  • Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom by Keisha N. Blain
  • Cynthia Taylor
Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom. By Keisha N. Blain. Politics and Culture in Modern America. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018. Pp. [viii], 255. $34.95, ISBN 978-0-8122-4988-0.)

Historical conclusions I learned from reading Keisha N. Blain's Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom include, first, a black nationalist ideology, usually identified with Marcus Garvey, emerged during World War I and continued unabated well into the 1960s as a legitimate response by American citizens trapped in an increasingly de jure and racist Jim Crow society; second, this nationalist ideology was championed by several women activists who often linked their political beliefs with international and anticolonial concerns created by two disruptive world wars; and third, by exploring these women's political activism, the author provides the reader with deeper historical insights into and explanations for the bizarre and complex alliance between white supremacists and black nationalists. [End Page 210]

Blain begins by focusing on women leaders, such as Amy Jacques Garvey, who stepped into the power vacuum created by Marcus Garvey's political problems and eventual deportation, which enabled the movement to become a "launching pad" for their black nationalist activities (p. 45). During these decades of political and economic stress for black communities, movement leaders such as Mittie Maude Lena Gordon and Celia Jane Allen advocated for black immigration to West Africa as a viable solution to the problems created by Jim Crow policies in the United States. Reigniting this nineteenth-century solution, as previously advocated by the American Colonization Society, Gordon founded the Peace Movement of Ethiopia (PME) at the height of the Great Depression. Blain explains how the PME mobilized thousands of poor working-class people, not only in the North but also in the South, due to Celia Jane Allen's tireless grassroots organizing, which connected black southern churchgoers with the black nationalist ideology of racial pride, political self-determination, and economic self-sufficiency.

Evidence reveals that Gordon obtained 400,000 signatures in support of the PME's emigration plans. As Blain explains, Gordon and Allen embraced a biological conception of race that supported racial separation and black political autonomy as the path to black liberation, which paradoxically linked them with the white supremacist ideals of Mississippi senator Theodore G. Bilbo and Earnest Sevier Cox, another avid proponent of black emigration. In the years before and during World War II, black nationalists supported Bilbo's Greater Liberia Bill ("dubbed the 'Back to Africa bill'") and "black nationalist women did most of the legwork, engaging in a nationwide grassroots campaign to promote the bill" (pp. 104, 123). Most interesting is Blain's analysis of the strange alliance between black nationalist women and male white supremacists and the women's adoption of a "performative culture," or the cunning act of downplaying their political agency in order to gain larger strategic goals (p. 124). But when Bilbo's bill failed, so did this strategy.

With the upheavals of World War II, Gordon and the PME, as well as Amy Jacques Garvey, turned their attention to wider Pan-African and anticolonial perspectives. Drawing on their political writings and speeches, Blain argues that women activists such as Garvey, Gordon, and others "laid the political groundwork for a new generation of black activists and intellectuals," including Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Malcolm X, and Stokely Carmichael. Yet, as Blain argues, Amy Jacques Garvey's efforts to connect these two eras of Black Power movements "replicated masculinist narratives" that have dominated the historiography of black nationalism ever since (p. 196). This insight displays the value of Blain's study: as a correction of Jacques Garvey's "glaring omission" of the significant role black women played in sustaining black nationalist ideologies and politics from the 1920s into the 1960s, and as a reminder of how working-class black women "vigorously fought to eradicate global white supremacy" (p. 196). [End Page 211]

Cynthia Taylor
Dominican University of California


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