The Berkshire Conference of Women Historians award for a first book that deals substantially with the history of women, gender, and/or sexuality goes to Keisha N. Blain, Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018). Earlier this spring, the book had already been awarded the Organization of American Historians' 2019 Darlene Clark Hine Award, given annually for the best book in African American women’s and gender history.
Beautifully written and analytically and historically innovative, Blain’s book demonstrates how a supposedly “failed movement,” the activism of black nationalist women who challenged white supremacy and advocated for full citizenship and human rights for people of African descent, could nonetheless offer important sources of identity, voice, and power to the women who constituted it. With deftness and superior historical skill, Blain embraces difficult topics – such as the alliances forged between white supremacists and black nationalists around emigration campaigns – to demonstrate how these moments of dissociation and dissonance offered space for the creation of novel forms of feminist thought within black nationalist and internationalist traditions. From prison cells and community centers, and from the steps of the U.S. Capitol and the center of Trafalgar Square, Blain’s female historical actors fought for a black nationalism that was constituted on their own terms. Featuring an impressive archive and transnational in scope, every single chapter in this book offers serious interventions, contributions, and reinterpretations of familiar historical narratives. Set the World on Fire helps us to better understand and grapple with the contradictions and struggles that often arise in our most important and most meaningful political movements.