Elevate Difference

Firebrands: Portraits from the Americas

I was initially unimpressed by Firebrands, but that was because I approached it wrong. I tried to sit down in my living room and read it cover-to-cover, and that's not what this book is for. It's a pocket-sized compendium of amazing people—people "left out of the schoolbooks because they were too brown, too female, too poor, too queer, too uneducated, too disabled, or because they daydreamed too much." Each firebrand gets a page-long description, a lovely illustration, and a number of suggestions for further reading.

Firebrands reads somewhat like a reference book, and it could function that way—one could keep it on the shelf in case one heard the name of a lesser-known abolitionist, revolutionary, or what-have-you; then one could simply look that person up. As a blogger, though, I see it as much like a themed blog. It's best opened at random pages, read in fits and starts. It might have been interesting to include some kind of decentralized theme-organization within the book—something along the lines of a blog's tags. A few blog-inspired books have done things like that in recent years, such as the sex-positive anthology Yes Means Yes, which attaches a number of tags at the end of each essay, then lists all tags and their associated entries at the beginning of the book. (Firebrands does have a very nice index, however, so it's possible to navigate the book by themes in that way.)

Once I started reading the book at random and in small chunks, I started liking it a lot. The authors have done a great job of digging up pithy quotations and interesting anecdotes. A few entries lack vividness (it's hard to be enthralled by vague sentences like "She did a lot of community organizing"), but for the most part, these firebrands really sound inspiring. One of my favorite quotations came from the description of Latino baseball player Roberto Clemente: "Clemente's motto was, 'If you have the chance to help others and fail to do so, you are wasting your time on this earth.'" And I was charmed by an anecdote about the singer Nina Simone: "During a recital when she was twelve years old, Nina's parents were asked to relinquish their front row seats to a white family, and Simone refused to perform until her parents were returned to their original seats."

I was also impressed by the book's genuine inclusiveness—it covered a wide array of warriors, artists, leaders, and it did so while pushing beyond the typical "inclusive" boundaries. For example, as a sex-positive activist I was thrilled to note that the painter Frida Kahlo was acknowledged to be both bisexual and polyamorous.

The illustrations add a lot to Firebrands. I particularly love the images by Roger Peet. It goes with the last biography in the book, Zumbi dos Palmares, a Portuguese slave in Brazil who led an insurrection in the 1600s. Firebrands was produced by an artists' cooperative called Justseeds, and it's clear that the whole group pitched in for this book and thought carefully about each element. So you could benefit a bunch of artists by giving this charming collection as a gift! What’s not to love?

Written by: Clarisse Thorn, January 28th 2011