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Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom

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In 1932, Mittie Maude Lena Gordon spoke to a crowd of black Chicagoans at the old Jack Johnson boxing ring, rallying their support for emigration to West Africa. In 1937, Celia Jane Allen traveled to Jim Crow Mississippi to organize rural black workers around black nationalist causes. In the late 1940s, from her home in Kingston, Jamaica, Amy Jacques Garvey launched an extensive letter-writing campaign to defend the Greater Liberia Bill, which would relocate 13 million black Americans to West Africa.

Gordon, Allen, and Jacques Garvey--as well as Maymie De Mena, Ethel Collins, Amy Ashwood, and Ethel Waddell--are part of an overlooked and understudied group of black women who take center stage in Set the World on Fire, the first book to examine how black nationalist women engaged in national and global politics from the early twentieth century to the 1960s. Historians of the era generally portray the period between the Garvey movement of the 1920s and the Black Power movement of the 1960s as an era of declining black nationalist activism, but Keisha N. Blain reframes the Great Depression, World War II, and early Cold War as significant eras of black nationalist--and particularly, black nationalist women's--ferment.

In Chicago, Harlem, and the Mississippi Delta, from Britain to Jamaica, these women built alliances with people of color around the globe, agitating for the rights and liberation of black people in the United States and across the African diaspora. As pragmatic activists, they employed multiple protest strategies and tactics, combined numerous religious and political ideologies, and forged unlikely alliances in their struggles for freedom. Drawing on a variety of previously untapped sources, including newspapers, government records, songs, and poetry, Set the World on Fire highlights the flexibility, adaptability, and experimentation of black women leaders who demanded equal recognition and participation in global civil society.

255 pages, Hardcover

First published January 18, 2018

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About the author

Keisha N. Blain

8 books150 followers
Keisha N. Blain is a historian of the 20th century United States specializing in African American History, the modern African Diaspora, and Women’s and Gender Studies. She is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh, president of the African American Intellectual History Society, and a columnist for MSNBC. Blain is the author of the multi-prize-winning book Set the World on Fire and co-editor, with Ibram X. Kendi, of Four Hundred Souls.

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Displaying 1 - 15 of 15 reviews
Profile Image for James.
669 reviews67 followers
February 25, 2018
Marvelous! The best kind of history in that it takes a period that past histories have confronted in a vastly different way and fundamentally reshapes how one views the period. Restores the legacy of important women in the nationalism struggle most frequently associated with Garvey, Du Bois and Robeson. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Lisa.
566 reviews19 followers
October 21, 2019
Super inspiring stories of the working class women who advocated for nationalism for African-Americans. They were complex people with sometimes contradictory ideologies. But their organization skills were amazing. We don’t often hear about racial justice work of the nationalist variety. This is clearly a tight monograph of the kind that usually start as dissertations and as such there is a lot of repetition of ideas, but it was worth it to get this information.
Profile Image for Sikivu Hutchinson.
Author 6 books115 followers
July 13, 2018
A trenchant analysis of the Black women activists who shaped twentieth century Black nationalist organizing, mobilization and politics while infusing Black feminist principles and practice in male-dominated contexts. One of the most intriguing examples of this dynamic was activist Laura Adorker Kofey, who was murdered in 1928 after challenging male leadership, yet inspired legions of followers to continue her religious and political work decades later in West Africa and the American South. Through their writings, protests, speeches,educational outreach and reparations advocacy, Kofey, and other pioneering nationalist women leaders during the Great Depression, World War II, and Cold War eras, forged a path of pan-Africanist and globalist resistance. Blain's book is a timely appraisal of the intersectional conflicts Black women faced (and continue to face) in movement politics, and a corrective to mainstream assessments of Black liberation struggle that valorize charismatic patriarchal leadership.
Profile Image for Joanna.
125 reviews9 followers
March 17, 2023
Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom highlights, acknowledges and honors black nationalist women whose creative efforts were essential in the establishment, transformation and growth of the global black freedom struggle. Black women not only fought white supremacy, but also patriarchy within their respective black nationalist organizations. Learning about the lives and contributions of women like Mittie Maude Lena Gordon, Amy Ashwood Garvey, Amy Jacques Garvey, Laura Adorker Kofey, Celia Jane Allen and many others, who paved the way for our work today, gave me a sense of hope for what is possible.

Dr. Keisha Blain is an inspirational historian, scholar and author who values and respects the voices of Black women in the global struggle for black liberation; voices that have too often been ignored and erased in dominant history.
Profile Image for Gregory.
301 reviews1 follower
March 12, 2019
Traditional narrative holds that the golden age of black nationalism ended in the 1920s after the arrest and deportation of Marcus Garvey and that the movement remained dormant until the 1960s. Blaine clearly proves that black nationalism was a vibrant movement in the period between 1925 and 1965. Moreover, she demonstrates conclusively that women were leaders in this black nationalist movement. There is much in this book. I am sure that I am not alone in being surprised that the black nationalist women allied themselves for a short time with Senator Theodore Bilbo, a notorious racist and supporter of Jim Crow and white supremacy, with the intention of gaining support for black emigration to Africa in the 1930s and 1940s. I enjoyed how Blaine used genealogical sources to learn more about the individuals she was writing about.
Profile Image for Donna Bijas.
891 reviews2 followers
March 2, 2021
During the Great Depression, female activists worked for years United in their political views that people of African descent constituted a separate group and they worked diligently and politically to have 3 million Black people move to Liberia and neighboring nations to remove themselves from the stigma of slavery and poverty. Mittie Maud, Lena Gordon, Amy Garvey, Ethel Waddell and other Black women leaders dominated the political Black culture. While amazing what they tried to do and the hoops they jumped through, they ultimately failed. My problem with this book is how repetitive it is throughout. I’m happy to have learned of these amazing women though.
Profile Image for Simisola.
2 reviews
December 31, 2020
It was really refreshing to analyze such a conflicted and contradictory movement from the lens of the work that women put into it. It gives a more well-rounded perspective to that time period. My only critique of the book is that at times it did feel a bit repetitive, but it was clearly written.
Profile Image for Barbara.
662 reviews9 followers
January 21, 2021
Really hard to read. Don’t really recommend it. I learned some things I didn’t know but the context was so skimpy it’s hard to integrate with what I do know. I can see why this strand of black resistance is so little known. Seems like a dead end.
Profile Image for A'Llyn Ettien.
1,150 reviews2 followers
December 7, 2018
Very interesting exploration of some fascinating women and their role in an important part of history.
1,611 reviews1 follower
January 22, 2019
So many women mentioned of too little is known, if only it could be rectified.
Profile Image for ReneeAlesia.
8 reviews2 followers
September 8, 2020
Great addition to the historical context of Black Nationalism. I learned so much about the women who organized and mobilized internationally for their causes.
2 reviews
December 4, 2021
The movement of people and ideas beyond national borders is animated by Keisha N. Blain’s Set the World on Fire. She stress the ways in which we might want to change the direction of twentieth century accounts of black nationalism, especially from the mid 1920s. I was particularly captivated by Blain’s historiographical intervention of black nationalism, and her logical ideas about how racial dignity began to have an effect on people from across the diaspora, predominantly among women. The strategies they employed which was not limited to their use of letter writing and the press more generally also reflects the intensity at which they acted to identify with people with parts of the world by forging unlikely alliances. I read Keisha's monograph for my graduate seminar class in conversation with Lara Putnam's “The Transnational Black Press and Questions of the Collective,” and I loved how both do not fixate their approach on the well-studied activities of renowned nationalists which is often so much in vogue in discourses of this sort. This becomes very evocative because stories and perhaps approaches such as this are more commonly absent in African diasporic discourse.
Displaying 1 - 15 of 15 reviews

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