VBooks: Dr. Ashley Farmer Reshapes Views of Black Radicals In ’Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed An Era’
Supremely admirable, freshly dressed, and organically intellectual MCs, Nas and the late Tupac introduced me to the Black Panther Party (BPP) during my fearless and wildly ignorant teenage years. Both Nas and Pac — whose mother Afeni Shakur was a member of New York City’s Panther 21 case — tossed around names like Huey Newton, Geronimo Pratt, and George Jackson, among others throughout their lyrical narratives. As a curious and ridiculously energetic rabble-rousing kid, I greedily fed my spirit of inquiry by finding books about the impressionable activists that Nas and Pac spoke of.
Years later, rapper Rah Digga, who is just as lyrically adept as her male contemporaries, released her gracefully, yet in-your-face track titled “Angela Davis,” named after political activist and professor. The New Jersey artist juxtaposed womanly beauty to radical ideals, which introduced me to new ideas and images of Black Power: powerful black women.
Fast-forward to 2018, somewhere there’s a handful of black girls whose minds are churning over thoughts of activism, womanhood and Black Power. With this, Prof. Ashley Farmer, instructor of history and African American Studies at Boston University, recently published a compelling and informative book titled, Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era (University of North Carolina Press).
“Remaking Black Power” follows the brilliant publication of Prof. Robyn Spencer’s The Revolution Has Come: Black Power, Gender and The Black Panther Party in Oakland, as well as the Intersectional Black Panther Party History Project — headed by Spencer, and professors Angela D. LeBlanc-Ernest, Tracye Matthews and Mary Phillips — which is centered around women roles in the Black Power movement.
Capping out at 288 pages, Farmer’s engrossing piece of art examines how black women’s intellectual, political and cultural contributions were integral to the making of Black Power. Farmer’s research peels off decades of masculine images and stereotypes associated with the Black Power movement.
When asked whether or not she understood that Remaking Black Power, for many young girls, would likely be their first introduction into Black Power—similar to how Nas and Pac educated me — Farmer expressed humbleness and held fast to hope.
“This would be dope!” Prof. Farmer says to VIBE. “I hope that if a young woman were to read this book years from now she would see that it was far from being male-led and violent. Black Power was the product and realization of black women’s freedom dreams. I also hope that she would see that black women were central to the movement’s development, popularity, sustainability, and legacy.”
This isn’t a far-fetched idea. Farmer, who holds a master’s and a Ph.D. from Harvard University, experienced a similar path while on her academic journey. Her research interests were the result of frustrations with reading books that reduced black women to helpers of black men. Delving deeper into her research interests—women’s history, gender history and black feminism — at Harvard, Farmer became interested in the Third World Womens Alliance (TWWA). Formed in New York City in 1968 by Frances Beal, then known as the Black Women’s Liberation Committee, Farmer’s study of the TWWA is largely responsible for Remaking Black Power.
“My conversations with activists who were members of groups like the Black Panther Party and the Third World Women’s Alliance inspired a lot of this book,” Farmer says. “I learned three really important lessons from these interviews.”
“First, that black women’s interest in and influence on Black Power’s was much more extensive than scholarly and popular communities acknowledge. In speaking about their activism and networks, the organizers that I interviewed opened my eyes to a long history of black women thinkers and ideas. Second, to not let my ideas of sexism and patriarchy over determine my understanding of this era. To be sure, there was sexism. Neither they nor I are suggesting that there wasn’t. However, it doesn’t mean that it was so all-encompassing that black women couldn’t organize or that black women activists had the same ideas about it as we do today. Third, that black women interpreted the meaning of Black Power in broad, women-specific, and generative ways. This led me to want to write a history of Black women in the Black Power era that reflected this rich history by exploring the antecedents and legacy of black women’s Black Power activism, focusing on their ideas and political writings, and celebrating the diversity of their activism.”
Born in Nashville, Tenn., to a family of doctors, Farmer’s dissertation examined TWWA, which also addressed sterilization abuse, infant mortality and welfare rights, among others. Through researching TWWA, Farmer discovered women activists like Gwendolyn Patton as well as Mae Mallory. Mallory, who practiced self-defense as a teenager, even “flirted with [the] Communist Party and joined black nationalists organizations,” according to Farmer’s article on the academic website “Black Perspectives.”
Remaking Black Power examines women inside the Communist Party (CP). Speaking to other notable scholarly work in the CP such as Dr. Robin D.G. Kelley’s Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression, Farmer’s work speaks to Kelley’s text by documenting notable women who “laid down the groundwork for the rise of the BPP,” she says.
“Most don’t realize that black women activists both transformed and were transformed by the Communist Party–particularly in the 1930s and 1940s,” Prof. Farmer says. “During this period, the Party championed interracial organizing, black self-determination, and the black working-class. As a result, many black women found it to be an organization through which they could develop their understandings of black oppression and advocate for black liberation, women’s rights, workers’ rights, and decolonization. Building on the groundbreaking works of historians like Carol Boyce Davies, Erik S. McDuffie, and Mary Helen Washington, my book shows how black women activists, such as Alice Childress and Claudia Jones used the Party as a way to encourage black women to become radical, class-conscious, nationalist organizers.”
Claudia Jones, a Trinidad-born journalist and activist, moved to Harlem as a young girl. While living Uptown, Jones began writing for the Harlem Journal. She later joined the editorial staff at the Communist Party’s Daily Worker. And as an editor of the Weekly Review, Jones wrote on behalf of the Scottsboro Boys–nine black men falsely accused of raping two white women in Alabama.
“In her political writings, Claudia Jones often claimed that if black domestic workers were to adopt and organize around ideas of the Black Belt Thesis, black nationalism, and self-determination they would be a vital force in black liberation,” says Prof. Farmer. “She also foregrounded examples of black working-class women fighting for self-determination everyday. Her body of writing challenged popular perceptions of black domestic workers as downtrodden, apolitical, and marginalized by framing them as radical activists on the front lines of black liberation.”
Jones’ editorial contributions were effective, too. She was able to convey rather complex messages to broad audiences.
“Jones was one of the foremost theorists of the Communist Party in the 1930s and 1940s. She published weekly columns and political essays that connected communist principles to black and women’s liberation,” says Farmer. “Jones championed the Communist Party’s endorsement of what is now called the ‘Black Belt Thesis,’ or the claim that black Americans constituted a nation set apart from other Americans by their shared cultural heritage, and political exclusion and that they had the right to self-determination and form a separate nation. She also argued that black domestic workers were the most exploited segment of American society.”
Just as writing, protests, and community programs were all instrumental to the Black Power movement, artists were also influential in spreading messages and images of Black Power. Black Panther Party member Emory Douglas, minister of culture, led the charge of creating images of the BPP with his many drawings that appeared in the Party’s newspaper, The Panther. In addition to Douglas, Tarika Lewis, who scholars credit as being the first “Revolutionary Artist” for the BPP, also had a deep interest in art.
“Art is an essential part of any movement. It has the power to capture attention, transfer knowledge and ideas, build a sense of community and solidarity, and politicize and incite viewers to take action,” Farmer says. “Many are now recognizing the central role art played in the Black Power era–especially the work of Black Panther Party artist Emory Douglas. Artists like Tarika Lewis, Gayle Dickson, and others used art to visually incorporate black women into the public’s ideas of Black Power and empowerment. They also used it to demonstrate their political ideals and values and challenge male-centered notions of revolution. My goal in the book is to not only show how black women challenged the misogyny of the movement through art, ideology, and activism, but also how this changed their male counterparts ideas about gender roles and black liberation.”
As many know, the BPP was a very complex organization. Former Party leader Elaine Brown, in her autobiography Taste of Power, detailed her encounters with domestic abuse by a Party member, who is the father of her daughter. However, Party co-founder Huey Newton worked to improve conditions for women.
“Huey Newton is an example of someone whose thinking on issues of gender and sexuality evolved over time,” says Farmer. “By the early 1970s, he publicly endorsed gay rights and women’s rights and asserted that one could not be for black liberation but be content to oppress others within and outside of the black community. This was an important stance to take within the Black Power community. However, it was met with uneven responses. While some applauded this position, others refuted it. Nevertheless, it generated open conversation about the intersection of these liberation struggles.”
When asked whether or not the the current flood of women sharing their stories of sexual assault shifts the narrative, or power, of women, Prof. Farmer says it has the potential to start important conversations.
“I think recent events shift the narrative in favor of privileging the voices, stories, and experiences of women. It also has the potential to start conversations about the interconnectedness of sexual assault, sexism, racism, and capitalism, as well as the long traditions of organizing around these issues that has taken place within the black community. However, I still think we must constantly work to highlight the specific ways in which black women endure this kind of harassment and violence and their pioneering role in bringing these conversations to the public.”
While Remaking Black Power tremendously adds to the growing body of research on the Black Power movement, Farmer says that more research is needed.
“It would be great to see more biographies of individual women activists who were key figures in the movement,” Prof. Farmer says. “I also look forward to seeing future scholars further explore the international connections and networks that many Black Power activists developed.”
Purchase “Remaking Black Power” here.