- Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom by Keisha N. Blain
Kiesha Blain's Set the World on Fire is a remarkable feat of scholarship that uses a range of nontraditional primary sources to explain the complicated story of the role of a handful of little-known black women who sought liberation from white domination through separatist organizing from the 1920s to the 1960s. Blain's voice is prominent as she systematically informs the reader of the biographical, political, and social context of her subjects. The time frame is an important contribution to African American and diasporic scholarship as it is the bridge period between the apparent decline of Garveyism in the mid-1920s and the rise of Black Power in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Blain's analysis of Black Nationalist women's organizing illuminates the agency of people of African descent (who Mittie Maude Lena Gordon refers to as "Americans of African extraction") on a truly global scale: the United States, the Caribbean, South America, pre-independence Africa, Europe, and even Japan (72). Most interesting of all, Blain successfully argues that this period, the "doldrums" of Black Nationalism, is characterized by the forceful activity of black women who filled a power vacuum and transformed it in complex and vibrant ways that Blain takes pains to explain well. Her treatment of normative gender roles within Black Nationalist movements will be of interest to many scholars interested in the intersections of gender, race, class, and nationalism. [End Page 441]
Scholars familiar with the Garvey movement will appreciate how Blain investigates the efforts of people who were inspired by his ideas. While Garveyism declined after he was arrested and deported, purportedly for fraud, in 1927, his ideas about racial pride and dignity took hold among a range of people from across the diasporic world, most particularly, as Blain demonstrates, among women. A few of the trail-blazing women revealed in Set the World on Fire will be familiar to readers, such as Marcus Garvey's wives Amy Ashwood Garvey and Amy Jacques Garvey, who carved spaces for women in the Universal Negro Improvement Association and spearheaded the organization's publication, Negro World, a central source in Blain's examination. Blain also analyzes newspapers, FBI files, photographs, songs, poetry, oral interviews and other sources that illuminate the accomplishments of dozens of lesser-known figures such as Henrietta Vinton Davis, Maymie Leona Turpeau De Mena, Adelaide Casely Hayford, Celia Jane Allen, Ethyl Maude Collins, and Ethel Waddell. In their determination to take control of their lives, these women inspired a tradition of black power that historians have usually overlooked because of the paucity of traditional records.
Blain not only examines how gender and race intersect in organizing efforts but she also examines how class ideas play a role in informing the strategies black women used to lift themselves out of dreadful conditions in the broader white supremacist, capitalist, and Christian context from the time of the Great Depression to the Civil Rights Movement. The chapters, which are arranged both chronologically and topically, explore the pioneering efforts of Garveyite women, the Ethiopian Peace Movement for emigration, Black Nationalist movements in the Jim Crow South, Liberian emigration during the late New Deal, Pan-African thought during the Second World War, and the anti-colonialism of the 1950s. In these decades, black women organized to achieve "universal black liberation, racial pride, black internationalism, political self-determination, and economic self-sufficiency" (195). Blain convincingly argues that black nationalist women, who were situated on the margins of political, economic and social power, used a number of strategies to promote the politics of respectability and created communities in which women from all walks of life participated and became a part of something greater than themselves, a role that gave them a sense of pride and accomplishment. For example, in a section on Mittie Maude Lena Gordon's Peace Movement of Ethiopia, Blain discusses efforts to garner federal economic...