6 Notable New Books On Black Women’s History

11/14/2017 10:24 pm ET Updated Nov 14, 2017
Gwendolyn Brooks
AP
Gwendolyn Brooks

The literature on Black women’s history has rapidly grown over the past few years. Scholars have expanded our general knowledge of the diverse contributions of Black women to national and global politics, racial ideologies, social justice movements, popular culture, and more. Here is a list of six notable new books on Black women’s history. These books, which were all published within the last few months, shed new light on the central role Black women have played in shaping U.S. and global history. Be sure to add them to your reading list.

Gateway to Equality investigates black working-class women’s struggle for economic justice from the rise of New Deal liberalism in the 1930s to the social upheavals of the 1960s. Author Keona K. Ervin explains that the conditions in twentieth-century St. Louis were uniquely conducive to the rise of this movement since the city’s economy was based on light industries that employed women, such as textiles and food processing. As part of the Great Migration, black women migrated to the city at a higher rate than their male counterparts, and labor and black freedom movements relied less on a charismatic, male leadership model. This made it possible for women to emerge as visible and influential leaders in both formal and informal capacities. In this impressive study, Ervin presents a stunning account of the ways in which black working-class women creatively fused racial and economic justice. By illustrating that their politics played an important role in defining urban political agendas, her work sheds light on an unexplored aspect of community activism and illuminates the complexities of the overlapping civil rights and labor movements during the first half of the twentieth century. “

Ashley D. Farmer, Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era (University of North Carolina Press, 2017)

“In this comprehensive history, Ashley D. Farmer examines black women’s political, social, and cultural engagement with Black Power ideals and organizations. Complicating the assumption that sexism relegated black women to the margins of the movement, Farmer demonstrates how female activists fought for more inclusive understandings of Black Power and social justice by developing new ideas about black womanhood. This compelling book shows how the new tropes of womanhood that they created--the ‘Militant Black Domestic,’ the ‘Revolutionary Black Woman,’ and the ‘Third World Woman,’ for instance--spurred debate among activists over the importance of women and gender to Black Power organizing, causing many of the era’s organizations and leaders to critique patriarchy and support gender equality. Making use of a vast and untapped array of black women’s artwork, political cartoons, manifestos, and political essays that they produced as members of groups such as the Black Panther Party and the Congress of African People, Farmer reveals how black women activists reimagined black womanhood, challenged sexism, and redefined the meaning of race, gender, and identity in American life.”

Keith Gilyard, Louise Thompson Patterson: A Life of Struggle for Justice (Duke University Press, 2017)

“Born in 1901, Louise Thompson Patterson was a leading and transformative figure in radical African American politics. Throughout most of the twentieth century she embodied a dedicated resistance to racial, economic, and gender exploitation. In this, the first biography of Patterson, Keith Gilyard tells her compelling story, from her childhood on the West Coast, where she suffered isolation and persecution, to her participation in the Harlem Renaissance and beyond. In the 1930s and 1940s she became central, along with Paul Robeson, to the labor movement, and later, in the 1950s, she steered proto-black-feminist activities. Patterson was also crucial to the efforts in the 1970s to free political prisoners, most notably Angela Davis. In the 1980s and 1990s she continued to work as a progressive activist and public intellectual. To read her story is to witness the courage, sacrifice, vision, and discipline of someone who spent decades working to achieve justice and liberation for all.”

“Pulitzer-Prize winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks is one of the great American literary icons of the twentieth century, a protégé of Langston Hughes and mentor to a generation of poets, including Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, and Elizabeth Alexander. Her poetry took inspiration from the complex portraits of black American life she observed growing up on Chicago’s Southside—a world of kitchenette apartments and vibrant streets. From the desk in her bedroom, as a child she filled countless notebooks with poetry, encouraged by the likes of Hughes and affirmed by Richard Wright, who called her work ‘raw and real.’ Over the next sixty years, Brooks’s poetry served as witness to the stark realities of urban life: the evils of lynching, the murders of Emmett Till and Malcolm X, the revolutionary effects of the civil rights movement, and the burgeoning power of the Black Arts Movement. Critical acclaim and the distinction in 1950 as the first black person ever awarded a Pulitzer Prize helped solidify Brooks as a unique and powerful voice. Now, in A Surprised Queenhood in the New Black Sun, fellow Chicagoan and award-winning writer Angela Jackson delves deep into the rich fabric of Brooks’s work and world. Granted unprecedented access to Brooks’s family, personal papers, and writing community, Jackson traces the literary arc of this artist’s long career and gives context for the world in which Brooks wrote and published her work. It is a powerfully intimate look at a once-in-a-lifetime talent up close, using forty-three of Brooks’s most soul-stirring poems as a guide.”

Ula Yvette Taylor, The Promise of Patriarchy: Women and the Nation of Islam (University of North Carolina Press, 2017)

“The patriarchal structure of the Nation of Islam (NOI) promised black women the prospect of finding a provider and a protector among the organization’s men, who were fiercely committed to these masculine roles. Black women’s experience in the NOI, however, has largely remained on the periphery of scholarship. Here, Ula Taylor documents their struggle to escape the devaluation of black womanhood while also clinging to the empowering promises of patriarchy. Taylor shows how, despite being relegated to a lifestyle that did not encourage working outside of the home, NOI women found freedom in being able to bypass the degrading experiences connected to labor performed largely by working-class black women and in raising and educating their children in racially affirming environments. Telling the stories of women like Clara Poole (wife of Elijah Muhammad) and Burnsteen Sharrieff (secretary to W. D. Fard, founder of the Allah Temple of Islam), Taylor offers a compelling narrative that explains how their decision to join a homegrown, male-controlled Islamic movement was a complicated act of self-preservation and self-love in Jim Crow America.”

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective (Haymarket Books, 2017)

“The Combahee River Collective, a path-breaking group of radical black feminists, was one of the most important organizations to develop out of the antiracist and women’s liberation movements of the 1960s and 70s. In this collection of essays and interviews edited by activist-scholar Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, founding members of the organization and contemporary activists reflect on the legacy of its contributions to Black feminism and its impact on today’s struggles.”

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