- Louise Thompson Patterson: A Life of Struggle and Justice by Keith Gilyard
Durham: Duke University Press, 2017; 328 pages. $26.95 (paperback), ISBN 9780822369929.
On September 9, 1901, on the edge of the Black Belt of Chicago, a white-looking mother named Lulu Toles (née Brown) birthed a baby girl whose complexion hinted faintly of a brown world (page 1).
In such a way, Keith Gilyard introduces us to a beautifully written biography of an extraordinary African-American activist, Louise Thompson Patterson (1901–1999). Her struggle with racial, economic, and gender exploitation, her dedication to justice and liberation for all, and her involvement in the Harlem Renaissance secured her a prominent place among the intellectuals of the twentieth century who distinguished themselves as active members of radical African American politics.
In Patterson’s life story the writer conveys the strength, dedication to a cause, and optimism that were her guiding lights. In spite of suffering, isolation, and persecution on the West Coast, Patterson graduated in economics (cum laude) from Berkley in 1923, and thereafter worked tirelessly to free political prisoners such as Angela Davis, a radical activist, philosopher, writer, speaker, and educator. Davis was fired from one teaching job for being a Communist and consequently imprisoned.
Patterson had an idealistic vision of the Russian Revolution and was a founder of the Friends of Soviet Union. She would later call her apartment on Covent Avenue “Vanguard.” It was a left-wing salon where Patterson would hold many discussions about the “Negro question.” She enthusiastically agreed to go to the Soviet Union with 22 young African-American artists, writers, journalists and scholars. On June 14, 1932, she traveled to Moscow to make Black and White, a film about “Negro life” in America. This film was never made because of the German producer’s lack of commitment, but the trip [End Page 195] served as evidence of how the anti-racism movement was actually supported by the Soviets. The young African Americans were treated like celebrities in Moscow and three of them decided to stay there permanently.
Patterson had to come back to the United States to look after her ailing mother, but when she was interviewed by the New York Amsterdam News she said: “Russia today is the only country in the world that’s really fit to live in. I’d live there anytime in preference to America” (100). Her story serves as inspiration to many who need strength and encouragement to participate in the continuous struggle for equal rights for all.
The stories recalled by many of Patterson’s friends, such as the poet Langston Hughes, her mentor W. E. B. DuBois, the popular singer Paul Robeson, and Zora Neale Hurston (for whom she worked briefly as a secretary before witnessing the professional and personal jealousy between Hurston and Hughes), enrich readers’ knowledge of the African-American activists of the twentieth century.
Gilyard’s work is a good contribution to the field of African American struggle in the United States during the twentieth century. It is accessible, insightful, and provocative, even if the monograph comprises a daunting 302 pages. The writer did extremely thorough research in writing this detailed biography of Louise Thompson Patterson. Gilyard included many names, places, and dates in the text, so it is an excellent book for the reader who is well versed in the events in the United States between 1901 and 1999; however, it lacks contextualization for readers who are interested in Patterson’s struggle for justice. The difficult and complex themes of this monograph would keep human rights activists absorbed at all times, but it is also accessible to those with a more general interest in her contributions to African American freedom.
Gilyard did a superb job in portraying Patterson as an activist and an ordinary human being with all her faults and flaws. The depth of her character and her sacrifice, energy, and commitment to the cause are admirable, but her compassionate nature and her love for her family and friends make her a figure that we are compelled to admire, to talk about, and...