With May Day coming up on May 1, it’s a great time for us all to be re-inspired by Lucy Parsons, a #BlackIndian Latina resistance leader. She taught us how to resist, as she helped organize the first May Day march of 1886, setting up modern protest as we know it today. If it weren’t for Lucy, we might all be working 16 hours a day in factories from childhood on. She was an intersectional feminist and mother of the sit-down strike (sit-ins in the 1960s and Occupy most recently).
This week, we bring you Dr. Keisha Blain
Keisha N. Blain is a historian of the 20th century United States with broad interdisciplinary interests and specializations in African American History, the modern African Diaspora, and Women’s and Gender Studies. She completed a PhD in History at Princeton University. Her research interests include black internationalism, radical politics, and global feminisms. She is one of the co-developers of #Charlestonsyllabus, a crowd-sourced reading list on Twitter relating to the history of racial violence.
Blain’s research has been featured on CSPAN and her writing has appeared in several outlets including The Huffington Post and The Feminist Wire. She is currently a Visiting Research Scholar in Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Iowa. In Fall 2017, she will be an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh. She is one of the co-editors of Charleston Syllabus: Readings on Race, Racism and Racial Violence (University of Georgia Press, 2016). She is also the senior editor of Black Perspectives, a popular academic blog published by the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS). Follow her on Twitter @KeishaBlain.
Tell us about your background and how you got started with your calling in life.
I grew up in a tight-knit community of individuals with a sophisticated and nuanced understanding of the world in which they lived. My mother fostered a rich intellectual environment that fueled my interest in global issues at a very young age. She encouraged my desire to read and exposed me to a wealth of books on diverse topics, peoples, and cultures.
I did not set out to become a historian—I had plans to become an attorney but I decided to take a history course as an undergrad to fulfill a general education requirement. That decision changed the course of my life. One history class quickly became two and before long, I could hardly imagine doing anything else but studying history. Through careful mentoring, I found my calling to become a history professor.
What do you identify with about Lucy Parsons?
In her book, White Enough to be American, scholar Lauren L. Basson describes Lucy Parsons as someone who had the “ability to transcend racial and gender barriers and achieve a powerful, oppositional political voice threatened conventional definitions of the sociopolitical order.” In all aspects of my writing, teaching, research, and service, I try to be a force for change even in spaces where my ideas are not always valued. Like Parsons, I try to speak out against injustice and thereby seek to challenge the social order (in the academy and beyond).
What are your proudest moments?
I am most proud of completing my PhD in History. I vowed to finish in 5 years and despite many naysayers who suggested it was not a feasible plan (since it generally takes longer), I was able to accomplish this goal. It was not easy by any stretch of the imagination—and in some ways by setting the 5 year goal I added more pressure on myself— but the experience taught me that it’s OK to dream big. Sometimes we surprise ourselves in the process.
What have your biggest challenges been and what do you anticipate in the future?
One of the biggest challenges is dealing with the daily criticisms and sometimes vile responses to the kind of work that I do. One op-ed, for example, could result in a barrage of emails—and even phone calls—from people who do not appreciate my frankness about topics like race and racism. I am learning from my mentors how to better manage these kinds of responses and I suspect I’ll need to be ready for more in the years to come. This is par for the course.
How are you using your voice? And how are you helping others do the same?
As an educator, I am committed to expanding the knowledge of others. As I learn, I am eager to teach others and that is evident in the kinds of things that I do. I create public reading lists and syllabi, for example, because they provide opportunities for me to share resources with others—especially those who want the information but have no idea where to look. I love writing so I am always writing but even more, I am always trying to come up with new ways to help others advance their own writing. For this reason, I am always reaching out to scholars—especially other junior scholars of color—to ask them to write for various public venues or contribute a piece to a volume or special issue I am editing. In this way, I am trying to create opportunities for others to get published because I fully understand how difficult that can be. In this regard, I am trying as best as I can to follow in the footsteps of my mentors who did (and continue to do) the same for me.
What do you want to change in the world? And how will you do it?
My desire is to use my talents and abilities as a writer, teacher, and scholar to help create a more just and equal society. As a historian, I recognize the significance of knowing our past in order to understand our present—as we devise strategies for a better future. I believe that knowledge empowers us to do better and to be better so I will continue to write with urgency about the key issues of our time. I will strive to be innovative and push beyond the boundaries that others have set in the academy and beyond. I will collaborate with others who challenge me and thus help me refine my ideas. Most of all, I will listen and be open to learning from others.
What’s next for you?
I recently completed a book entitled Set the World On Fire: Black Nationalist Women and Global Struggles for Freedom. It will be published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 2018. I am now working on two book projects (at different stages): one on black women’s engagement in Afro-Asian political movements and another on black women’s activism surrounding police violence and brutality. These are all different books. Yet they collectively shed light on my overall research objectives. My hope is that all of these projects will enrich our understandings of how black women—particularly members of the working poor and individuals with limited formal education— have functioned as key leaders, theorists, and strategists, and have worked to transform American society and improve conditions for people of color across the globe.
If you feel Lucy Parsons’ spirit of resistance lives in you, get in touch! We’d love to hear about you and your activism.