Ashley D. Farmer, Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2017), 288 pp.
Ashley D. Farmer’s 2017 book, Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era is a groundbreaking account of the theorization of myriad Black women in the Black Power era, broadly defined. Spanning the period of time between 1945 and 1979, Farmer’s work turns on its head not only the male-dominated historiography of the Black Power era, but also the temporal focus of much previous scholarship. Farmer foregrounds Black women as theorists, organizing Remaking Black Power according to theoretical constructs proffered by several generations of Black women as models of Black womanhood. Ranging in scope from the “Militant Negro Domestic” to the “Third World Black Woman,” the “idealized forms of womanhood” Farmer investigates “were fluid and porous identifications that black women created, occupied, and moved between in their efforts to inch closer to freedom” (5). Positing Black women as “consummate Black Power intellectuals,” Remaking Black Power elucidates the complex ideological parameters of Black Power praxis (195).
Farmer argues that the gendered imaginings of Black women in the Black Power era were not utopian musings, but, rather, radical political experiments at the intersection of theory and activism. Heeding her own recent call to challenge “the singularity of ‘the’ archive,” Farmer draws on sources both novel and underexamined to explore in detail dozens of Black women’s intellectual approaches to liberating themselves from the “triple exploitation” of race, gender, and class oppression (Farmer, “Into the Stacks” 293).1 She begins Remaking Black Power by investigating the model of the “Militant Negro Domestic” as postulated by several Black women theorists between 1945 and 1965. Detailing the contributions of numerous Black women (especially Claudia Jones, Alice Childress, and Mae Mallory) to organizations from the Communist Party (CP) to the Sojourners for Truth and Justice and the Cultural Association for Women of African Heritage (CAWAH), Farmer takes seriously Angela Davis’s 1993 appeal for scholars to focus on radical communal work such as that undertaken by Black women domestic workers.2 In so doing, she elucidates unacknowledged origins of Black Power theorizing, such as the 1946 position of theorist and activist Claudia Jones that “th[e] dichotomy between separation and integration was a false one” (28-29).
Through her analysis of the Militant Negro Domestic, Farmer exposes the entangled mechanisms of Black dehumanization and brings to the fore the correspondingly multidimensional theorizing of Black women prior to 1966. She highlights the work of women such as Mae Mallory, a Harlem-based activist and former domestic worker from Georgia who was arrested and imprisoned in 1961 in connection with supporting Freedom Riders in Monroe, North Carolina. Years before Stokely Carmichael popularized the “Black Power” slogan and activists around the country advocated to free Huey Newton, Mallory propagated a militant Black womanhood articulated in her prison writings “Of Dogs and Men” (1962) and “Memo from a Monroe Jail” (1964). Black women theorists across the United States, Farmer asserts, continued to embrace the nexus of theory and embodiment throughout the 1960s and 1970s in ways that frequently destabilized the patriarchal strictures of conventionally acknowledged Black Power activism. Beyond the Militant Negro Domestic, Farmer analyzes the collectively-theorized models of womanhood of the “Black Revolutionary Woman,” the “African Woman,” the “Pan-African Woman,” and the “Third World Black Woman.”
Remaking Black Power highlights ways in which Black women theorists formed and expanded the conceptual and the material parameters of Black Power ideology and activism. Farmer provides rich analysis of Black Panther visual sources, including those by Seattle-based Panther artist Gayle Dickson, that forego the prototypical Black Power-era Afro, leather jacket, and rifle in favor of diverse revolutionary gender roles and identifications. Farmer argues that Black Revolutionary Woman artists and writers such as Tarika Lewis, Judy Hart, Linda Greene, and Joan Bird were disparate in terms of both ideology and the extent to which their critiques of existing revolutionary frameworks were embraced by men and women in the movement. Connecting the outward-looking intercommunal Panther phase with additional diasporic frameworks, Farmer investigates the model of the African Woman, theorized largely simultaneously with the Black Revolutionary Woman between 1965 and 1975. Farmer asserts that the women of the Us Organization, the Committee for Unified Newark (CFUN), and the Congress of African People (CAP) changed the African Woman ideal from “a conservative, patriarchal concept” based in Kawaida ideology to an emancipatory political identity grounded in tangible praxis (125-26).
Shifting from a largely nationalist focus, the final two chapters of Remaking Black Power trace the activism of Black women theorists in the context of expanded diasporic connections both real and imagined. The fourth chapter highlights the Pan-African Woman ideal as envisioned between 1972 and 1976 and pursued through events such as the 1972 All-African Women’s Conference (AAWC) and the 1974 Sixth Pan-African Congress (PAC) in Dar es Salaam. Through these events, Farmer writes, Black theorists such as Audley Moore and Sylvia L. Hill “belied conceptual frameworks that equated Pan-African liberation with the restoration of black manhood” and “highlighted the impossibility of subordinating the ‘woman question’ when charting the future of global black revolt” (150, 157-58). Their work culminated in the model of the Third World Black Woman, embraced between 1970 and 1979 as part of the Third World Women’s Alliance (TWWA) “with the goal of achieving black liberation, self-determination, and self-sufficiency through an antisexist, antiracist, and anti-imperialist agenda” (159). While ultimately collapsing real differences between the experiences of Women of Color in North America, Latin America, Africa, and Asia, Farmer argues, TWWA theorists challenged bourgeois gender constructs such as motherhood and rendered concrete Black women theorists’ long-held intellectual commitment to the practice of intersectionality.
Analyzing sources visual, textual, and self-consciously embodied, Farmer evokes a postwar world more complex than that of many histories of Black Power. Farmer’s is a world of multifarious Black women theorists committed to shaping new racial, gender, and class realities in settings from the local to the national and global. It is a world in which Black women’s disparate theories are developed and debated concurrently, a world in which governmental actors and Black men are frequently relegated to the background. A powerful account of collective theorizing and activism on the part of several generations of Black women, Remaking Black Power is a magnificent contribution to the fields of Social and Intellectual History.
Helen A. Gibson (Berlin)
 Farmer cites Louise Thompson as the first person to emphasize intersectional discrimination with the phrase “triple exploitation” in Thompson’s 1936 article on the Bronx Slave Market, “Toward a Brighter Dawn,” Woman Today (April 1936): 14, 30 (Remaking Black Power 27).