Autobiography as Activism

Autobiography as Activism: Three Black Women of the Sixties

Margo V. Perkins
Copyright Date: 2000
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt2tvm23
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  • Book Info
    Autobiography as Activism
    Book Description:

    A study of three Black Power narratives as instruments for radical social change

    Angela Davis, Assata Shakur (a.k.a. JoAnne Chesimard), and Elaine Brown are the only women activists of the Black Power movement who have published book-length autobiographies. In bearing witness to that era, these militant newsmakers wrote in part to educate and to mobilize their anticipated readers.

    In this way, Davis'sAngela Davis: An Autobiography(1974), Shakur'sAssata(1987), and Brown'sA Taste of Power: A Black Woman's Story(1992) can all be read as extensions of the writers' political activism during the 1960s.

    Margo V. Perkins's critical analysis of their books is less a history of the movement (or of women's involvement in it) than an exploration of the politics of storytelling for activists who choose to write their lives. Perkins examines how activists use autobiography to connect their lives to those of other activists across historical periods, to emphasize the link between the personal and the political, and to construct an alternative history that challenges dominant or conventional ways of knowing.

    The histories constructed by these three women call attention to the experiences of women in revolutionary struggle, particularly to the ways their experiences have differed from men's. The women's stories are told from different perspectives and provide different insights into a movement that has been much studied from the masculine perspective. At times they fill in, complement, challenge, or converse with the stories told by their male counterparts, and in doing so, hint at how the present and future can be made less catastrophic because of women's involvement.

    The multiple complexities of the Black Power movement become evident in reading these women's narratives against each other as well as against the sometimes strikingly different accounts of their male counterparts.

    As Davis, Shakur, and Brown recount events in their lives, they dispute mainstream assumptions about race, class, and gender and reveal how the Black Power struggle profoundly shaped their respective identities.

    Recipient of Mississippi University for Women's Eudora Welty Prize, 1999

    Margo V. Perkins is an assistant professor of English and American studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-735-6
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. xi-xx)

    Thirty years after its demise, both the story and the legacy of the Black Power Movement in the United States remain deeply contested. The recent proliferation of works by or about the period from the late 1960s through the early 1970s coincides with the first historical moment in which the country has gained enough emotional and intellectual distance to prepare for thoughtful, if not yet dispassionate, assessments of this turbulent era. An outgrowth of the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power Movement was the logical response to America’s continued recalcitrance and oppression of African Americans despite a protracted and well-orchestrated...

  5. Chapter 1 “I am We”: Black Women Activists Writing Autobiography
    (pp. 1-20)

    As African American women intimately involved in the Black Power Movement in the United States during the late 1960s and early 1970s, Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, and Elaine Brown all shared a commitment to radical leftist politics and the building of a society free of race and class oppression. Disinclined to seek concessions within the existing socioeconomic structure, each participated in forms of revolutionary activism that sought to expose and aggressively challenge the structural underpinnings of race and class oppression in the United States. To date, they are the only women activists of the Black Power Movement to produce book-length...

  6. Chapter 2 Literary Antecedents in the Struggle for Freedom
    (pp. 21-40)

    The history of African American writing bears witness not only to the experience of oppression, but just as importantly, to a continuum of individual and collective resistance. This continuum, or movement toward liberation, has always consisted of many different impulses. Historian Vincent Harding used the metaphor of a river with many currents to symbolize the diverse ideologies informing African American resistance struggle from the eighteenth through the nineteenth century. InThere Is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America, Harding argued that by the beginning of the eighteenth century, “many basic currents in the black river” were in...

  7. Chapter 3 On Becoming: Activists’ Reflections on Their Formative Experiences
    (pp. 41-69)

    There is perhaps no literary form more conducive than autobiography to activists’ efforts to emphatically link the personal to the political. In her essay, “Feminist Politicization: A Comment,” bell hooks proposes that “[t]here is much exciting work to be done when we use confession and memory as a way to theorize experience, to deepen our awareness, as part of the process of radical politicization” (hooks,Talking Back, 110). The autobiographical form allows activists to offer as models—for understanding, imitating, and critiquing—their own processes of coming into revolutionary consciousness. Narratives like Davis’s, Shakur’s, and Brown’s, as hooks might argue,...

  8. Chapter 4 Autobiography as Political/Personal Intervention
    (pp. 70-100)

    Like other writers of resistance narratives, Davis, Shakur, and Brown fashion autobiographies that are extensions of their political work. A salient characteristic of resistance narratives is the challenge they pose to hegemonic history. In writing their lives, activists seek to document their experiences, to correct misinformation, to educate their readers, and to encourage the continuation of struggle. As Barbara Harlow has noted: “The connection between knowledge and power, the awareness of the exploitation of knowledge by the interests of power to create a distorted historical record, is central to resistance narratives” (Harlow,Resistance, 116). Harlow further asserts that the struggle...

  9. Chapter 5 Gender and Power Dynamics in 1960s Black Nationalist Struggle
    (pp. 101-130)

    In Pratibha Parmar’s 1992 film,A Place of Rage, African American poet, essayist, and activist June Jordan shares her recollection of the ways the spirit of nationalism that was so pervasive during the Black Power Movement informed practices and modes of thought that were sometimes quite repressive. She recalls, for example, conversations in which Black women, eager to show support for Black men, actually debated the appropriate distance they ought to walk behind their men. Jordan also recalls, on other occasions, the racist assumptions implicit in Black activists’ dubious attempts to define an essential or authentic Black identity. The fact...

  10. Chapter 6 Reading Intertextually: Black Power Narratives Then and Now
    (pp. 131-148)

    Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of reading the autobiographies published over the last two decades by Black Power activists is the extent to which the texts appear collectively to converse with each other, as well as with their anticipated readership. That is, the critical gaze of the writers is focused not only externally, but also internally, on the dynamics inside the Movement. Within the Movement, the women talk to the men, for example, while later narratives often challenge the recollections of accounts published earlier. Sometimes the intertextual dialogue is explicit (as when Davis engages George Jackson or when Kathleen Cleaver...

  11. Epilogue
    (pp. 149-150)

    The autobiographies by women activists of the Black Power Movement have much to offer readers as we approach the dawn of a new millennium. While progressive change has certainly altered the American social landscape since the turbulent 1960s and early 1970s, there is much work yet to be done toward the eradication of social injustice and inequality. Without constant vigilance and willingness to struggle against myriad forms of domination (including racism, xenophobia, sexism, and homophobia), the gains that many fought so hard for stand to be lost. In stressing the importance of critical literacy Davis, Brown, and Shakur call attention...

  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 151-158)
  13. Index
    (pp. 159-161)