Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Notes on Want to Start a Revolution?

One of my main ongoing projects is to learn more about the experiences and contributions of black women in the United States. I've come to the general position that black women are central to - well, to any possible just future. It therefore seems extremely important to understand what black women have said and done, and are doing. To that end, I read Want to Start a Revolution? Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle, a collection of essays edited by Dayo F. Gore, Jeanne Theoharis, and Komozi Woodard. As the editors put it in their introduction:
This volume reframes women in black radicalism by consciously not categorizing these women within one movement (whether Left, Black Power, "second-wave" feminism,  or Third World liberation movements) but tracing their work across many spaces. Bringing them together in one collection challenges the framework that has long presented the radical activism of the 1960s and 1970s in separate and distinct movements. Therefore, while it is clearly viable to organize the women's contributions based on their affiliation with the civil rights, Black Power, "second-wave" feminism, and U.S. communist movements, such a framework obscures the full breadth of their contributions to black radicalism. Rosa Parks's iconic status within the civil rights movement overshadows her lifelong radical commitment; Johnnie Tillmon's interventions in Black Power politics are often lost when viewed through the lens of welfare right activism; and national radicals such as Florynce Kennedy and Vicki Garvin drop out altogether as their varied political affiliations resist neat categorization. ...[T]his anthology intentionally resists marking these women as activists defined exclusively within any singular movement and makes visible the ways these black women radicals redefined movement politics.
For the most part, the women - and activities - discussed in the book's essays were completely (shamefully) unknown to me prior to reading. Certainly I was well aware of Rosa Parks' "iconic status", I'd heard of Shirley Chisholm and her status as the first black woman to run for president (though I didn't know anything else about her), and last year I read Assata Shakur's excellent memoir, Assata, but beyond that I couldn't tell you much. So I found the book very helpful in both teaching me things I didn't know, and pointing me toward several other books and writers. (Indeed, the book is a bibliographical goldmine.)

Favorite chapters include Theoharis' piece on Rosa Parks, which succeeded in whetting my appetite for her full-length biography, The Rebellious Life of Rosa Parks. Similarly, Joy James has convinced me that Assata Shakur is even more interesting than I already thought she was from reading Assata, and I look forward to reading Shadowboxing: Representations of Black Feminist Politics, James' book from which her essay on Shakur is adapted, as well as Shakur's own writings beyond her memoir. "We Do Whatever Becomes Necessary", Premilla Nadasen's essay on Johnnie Tillmon, Black Power, and welfare rights, touched on - yet did not pursue! - some passing comments of Tillmon's which sounded a lot to me like Wages for Housework ideas. And I was especially interested in a chapter about the Black Panther Party's Community School in Oakland, by (former Panther) Ericka Huggins and Angela D. LeBlanc-Ernest. The ideas informing this school, the work that went into it, its successes - for me, this is thrilling, important stuff. But with an undercurrent of sadness and anger, for obviously the Community Schools no longer exist.

I think I found Want to Start a Revolution? most valuable in highlighting the work done - from the 1930s into the 1980s - by these women, and many others. Perhaps that sounds trivial, but I don't mean for it to, because the work is not trivial at all, it's just generally ignored, and then forgotten. Joy James writes, in her introduction to The Angela Y. Davis Reader, summarizing one of Davis' points, that
many women who devoted their lives to organizing for revolutionary, socialist society produced neither theoretical nor autobiographical literature. In the absence of such writings, their intellectual and political agency has often "disappeared" or been dismissed.
In fact, even if they have produced theoretical or autobiographical literature, as a few of the women profiled in Want to Start a Revolution? have, the work and agency of black women has still often been dismissed and denied, and, again, forgotten. We would do well to remember.

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