‘For the Freedom of the Race’: Black Women and the Practices of Nationalism, 1929–1945

SEN Journal: Online Exclusives is pleased to present the second featured dissertation. If you recently defended a Ph.D. in the fields of nationalism, ethnicity, identity, and/or race and would like to be featured on our blog, please visit here for more information on how to submit your dissertation abstract.

For the Freedom of the Race’:

Black Women and the Practices of Nationalism, 1929–1945

Keisha N. Blain

(Department of History, Princeton University, USA, 2014)

Adviser: Tera W. Hunter


Keisha N. Blain is an historian of the twentieth century United States with broad interdisciplinary interests and specializations in African American History, the modern African Diaspora, and Women’s and Gender Studies. Her research interests include black internationalism, radical politics, and global feminisms. She completed a BA in History and Africana Studies from Binghamton University (SUNY) and a Ph.D. in History from Princeton University. Her dissertation received honorable mention for the 2015 Lerner-Scott Prize from the Organization of American Historians (OAH), which recognizes the best dissertation written in the field of U.S. women’s history. She is currently an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Iowa. Follow her on Twitter @KeishaBlain.




Dissertation abstract

‘For the Freedom of the Race’ examines how a vanguard of nationalist women leaders—Amy Jacques Garvey, Maymie De Mena, Mittie Maude Lena Gordon, Ethel M. Collins, Ethel Waddell, and Celia Jane Allen, among them—engaged in national and global politics during the 1930s and 1940s. With the effective collapse of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA)—the dominant black nationalist organization in the United States and worldwide in the immediate post-World War I era—these women leaders emerged on the local, national, and international scenes, at once drawing on Garveyism and extending it.  As pragmatic activists, nationalist women formulated their own political ideas and praxis.  They employed multiple protest strategies and tactics (including grassroots organizing, legislative lobbying, letter-writing campaigns, and militant protest); combined numerous religious and political ideologies (such as Freemasonry, Ethiopianism, Pan-Africanism, and Islam); and forged unlikely alliances—with Japanese activists, for instance—in their struggles against racism, sexism, colonialism, and imperialism. Drawing upon an extensive evidentiary base of primary sources including archival material, historical newspapers, and government records, my study reclaims the Great Depression and World War II as watershed moments in the history of black nationalism and sheds new light on the underappreciated importance of women in shaping black nationalist and internationalist movements and discourses during this period.


Inspiration to undertake this research

I had a series of questions I wanted answered about black women’s activism, nationalism, and internationalism which took place in the 1930s and 1940s. Much of the scholarship centers on black women’s activism in the Garvey movement of the 1920s, but I felt it was necessary to tell a more nuanced story about black nationalist women’s engagement in national and transnational politics during the twentieth century. I wanted to better understand and explain how black nationalist women’s  political theory and praxis intersected with rising anticolonial and Third World nationalist sentiments, and address how black nationalist women understood and negotiated gender roles in predominately male and masculinist movements of the period.

As I complete my first book based on my dissertation, I have expanded the focus in many ways and naturally, new questions have arisen. However, the project is, in essence, a culmination of the answers to the questions I have been thinking about for quite some time. I’ve learned so much during the process of doing this research, and I’m excited to share my findings with others.


An in-depth look into one aspect of the dissertation

My dissertation moves between the local, the regional, the national and the transnational. Reflecting the larger trends in the scholarship on nationalism, my project explores the interplay between national and geopolitical concerns. In my third chapter, I introduce readers to Celia Jane Allen, a working-poor black woman in Chicago who was actively involved in the Peace Movement of Ethiopia (PME), one of the largest black nationalist organizations established during the Great Depression. During the 1930s, Allen traveled to the Mississippi Delta in order to facilitate a grassroots nationalist movement that galvanized Southern blacks in the rural areas. Deploying black nationalist theory and rhetoric—including the tenets of political self-determination, racial pride, and economic self-sufficiency—Allen attempted to garner support for black emigration to West Africa. Drawing upon a range of previously untapped primary sources and utilizing theoretical perspectives from feminist studies, literary theory, and performance studies, the chapter highlights the crucial role this working-poor black woman played in popularizing black nationalist and internationalist ideas in the U.S. South during the Jim Crow era.

While paying close attention to the local context and collaborations and tensions among local black activists, I also highlight Allen’s influence in the region by charting the impact of her political work in places like Alabama, Tennessee, and Kentucky. By analyzing Allen’s unpublished poetry, I also capture the activist’s global vision of Africa and ‘African redemption’—the complete liberation of Africans and peoples of African descent from racism, European colonization, and global imperialism. I further demonstrate how the PME chapters Allen established in the region provided crucial spaces for impoverished black Southerners to engage black internationalist discourses on the grassroots level. These examples provide glimpses into how my dissertation explores the interplay between geopolitical dynamics and national concerns. By capturing the intricacies of black nationalist women’s politics on the local, national and global levels, ‘For the Freedom of the Race’ makes a significant contribution to the growing body of literature on race, gender, and nationalism during the twentieth century.


Perspective on the fields of nationalism, ethnicity, and race

The scholarship on nationalism, ethnicity, and race has become increasingly more vibrant and more innovative. Over the past twenty-five years, we have witnessed an impressive output of scholarly works that probe the intersecting dimensions of ethnicity, race, and nationality. Much of this work has been interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary—utilizing multiple methodological approaches and drawing insights from a range of disciplines including History, Sociology, and Political Science. Moreover, many of these scholars have employed a transnational or comparative research approach. In so doing, this growing body of scholarship captures the global implications of nationalism and moves beyond the nation-state framework of analysis. By employing an interdisciplinary and transnational approach, scholars have offered valuable insights into the complex and dynamic relationship between nationalism, ethnicity, and race.


Reflections on the job market

Like most fields, the job market is difficult for those who work on race, ethnicity, nationalism and other related fields. However, there are some exciting opportunities for those who are interested in working in these areas. In addition to openings in traditional fields such as history and sociology, junior scholars can apply for positions in a range of interdisciplinary fields including African American Studies, Ethnic Studies, American Studies, and Women’s and Gender Studies. In a stringent job market, teaching experience and publications are essential. I strongly recommend postdoctoral research fellowships for newly-minted Ph.D.’s to strengthen their teaching and research portfolios.

About Junpeng Li 11 Articles
Junpeng Li is a PhD candidate in the Sociology Department at Columbia University in NYC, USA. His areas of research are contentious politics and ethnic politics, with a geographical focus on China.

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  1. The Age of Garvey and the Reconstruction of the Global Garveyist Frontier (Stephen G. Hall)

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