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Keisha N. Blain: Set the World on Fire

Keisha N. Blain discusses her book, the first to examine how black nationalist women engaged in national and global politics in the mid twentieth century, with NYU professor Thomas J. Sugrue.

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.

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 the 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.

Keisha N. Blain is an award-winning historian who writes on race, politics, and gender. She obtained a PhD in History from Princeton University and currently teaches history at the University of Pittsburgh. She is the author of Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018) and co-editor of Charleston Syllabus: Readings on Race, Racism and Racial Violence (University of Georgia Press, 2016). Her work has been published in several academic journals such as the Journal of Social History and Souls; and popular outlets including the Huffington Post, The Washington Post, and The Feminist Wire. She is the president of the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS) and senior editor of its popular blog, Black Perspectives.

Thomas J. Sugrue is Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis and History, the founding Director of the Collaborative on Global Urbanism, and the Director of the Program in American Studies at New York University. The author of four books and editor of three others, he contributes to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the London Review of Books, The New Yorker, The Nation, and Salon. He is a frequent commentator on modern American history, politics, civil rights, and urban policy. Sugrue has given over 350 public lectures throughout the United States, as well as in Europe, South America, the Middle East, and Asia.

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