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‘Black Women Are, Always Have Been, and Will Continue To Be the Leaders’

Discourses with: historian Ashley D. Farmer on Black women, Black radicalism, and Black history.

Kelly Davidson

Every marker of time feels noteworthy in the middle of a global pandemic, but as we approach the first anniversary of when everything changed in America, Black History Month is one of the last occasions we’re experiencing for the first time in lockdown. The month-long holiday has long been observed in conjunction with IRL events, but in 2021, the celebration is happening almost entirely online. It’s also the first Black History Month following the murder of George Floyd and the massive, worldwide Black Lives Matter protests that followed. And while America’s racial reckoning still has billions of miles to go, it’s a particularly interesting time to think about what it means to look back on the history of Black Americans, and how that might inform us as we look ahead. 

Dr. Ashley D. Farmer is a professional at doing just that. She’s a historian of Black women’s history, intellectual history, and radical politics, and an assistant professor in the Departments of History and African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She is also the author of Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era

I spoke with Farmer, who lives in Austin, last week. We discussed the history of Black radicalism, the women who helped shape the Black Power movement, the mythmaking of American history, our age of misinformation, and inevitably, Twitter. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

I wanted to start by talking a little bit about Remaking Black Power. How did the idea for the book come together and how did you approach it? 

It came out of my interest in studying Black women intellectuals. I had actually thought that I would study a group called the Third World Women’s Alliance, which grew out of an organizing group called the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and took a distinctly intersectional approach to organizing and also an internationalist approach. But over time as I started talking to these women, many of whom are still alive today, they told me that if I wanted to fully understand how such a group came together, I’d have to really explain and explore the previous 50 years of Black radical organizing through women. So I ended up kind of going backwards and studying Black women activist intellectuals from the 1950s through the Third World Women’s Alliance around 1980, and thinking about them not only as people that really took Black Power and Black radicalism seriously as followers, but also, what would it mean to really think about the ways in which they really were the progenitors of this thought? I say in the book often, we have this interesting dichotomy of “men theorized and women organized,” and that is not only not true, but also just doesn’t really get at why so many people bought into an idea like Black radicalism or Black power.

I’m really interested in this idea that you write about how women within the movement were doing this critical and innovative thinking about things like womanhood, gender roles, and the patriarchy, and how that quest ended up having broader effects on the Black Power movement. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about this idea of the “gender imaginary,” which I think is such an interesting concept. 

I should be clear, it’s not my concept—I borrowed it from Alice Kessler Harris. But so, the idea of who we want to be and how we’re supposed to act takes place across many planes: racial, economic, and including gender. We have ideas about how women and men are supposed to act and then that’s mediated by race. We have ideas about how Black men and Black women are supposed to act. And the argument here is that one of the key ways in which oppression works—to paraphrase a wonderful literary theorist named Saidiya Hartman—is that a lot of the work of repression is repressing the imagination. I was really interested in thinking about how people might imagine themselves differently and how that can be a first step to both politicize, theorize, and imagine different worlds of being. Because if you can’t even imagine it, how do you actualize it? 

So, the book is really concerned with thinking about how Black women imagine themselves differently and combining this idea with the central principles of Black power and what kind of women they want to be in the world. And as I say in the book, sometimes they were utopian and symbolic, but they were never devoid of political implications. They were very much a conduit, I argue, through which people started to think about how they could be different in the world and how the world could be different. 

Do you think that’s something that’s at play in current activism and the Black Lives Matter movement, or was there something specific about it for those women in that place in time? 

Let me tell you, Black people don’t really know a modern world without oppression, right? So, in order to even have an idea of what you want to work towards, you have to have a political imagination. I mean, that’s a huge terrain of reimagining and rethinking possibilities of how we could organize the world, our societies, our relationships to each other, our economy. We have to be imaginative about them because we don’t have a lot of models for how we can exist as is. So I think it’s a key part of any part of Black liberation and it certainly is part of one today. And, you know, there was a time when somebody would’ve imagined a world much like the one I live in today. At one point this was something that was strictly an imaginative idea. 

But the imagination gives you something to work towards. And it helps you organize a set of principles. It’s a compass towards where you want to be. And it teaches you how to take intermediate steps in the meantime. So for today’s activists, you know, you have to go big and you have to imagine the world you want, and you just have to take incremental steps to be there. I think a perfect example of this is abolition. Most people who are avid abolitionists know that abolition for prisons is not coming tomorrow, but in imagining that world, it helps give you a compass for which ways you want to go, which reforms you want to take, which ones you don’t, which ways you want to organize it, and who you want to organize with. 

In reality, everybody is politicized in their own time. And when we find ourselves in that moment, we all have a set of choices to make. The power behind movements is politicizing those people and supporting them when they make choices that are courageous.  

Ashley D. Farmer

In thinking about organizing and messaging, you also write about this idea of visual representation, which is something I was thinking about before we started talking because of Judas and the Black Messiah. So much of history foregrounds men, and it seems like perhaps the popular history of Black radicalism also foregrounds man. I wonder what you think about that as someone who’s written about the history of women and radicalism within the Black Panthers?  

What I would say is this: I’m glad to see people like Fred Hampton getting their due. I think even though he was young, he was not only somebody that imagined a different world, but really tried to put that into effect with his Rainbow Coalition, I do think that women play a more prominent role in the movie than we would have seen even 10 or 15 years ago, but there’s still a missed opportunity on several fronts in terms of women. Fred Hampton was actually relatively known for having egalitarian gender politics. The Chicago chapter was one in which many women functioned in formal roles and high-ranking roles. Chicago was known for being more progressive than others. So I think there’s a missed opportunity in that. But what’s probably the most frustrating part is the framing of the story through the eyes of an FBI agent as the primary way of understanding and introducing people to Fred and his politics, you know? Fred’s death and surveillance isn’t what’s most spectacular about him. 

In terms of the representation of women in these grassroots movements today—I know we don’t have the long lens of history to look back on the current moment we’re in—but I wonder if you think that the representation of women in the current social justice movement is different than how it was, you know, say 50 years ago or so. 

I do think we are still looking for a kind of a “great man,” you know? A la Martin and Malcolm. I often hear people say, “why don’t we have any leaders?” And it’s simply just not true. What they need is a certain kind of leader that looks like that. But I do think that we are more willing to recognize that Black women are, always have been, and will continue to be the leaders of these grassroots movements. We recognize that something like Black Lives Matter is a Black woman-started thing, and a Black, queer women-started thing at that. And, you know, I think this is obviously the job of scholars like me to document their importance. And I do think that people who are interested in and document that have more access to platforms to do that. So I do see a shift. Is it as much of a shift as I would like? No. But I do see a shift. 

I wonder how you approach that too, as a historian. You’re someone who looks at the past, but obviously your area of focus is also something that feels very present. I wonder how you think about framing those things now for people in the future.

Well, you know, when I talk about these things, I often talk about historical context. Obviously nothing is a hundred percent the same. Historical reality matters and I can recognize that there are real differences between how I, as a Black woman in 2021 live versus a black woman in 1930. That’s different. But that being said, the expressions of racism, sexism, patriarchy, homophobia—all those things that that woman in 1930 lived under still apply to me today in different ways. So the key here as a historian, I think, is to draw the connections that show the continuities and oppressive structures while being attentive to the different ways in which those structures are expressing that oppression in that particular moment.  

Related to that idea of the past informing the present, I want to talk a little about Black History Month. I was reading a piece in The New York Times the other week about about Rosa Parks, and in the piece, Professor Jeanne Theoharis writes, “Much of what people learn about Mrs. Parks is narrow, distorted, or just plain wrong,” and she talks about how the “fable” of Parks obscures her long legacy of activism, and what a dangerous thing that can be. I wonder if you have thoughts on that as a chronicler of radicalism and activism among Black women in American history? 

Yeah, Jeanne Theoharis has done much work righting all of our understandings—even historians’ understandings—of Rosa Parks, and has done a great job of that. And you know, there’s huge dangers, right? Whenever we reduce people to one set of politics, we don’t allow people to change over time or grow as organizers or intellectuals. So, Rosa Parks, for example, had a variety of politics that developed over time. Or King, right? You know, we see him move into imperialism, class consciousness, and anti-Vietnam War as he gets older, but he’s always frozen in “I Have a Dream.” So, we missed that evolution, which is really important for capturing the complexity of ideas that leaders and organizers put forth. 

The second thing is, when you engage in this myth-making, it makes these people seem inaccessible. All of these people that we revere had extraordinary courage and bravery, there’s no doubt about that. But they weren’t born or destined to be that way. They were politicized and then found themselves in a moment and made a set of choices. We’re all capable of doing that. But when we put people beyond the glass shield and say, “look at this person,” and you only give them just that one moment where they showed an insurmountable act of courage, it makes people feel like they could never be that, because you have to be so mythic and so superhuman. In reality, everybody is politicized in their own time. And when we find ourselves in that moment, we all have a set of choices to make. The power behind movements is politicizing those people and supporting them when they make choices that are courageous.  

I was also reading your recent piece about Mae Mallory and the myth that the struggle to desegregate America’s schools was concentrated in the South, which is something that, you know, I had never really thought about as being its own particular kind of framing and mythmaking. 

I know, I know. The North loves to recuse itself of anything!

Exactly! And it’s so interesting because it’s like, that’s an idea and a story I had in my head that I didn’t even fully recognize as an idea or story I had in my head. 

It’s all you ever see, right? Little Rock. That’s probably the quintessential thing. You only hear about white segregationist governors from the South, like the Dixiecrats, saying “segregation today, segregation tomorrow,” You don’t hear about all the school boards that did the exact same thing in California or New York or the Midwest. 

There’s this broader ignorance and historical misuse in public life these days, and especially on the internet. What is it like for you as a historian to process this culture of misinformation?

So, no doubt about it: It’s a huge problem. But as historians often like to remind people, it’s rare that there’s really a super special, unique thing happening. Textbooks are a perfect example, right? That’s misuse of information that’s been going on for years, since the beginning of public education. But people don’t think about that kind of misuse of information when somebody is, you know, spouting conspiracy theories. And in some ways, I find those institutionalized forms of misinformation even more damaging, and they take a lot more work in undoing when the kiddos get to me in college. I mean, I’ve had people literally in tears feeling so angry about how things have been presented to them. So, I just wanna take a moment to broaden our idea that yes, it does seem hyperacute in the age of the internet, and I think the internet does allow them to spread more quickly. But I also want to be cognizant of the fact that there are very real institutionalized ways in which misinformation is spread—and particularly historical misinformation—that we also need to be combating every day, largely through our school system and the books that we give children to read.

How do you deal with misinformation as a historian and how do you think the rest of us—readers, journalists, citizens—should approach and try to combat it?

That’s a good question, and I will say, I’m somebody who struggles with this too. But I think that you’ve really got to avoid the bandwagon of just retweeting quickly. I’ve often found myself being very moved by something on the internet, especially if it appeals to my politics, right? And then sitting back and thinking to myself, is this really true? Does this sound plausible? So typically I try to at least see if there’s a couple of other sources that can verify what I’m seeing before I engage in spreading it, just because I know it is very easy to get tricked. 

I also think that as much as the internet purports misinformation, it is a democratizing tool in terms of being able to find more accurate information, more easily. There are wonderful websites, everything from something like The Conversation to Howard Zinn’s site. I think there’s tons of online databases and ways to find reputable sources. And you know, sometimes I see people quote tweet something asking “Is this true?” It’s okay to also crowdsource information literacy as much as it is okay to crowdsource with the misinformation. 

It’s funny how the ways in which we’re more connected than ever is both great and terrible when it comes to sharing information. 

It’s a blessing and a curse, but I do think that for all the horribleness of the bird app, I do have more access to people, experts, and ideas than I have ever had in my life. Facebook isn’t going to give that to me, it’s an echo chamber. But I can follow people all over the world. I can learn about world events, and not just from the state agents, you know what I mean? Like, I really can try to parse the information better, but you do have to really be careful.

Speaking of Twitter, you’re pretty active on there, and I also saw that you do regular talks with the Association of Black Women Historians for YouTube. How do you approach the internet and the job of a historian in 2021?

I practice a very “stay in my lane” approach. I consume Twitter widely. I learn a lot of things on there, but I try not to comment on things I don’t know about. I have a corner of the store, but that’s a very small segment of what there is to know. There’s a lot of things I don’t know. I’m not an expert in a lot of things.

And then my contribution is things like what you read about Mae Mallory, things that I know, that I’ve researched, and can put out with authority, but also while saying, “Hey here’s something you might not have thought about that you could learn.” It’s not behind a paywall, it’s very accessible. I do a lot of blogging and writing in that kind of way, which I do think is one of the best things to happen in terms of our profession—us turning more outward and towards the public and sharing information that you would normally have to come to a university to get. I do think that Twitter has been an enormous source for that among historians. And I think that’s a great turn.

I want to return to Black History Month for a moment. This feels like a unique year in a lot of ways, with the pandemic, the election of Kamala Harris as Vice President, and a year of massive, sustained Black Lives Matter protests. I wonder, as we look back on Black history during this month, does this year feel different? Should our approach to looking back change in this moment for how we might look forward? 

I mean, certainly it feels different, primarily because of the pandemic. I don’t know that it feels different necessarily in terms of Black history with Kamala Harris. It’s obviously a very important milestone, but I think the pandemic and our attention on all these other different things has muted that in a way that with Obama, for example, that wasn’t the case. I also think that her being a Black woman and her being Vice President has something to do with that as well. But what I have seen—which I think is great, and I think is a product of both the protests of last year and her historic vice presidency—is a huge uptick in students looking to take classes on Black history, in particular Black women’s history. 

I think that, especially after the protests last summer and the insurrection, there’s a real sense among them that they have been told things that weren’t true or that there’s big gaps in their information. And now they are actively seeking it out. So I’ve definitely seen a rise in the number of students interested in taking classes or finding that stuff out. And I’ve gotten more emails from students or previous students coming back to me for resources on how to parse through these moments that we’re experiencing again. So that makes me hopeful. I do think that history can provide us a kind of playbook on both sides, both of white supremacy and the ways to combat it. 

But also, once you really, truly understand what happened, not the sugarcoated version—like, I tell my kids, “I’m giving you race goggles.” You can’t unsee it once you see it. Once you know the hustle, you kind of get attuned to the fact that everything’s a hustle. And what they’re really learning is, “I’ve got to look at everything with a critical eye. Nothing that has been told to me is the full truth and I have a responsibility to try to figure out the rest.” And so that’s what we try to instill in them. And I think that as these narratives of American exceptionalism and triumphant democracy, which are wholly untrue, keep failing them in real time, they’re looking for solutions to them. 

Yeah, particularly in the last year it feels like people are really looking back into history for answers and context, which is always going to be true to some extent, but also feels particular to the moment in some way. 

We are all fed American nationalism and exceptionalism. And again, you know, King, for better or worse with this arc of justice, it’s just not true. But one of the things that I think the internet and social media gives us is also the crumbling of that or the lack of veracity to that in real time. So then you have to go back to the drawing board and say, “What did I miss?” And Black history, being in large part about that exclusion, can provide a lot of answers for that. 

Is there a way in which it’s an exciting time to be a historian focusing on Black history and radical politics? 

You know, you don’t get into this unless you’re just a nerd and love it. But I will say that it is nice to see some of the stuff that we toil away at and find interesting now get center stage. As a historian, my goal certainly is to document these things because we know history belongs usually to the people who win. I always laugh on Twitter cause people are like, “history will judge these people.” I’m like, who do you think history is written by? Like if you want it written that way, you gotta write it. So, you know, I am dedicated to writing it that way. And that’s exciting because you know, all of this is not devoid of politics, obviously. We all invested in telling these stories because we feel that not only do these people have humanity and validity, but also because they have lessons to teach us for today. So it’s nice to feel like maybe more people are thinking about those lessons. 

I saw someone tweeting the other day about how history will judge the current Congress and they [writer Josh Gondelman] said something like, “I would take that idea more to heart if I could name a single senator from a hundred years ago.” 

I mean, only people who do history could name them, right? But that’s because there has been a hundred year history of trying to get you to not think about that. History is real people deciding who were the victors and how we want to frame the story. So I mean, you know, historians very much have a job to do in documenting the past and, and also the current moment so that it isn’t written as such that people look back a hundred years and see this happened and it’s framed entirely the wrong way.