Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom 

(University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018)


In 1932, Mittie Maude Lena Gordon spoke to a crowd of black Chicagoans at the old Jack Johnson boxing ring, rallying their support for emigration to West Africa. In 1937, Celia Jane Allen traveled to Jim Crow Mississippi to organize rural black workers around black nationalist causes. In the late 1940s, from her home in Kingston, Jamaica, Amy Jacques Garvey launched an extensive letter-writing campaign to defend the Greater Liberia Bill, which would relocate 13 million black Americans to West Africa.

Gordon, Allen, and Jacques Garvey—as well as Maymie De Mena, Ethel Collins, Amy Ashwood, and Ethel Waddell—are part of an overlooked and understudied group of black women who take center stage in Set the World on Fire, the first book to examine how black nationalist women engaged in national and global politics from the early twentieth century to the 1960s. Historians of the era generally portray the period between the Garvey movement of the 1920s and the Black Power movement of the 1960s as an era of declining black nationalist activism, but Keisha N. Blain reframes the Great Depression, World War II, and early Cold War as significant eras of black nationalist—and particularly, black nationalist women’s—ferment.

In Chicago, Harlem, and the Mississippi Delta, from Britain to Jamaica, these women built alliances with people of color around the globe, agitating for the rights and liberation of black people in the United States and across the African diaspora. As pragmatic activists, they employed multiple protest strategies and tactics, combined numerous religious and political ideologies, and forged unlikely alliances in their struggles for freedom. Drawing on a variety of previously untapped sources, including newspapers, government records, songs, and poetry, Set the World on Fire highlights the flexibility, adaptability, and experimentation of black women leaders who demanded equal recognition and participation in global civil society.

Table of Contents

Introduction [click here to download*]

Chapter One: Women Pioneers in the Garvey Movement

Chapter Two: The Struggle for Black Emigration

Chapter Three: Organizing in the Jim Crow South

Chapter Four: Dreaming of Liberia

Chapter Five: Pan-Africanism and Anticolonial Politics

Chapter Six: Breaks, Transitions, and Continuities


Advance Praise

Keisha N. Blain has approached black nationalism from an altogether new direction. She reconstitutes the post-Garvey nationalist organizations and demonstrates how they contributed to keeping black nationalism alive between the late 1920s and the 1960s. She proves that women led these groups (one reason that they were invisible), and she argues that black nationalism had significant power as an organizing ideology and that it fed into a new Pan-Africanism during and after World War II. All of this is well done in a satisfying way.

~Glenda Gilmore, author of Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1919-1950

 Click here to read the introduction*

*This is an unedited draft, not for citation, of an excerpt of Keisha N. Blain’s Set the World on Fire. The book will be published in Penn’s “Politics and Culture in Modern America”  series in February 2018. Please check this page for frequent updates.