Elevate Difference

Want to Start a Revolution?: Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle

Can African American liberation be understood without easy binaries: nonviolent civil disobedience vs. armed self-defense, integration vs. Black nationalism, MLK vs. Malcolm X? Can the history of feminism be written without effacing the contributions of Black feminists and other people of color? As Want to Start a Revolution? shows, foregrounding the work of women in Black liberation immediately problematizes these simple classifications. The cover photo of Rosa Parks admiring a poster of Malcolm X is, as the editors write, "an essay in and of itself." Although commonly associated with the Montgomery bus boycott and Martin Luther King, Jr., Parks supported both King and Malcolm, and her activism spanned decades before and after Montgomery.

By profiling several different activists in a series of fourteen essays, Want to Start a Revolution? builds a complex and fluid picture of Black women's activism. These women stood at the intersection of racial, sexual, and class oppression, and often devoted themselves to working on all three fronts. A chapter on Johnnie Tillmon and the welfare rights movement explores this theme of poor Black women's triple exploitation, and Esther Cooper Jackson, the subject of the first chapter, directly addressed this triad in her 1940 thesis, "The Negro Woman Domestic Worker in Relation to Trade Unionism."

The editors set the goal of avoiding "dominance through mentioning," historiography that acknowledges the contributions of women and the relevance of feminism without offering serious consideration. On that goal, this book must be judged a success. We get history from the Black female point of view, and encounter famous Black men only through their associations with women of color, such as Cooper Jackson, Parks, and Yuri Kochiyama.

The editors arranged the essays to build off one another. A chapter on the Black Panthers' Oakland Community School, for instance, is followed by a chapter on Bambara's The Black Woman, an anthology that responded to the conceptualization of Black power as the re-masculation of Black men. Women within the Black power movement struggled with the sexism of fellow male activists, and the second half of the book is dominated by female activists' fraught relationship to Black nationalism.

Want to Start a Revolution? challenge gendered notions of what male and female activists do. The book demonstrates that plenty of women played roles typically occupied by men—charismatic leader, theorist, party official, politician, lawyer, revolutionary, and political prisoner—and the book questions a narrative of social change that privileges fiery speeches and flashy demonstrations over day-to-day educating, social service, and relationship nurturing done by both men and women.

Kochiyama, a Japanese American who organized for the Panthers, and Denise Oliver, an African American who rose to leadership positions among Puerto Rican militants, also complicate the supposed racial exclusivity of the movements, and further cross-pollination existed in the militancy and use of direct action tactics by Black nationalists and radical feminists. Fears of genocide and forced sterilization racialized debates around reproductive rights, and feminist ideals of self-love, self-determination, and self-sufficiency resonated with Black women.

As in any collection, the book's chapters are somewhat uneven. A few of the essays are more celebratory than analytic while others are too academic for a general audience or take on too much material for a twenty-page essay. All in all, the editors accomplish their goals to inform, inspire, and reconsider what we thought we knew about Black liberation and feminism.

Written by: Charlotte Malerich, March 29th 2010