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Thursday, June 23, 2016

Books: Too Heavy a Load and Storming Caesar's Palace




In Too Heavy a Load, Deborah Gray White profiles a group of black women who seek to establish a set of moral standards for other black women in the spirit of racial uplift. She notes, “chastity became the litmus test of middle-class respectability…Middle-class status in black society was associated was much with ‘style of life’ as with income” (30). In other words, gender performance was also class performance, targeting white audiences. For clubwomen, defending their womanhood is an assertion that black women are just as feminine and worthy of respect as white women. While attempting to climb social, economic, and cultural ladders, black clubwomen left many behind, feeling that some black women did not measure up to middle-class standards of cultural refinements. Some rural blacks rebuked the “high falutin’” ways of clubwomen. For example, hair straightening techniques were rejected for preferred multicolored headwraps. This form of resistance is a demonstration of gender, race, and class performativity. Whether images of New Negroes or iconic blues women, young black women were offered various examples of how to (re)present their gender, race, class, and sexuality.    



Annelise Orleck’s Storming Caesar’s Palace, is a story of poor women who became anti-poverty activists. In the 1950s, these southern women left sharecropping behind to become domestic laborers (maids and cooks) in hotels in Las Vegas. While there, a number of the women joined labor unions, providing them with their first experiences with political activism and interracial solidarity. During the 60s, issues concerning layoffs, health, and childcare, resulted in them applying for public assistance and forming a welfare organization. By 1971, their grassroots organizing received national attention following their opposition to drastic welfare cute through a march to the lavish Caesar’s Palace. The march included poor women and their children, peace activists, civil rights leaders, clergy, and celebrities. Eventually, forming Operation Life, these women lobbied politicians and wrote grant proposals to get Nevada to support federal programs like food stamps and WIC as well as attempts to get President Carter to create jobs that addressed concerns of gender segregation in the workforce and lack of childcare for poor mothers. For the mothers, they no longer saw themselves as “clients” rather they saw themselves become “catalysts of change” (167).

            While reading Too Heavy a Load, a couple of books exploring race and gender at the turn of the 20th century came to mind. White reveals that black clubwomen embraced Victorian gender and performance. Responding to this is Glenda Gilmore’s Gender and Jim Crow, which discusses how whites used white supremacy to sexually oppress black people. Entering this conversation is Eileen Suarez Findlay with her work, Imposing Decency, which explores the relationship between political change and discourse on sexuality in Ponce, Puerto Rico. Each of these historians engage in a discourse around racial uplift that links progress with adopting white cultural norms and values. Implied in this assimilation are performances of womanhood related to race and class decorum. During my reading of Storming Caesar’s Palace and thinking of the welfare rights movement, Premilla Nadasen’s Welfare Warriors immediately came to mind. Welfare Warriors examines the racial politics of welfare from the 1950s to the 1970s, during a time when welfare became synonymous with black motherhood. Nadasen explores the grassroots movement and activism of black women in cities across the nation, demonstrating that the welfare rights movement was integral to the Black Freedom Movement and other Black Power organizations.

Books: Living for the Revolution and Radicals on the Road



Kimberly Springer’s Living for the Revolution explores issues of race, gender, and representation in feminist theory. This work is one of the first thorough analysis of black feminist organizations chronicling the history of black women’s social organizations in the twentieth century. Springer argues that black feminist organizations engaged in interstitial politics to “connect to political opportunity and identity specific to race and gender with social movements.”[1] Furthermore, she states, “I maintain that black feminists are historically, the first activists in the US to theorize and act upon the intersections of race, gender, and class.”[2] She invites readers to to reconceptualizes black women’s roles in social movements for social justice. When black women are marginalized in the civil rights movement as well as the women’s movement, stereotyped in popular culture, and misrepresented in public policy, black feminist organizations emerged in response, utilizing feminist theory as a tool to build upon the social organizations black women founded that came before them. Springer examines five black feminist organizations: Third World Women’s Alliance, Black Women Organized for Action, National Black Feminist Organization, National Alliance of Feminists, and the Combahee River Collective. From the late 1960s to the mid to late 1970s, these organizations were in existence; by 1980, they were defunct. She scrutinizes the organizations through three categories of analysis, “activism,” “movements,” and “organizations.” The individual activists worked together to form a collective identity in response to and as a result of their personal and socio-political experiences. These black feminist movements expanded beyond cultural and political spheres to include organizations, essays, film, dance, fiction, visual arts, and scholarly studies. These structured, formal organizations had clear specific goals and objectives to combat and eradicate racism, poverty, and sexism. While these organizations were not successful in eradicating these issues, Springer wants readers to reconsider their perceptions of success since these groups made it possible for thousands of black women to resist white supremacy in ways that hold long term effects.      



Judy Tzu-Chun Wu’s Radicals on the Road highlights the trans-Pacific journeys of underappreciated historical actors such as black leaders Robert Brown, Elaine Brown, and Eldridge Cleaver; Asian American radicals Alex Hing and Pat Sumi; Chicana activists Betita Martinez; and women’s peace and liberation advocates Cora Weiss and Charlotte Bunch. As diverse as these individuals are, they all agree that the Vietnam war was immoral and unjustified. In the 1960s, these American and Vietnamese antiwar activists established a transnational political community based on critiques of U.S policy in Asia. Through Third World tourism, familial ties, journalism, and personal encounters, these activists built a “global public sphere” centered on war.[3] Wu argues that these activists assisted in shaping the era’s turbulent events. The key factor in Wu’s argument is the notion of “radical orientalism.” Antiwar activists in the US and in the West idealized revolutionary anticolonial Asian societies in Vietnam, North Korea, and China in order to establish the West, or more specifically the US, as an inferior empire. She explores the relationships of these diverse activists and furthermore, centralizes Asians as active players in events of the time. Radicals on the Road consists of three parts. The first part examines Robert Brown’s life and career, providing an illustration of Afro-Asian alliances during the 1950s. The second part focuses on the U.S People’s Anti-Imperialist Delegation (USPAID) from their brief, foreign state sponsored journey to the tensions that afflicted the group in the 1970s. The third part concentrates on North American and Vietnamese women and the political, social, interpersonal, and ideological issues that plagued their groups such as the Vietnamese Women’s Union (VWU). These “women warriors” as Wu like to call them, often traveled across the Pacific, formed bonds with Native American and Asian women, employed popular-front strategies, and served as mediators during Western feminists bickering. The WVU inspired American feminists to participate in confrontational anti-war campaigns.      
Springer’s Living for Revolution speaks to Julia Sudbury’s “Other Kinds of Dreams,” in which she analyzes the political activities of black and Asian women in Britain. Springer’s and Wu’s works speaks to Benita Roth’s Separate Roads to Feminism, which is an examination of second wave feminism and the emergence of black and Chicana feminism and white women’s liberation during the civil rights and black liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Wu’s work also conjures conversations with Yuri Kochiyama’s Passing It On, a study of the networks and activism of black, Native, Asian, Latina, and white women working together for civil rights, social justice, women’s rights, and prisoners rights in the US and around the world.   


[1] Kimberly Springer, Living for the Revolution: Black Feminists Organizations, 1968- 1980 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005), 11.  
[2] Springer, Living for the Revolution, 2.
[3] Judy Tzu- Chun Wu, Radicals on the Road: Internationalism, Orientalism, and Feminism during the Vietnam Era (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013), 4.

Books: Liberated Threads and Territories of the Soul




Liberated Threads takes a transnational approach to discussing how black women have used hair, clothing, jewelry, and style as fashion statements and more importantly as tools of resistance from the 1960s through the 80s or more specifically from the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements in the United States and the United Kingdom to the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. She refers to this form of activism as “soul style.” The soul style movement differs from the social movements of the 60s, 70s, and 80s in that typical narratives focus on integration, policy, and pivotal moments such as protests and marches. Ford intervenes in the conversation by focusing on the simple act of getting dressed everyday. She demonstrates that while every black person was not into political organizing, they were indeed engaged in fashion, therefore she explores the ways in which fashion and style connected black people, especially black women globally for black liberated.   
Liberated Threads speaks to many works that examine black women, beauty, and activism. The works that come to mind are Maxine Leeds Craig’s Ain’t I a Beauty Queen, Susannah Walker’s Style and Status, and Tiffany M. Gill’s Beauty Shop Politics. Craig’s work analyzes the ways in which black women have negotiated the intersection of race, class, politics, and personal aesthetics. Looking at the years between the 1940s and the 60s, Craig demonstrates the influence social movements have on black women’s daily lives from the beauty salons to late night political meetings. Building on Craig’s work, Walker explores the years between 1920 and 1975 to examine the social, political, and racial implications of the beauty industry as black women struggled with beautifying themselves in order to achieve success and thinking that doing so is buying into the notion of European standards of beauty. Gill’s work investigates how the beauty industry played a key role in shaping black women’s identity while simultaneously providing a space for social, political, and economic change to take place. During Jim Crow, black beauticians’ shops were not just spaces for economic independence but also spaces that allowed grassroots activism to emerge. 


In Territories of the Soul Ellis theorizes that the experience of belonging to the African Diaspora as existing between land and the “possibility to be elsewhere,” which she states is to live within the territories of the soul. Utilizing the concept of utopian queerness, she explores and analyzes black writers, musicians, and artists from America, the U.K, and the Caribbean such as C.L.R James, James Baldwin, and Nathaniel Mackey to demonstrate the ways in which the diaspora is a form of feeling and belonging. Focusing on the interwar years to the present, she seeks to underscore the forms of feeling and belonging in the African diaspora by exploring the interplay between the material (territories) and the spiritual (souls). She asserts that black identity does not have to rely on linear notions of history rather belonging to the diaspora has always been about forming communities and cultures.

Territories of the Soul speaks to other works that explore the ways in which researchers think about blackness and diasporic locations such Katherine McKittrick’s Demonic Grounds and Judith Madera’s Black Atlas. Whereas Ellis’ narrative is shaped through the case studies of black men, McKittrick underscores black women’s agency as she demonstrates the ways in which they transform geographical landscapes such as the Middle Passage, the Underground Railroad, North Carolina, Virginia, and New France across time as they respond to racism and sexism through their activism and struggles. Similar to Ellis who incorporates work of literature into her research, Madera’s work focuses on 19th century African American literature. Just like McKittrick, Madera demonstrates the importance of blackness and spatial reconfiguration. She explores black geography in the works of prominent black writers such as William Wells Brown, Martin Delany, and Alice Dunbar-Nelson.

Books: Sisters in the Struggle and The Black Woman




Sisters in the Struggle is a collection of sixteen essays that explore black women’s social and political activism throughout the twentieth century. Edited by Bettye Collier-Thomas and V.P. Franklin, this anthology is divided into five parts to highlight “autobiographical, biographical, and sociopolitical change.” These essays focus on black women’s contributions to and roles in the black liberation movement by placing them at the center of the long civil rights movement, a movement whose literature has marginalized black women. Examining the years between 1915 and 1996, this anthology emphasizes black women’s personal reflections, leadership roles, participation in black nationalism, feminism, and politics. The opening essay in part one is a powerful discussion on black women and race in Jim Crow America by Mary McLeod Bethune. The other essays in this first section focus on Ella Baker and black women’s organizations that laid the groundwork for foot soldiers in the movement during the 1950s. In part two, the personal narratives of Rosa Parks, Charlayne Hunter- Gault, and Dorothy Height, highlight the significant events in their lives such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott, integrating the University of Georgia, and the 1963 March on Washington. In these recollections are discussions of the intersection of racism and sexism. These memoirs along with the essays in part three, underline the critical roles black women have fulfilled in local, regional, and national civil rights organizations such as the WPC, SCLC, CORE, NAACP, and the MFDP. The last two sections of the book changes gears as the attention focuses on the changes that took place from the 60s through the 90s. Given the timeline of the book, the editors are championing for a long civil rights movement, which ultimately transitions to the Black Power Movement. The essays in part four look at the legacy of the CRM and BPM and black women’s experiences in shaping political and social spheres. The final essay in part five sums up the book by examining black women entering the political arena as social changes from the CRM and BPM helped them to do so.       



The Black Woman edited by Toni Cade Bambara is an anthology that consists of a diverse body of literature ranging from poetry by Nikki Giovanni and Audre Lorde, stories by notable novelists such as Toni Cade Bambara, Paule Marshall and Alice Walker, essays by activists like Helen Cade Brehon, Frances Beale, and Grace Lee Boggs, and personal reflections from Carole Brown and Joanna Clark. The writings in this anthology explore an abundance of issues black women face such as race, gender, rape, colorism, self-definition, self-improvement, black feminism, and black men. As one of the first texts to present a broad range of black women’s thought from the CRM to Black Power and women’s liberation, the purpose of this text is not to articulate a black feminist thought/ideology but rather to bring much needed attention to the lives of black women through critiques and analyses for a freedom movement for black women’s liberation from racism, sexism, and poverty; issues at the center of the movement’s mission. France Beale’s essay, “Double Jeopardy,” is one of the first works to articulate the notion of multiple oppressions black women face. Published in 1970, this volume “open[ed] a door and prove[d] that there was a market” for this type of work.  

The Black Woman speaks to the Beverly Guy-Sheftall edited collection, Words of Fire. Contributing to this interdisciplinary volume are the voices of black women as activists, artists, novelists, and preachers to name a few as they address numerous issues such as multiple oppressions- race, gender, and class. Also included in the conversation are works that respond to texts that leave out the voices of womanists and feminists of color for example, Michele Wallace’s Black Macho, bell hooks’ Ain’t I a Woman and Talking Black, Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black, Angela Davis’ Woman, Race, and Class, and Gloria Hull et al All the Women Are White, All the Men Are Black, Some of Us Are Brave. Since I have mentioned the long civil rights movement in terms of black women’s activism, I see a conversation with the historian who coined the tern, Jacquelyn Dowd Hall. In addition, I also see a conversation with the anthology Southern Black Women in the Modern Civil Rights Movement edited by Bruce A. Glasrud and Merline Pitre. While not looking at a LCRM, discuss the activities of black women in the south during the 50s and 60s, which was influenced by the work started generations prior.