V Books: Prof. Keisha N. Blain Shows How Black Women ‘Set the World on Fire’


It has been a recurring theme for a couple of years now. Women writers, scholars, authors, activists, as well as lesser known local heroines have been kicking a** in their respective fields of work – especially black women. It’s no secret that black women have played major roles across the workforce for generations now. But sadly, with the exception of names like Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Mary McLeod Bethune, among others, black women’s accomplishments have flown under the radar.

In the midst of Ryan Coogler’s box office smash movie, Black Panther, that touches on themes of Pan-Africanism and shows young eyes what a black superhero looks like on the big screen, Professor Keisha N. Blain, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh, is unearthing the work of lesser known black women and their fight for black emigration to Africa. Blain’s brilliantly researched and informative new book, Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom (University of Pennsylvania Press), sheds light on black nationalist women as they combat the dangerous jaws of white supremacy.

Blain, who holds a B.A in History and Africana Studies from Binghamton University (SUNY) and a Ph.D. in History from Princeton University, examines ways that black nationalist women fought in national and global politics.

“The ‘freedom dreams’ that they envisioned propelled them to create new spaces and opportunities for women of color to openly confront racial and sexual discrimination,” Blain writes.

Along with shedding light on rarely talked about women of color who dedicated their lives to countering racial discrimination and bigotry, Set the World on Fire further peels back commercialized layers of historical figures.

For instance, Prof. Jeanne Theoharis, Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College, argues in her book, A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History, how the depth of the Civil Rights Movement has been diminished as a result of schools. Theoharis also states that Black History Month has become a commercialized way to celebrate pre-selected historical figures.

Theoharis makes a valid point here. One of the many strengths of Blain’s Set the World on Fire is that it’s not a regurgitation of popular historical women of color. Instead, Set the World on Fire shows how instrumental the daily, and far from glamorous, grind of organizing, raising funds and other mundane activities are in combating racism. With the commercialization of Black History Month, one can be led to believe that fighting racism is achieved only by marching, sitting at a lunch counter or sitting in the front of a bus.

Dr. Blain–whose research interests include black internationalism, radical politics and global feminism–narrates the contributions of Audley ‘Queen Mother’ Moore, Ethel Maude Collins, Laura Adorker Kofey, Amy Jacques Garvey, among others.

Blain writes: “The women chronicled in this book employed multiple protest strategies and tactics. They combined numerous religious and political ideologies such as Garveyism, Ethiopianism, Pan-Africanism, and Islam.”

Capping out at only 200 pages, Set the World on Fire isn’t bogged down in tedious academic jargon, which should hold the attention of readers outside of academia.

The book commences with women of the Garvey Movement. Marcus Garvey, founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), advocated Pan-Africanism and emigration to Africa, also known as Garveyism.

Garvey has been one of the popular historical figures within the black community. But not much is known about the women and their helping minds to Garveyism.

One Garveyite that Blain highlights is Amy Ashwood, Garvey’s first wife. Ashwood’s organizational and social networking skills played major roles in the success of the UNIA. Blain details how during the early stages of the UNIA, many of the meetings were held at Ashwood’s parents’ home. Ashwood was also instrumental in the success of UNIA’s newspaper, Negro World.

Blain quotes Ashwood–an excerpt taken from Lionel Yard’s Biography of Amy Ashwood– “From midnight until four in the morning, Marcus and I would trudge around the streets of Harlem putting a slim copy of the Negro World under people’s doors.”

Upon Ashwood and Garvey’s divorce, she moved to London where she continued to advance Pan-Africanist politics by working with activists from Nigeria, Ghana, Jamaica as well as other British territories.

Blain, who also serves as president of the African American Intellectual History Society and senior editor of Black Perspectives, examines the tireless work ethic of Webster Parish, La. native, Mittie Maude Lena Gordon.

According to Blain, Gordon was one of Chicago’s leading black nationalist “streets scholars,” who became an advocate for working poor people of color. However–and this is not to diminish Gordon’s work– some of Gordon’s ideas were not original. Similar to Garvey’s Back to Africa Movement, Gordon established the Peace Movement of Ethiopia (PME). In December 1932, Gordon secured a hulking estimated 400,000 signatures of black people willing to move to Africa. The largest black nationalist organization established by a woman in the United States, Gordon’s PME also served as an important political space for working poor people of color.

Set the World on Fire also examines the bold activism of Celia Jane Allen, who was appointed by Gordon to organize PME strategies in Southern towns such as Long, and Matherville, Mississippi. Given the number of lynchings in Mississippi, white mob violence against activists was always a grave concern. Despite this threat, Allen never wavered in spreading PEM’s message of black political self-determination, racial pride and economic self-sufficiency.

Blain writes: “Allen’s few surviving letters capture her sense of fear as she traveled throughout the South to recruit new members and promote the message of black emigration.”

Blain also examines the activism of Ethel Waddell, who was one of the voices that advocated the Greater Liberia Bill. Sponsored by former Mississippi Senator Theodore Bilbo, the Greater Liberia Bill gave African Americans an opportunity to move to Africa. Not surprisingly though, once the Greater Libera Bill was drafted, there were major issues such as a clause that granted U.S. government military control of West Africa. Blain added that as the Greater Liberia Bill was introduced to Congress, black women did most of the promotional groundwork.

“These women laid the groundwork for a new generation of black activists and intellectuals,” Blain writes. “In many ways, the Civil Rights–Black Power era represented an extension of the political work that women like Ashwood, Jacques Garvey, De Mena, Gordon and others had begun several decades prior.”

Blain’s Set the World on Fire adds to a growing body of research that speaks to black women’s activism such as Ashley Farmer’s Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era and Robyn Spencer’s The Revolution Has Come: Black Power, Gender and the Black Panther Party in Oakland. Farmer examines black women’s political and cultural engagement with Black Power, while Spencer examines the Black Panther Party’s ideology, programs and gender politics.

Set the World on Fire shines because it illuminates a group of women who are not part of popular black history dialogue, yet these women took on what is often considered to be masculine roles in the fight against global white supremacy. Furthermore, Set the World on Fire offers more historical figures for young girls of color to admire.

Purchase Dr. Blain’s Set the World on Fire here.