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Each week at In The Past Lane, the American history podcast, host and Historian-at-Large, Edward T. O’Donnell, brings you news, stories, interviews, and special features on all things U.S. history. His aim is to be both engaging and thought-provoking, inspired by the notion that history explains the world we live in and provides insights into how to achieve a more prosperous, peaceful, and just future. So come along with us as we journey In The Past Lane.  

Feb 1, 2019

This week at In The Past Lane, the American History podcast, we look at the largely unknown story of Black nationalist women in the struggle for freedom, equality, and justice in the mid-20th century. To explain this history, I speak with historian Keisha N. Blain about her new book, “Set The World On Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom.” As she explains, in the 30+ years before the emergence of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, women like Amy Jacques Garvey. Mittie Maude Lena Gordon, Celia Jane Allen, and Audley "Queen Mother" Moore kept alive and broadened the reach of black nationalist thought and activism. 

So just what is black nationalism? According to Keisha N. Blain, it’s “the political view that people of African descent constitute a separate group or nationality on the basis of their distinct culture, shared history, and experiences.” Over the last nearly 200 years, black nationalists have advocated a wide range of initiatives, including back to Africa movements, anti-colonialism, racial separatism, black pride, political self-determination, and economic self-sufficiency.

In the United States, black nationalism has its origins in the late 1820s and 1830s with the writings of David Walker and Maria Stewart. They were followed in each succeeding generation by new advocates of black liberation, self-determination, and racial pride – people like Bishop Henry Turner. Black nationalism reached a high point of popularity among African-Americans and recognition by white Americans in the early 20th century when a Jamaican immigrant named Marcus Garvey launched an organization called the Universal Negro Improvement Association in 1914. His goal was to unify people of African descent worldwide and to encourage the migration of African-Americans to move to the African nation of Liberia. But 1920 Garvey’s organization counted some 4 million members who were attracted by his message of black liberation.

But this was the 1920s, at the height of white supremacy and Jim Crow. So it wasn’t long before J. Edgar Hoover, head of the Bureau of Investigation – the precursor to the FBI –decided to bring Garvey down. Garvey was charged with committing mail fraud, convicted, and sentenced to five years in prison. When he was released in 1928 he was immediately deported back to Jamaica.

In the traditional history of black nationalism in the United States, it’s said that after Garvey’s downfall, black nationalism in the US went fallow for the next 30+ years until it re-emerged – seemingly out of nowhere – with the appearance of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam and the Black Panthers in the 1960s.

But now, with the publication of Keisha Blain’s new book, we know this is to be untrue. Black nationalism did not go into hibernation. It was kept alive, both in the US and internationally, through the efforts of black nationalist women in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.


Keisha Blain teaches history at the University of Pittsburgh and serves as editor-in-chief of The North Star, a recently re-booted version of Frederick Douglass’ 1847 newspaper of the same name. She’s also the editor of a collection of essays and resources titled, Charleston Syllabus: Readings on Race, Racism, and Racial Violence. In this episode she talks about her latest book, Set the World On Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom.

Recommended reading

Keisha N. Blain, Set The World On Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom (U. Penn Press, 2018)

Wilson J. Moses, Classical Black Nationalism: From the American Revolution to Marcus Garvey

Jeffrey O. G. Ogbar, Black Power: Radical Politics and African American Identity

Ula Yvette Taylor, The Veiled Garvey: The Life and Times of Amy Jacques Garvey

William L. Van Deburg, Modern Black Nationalism: From Marcus Garvey to Louis Farrakhan

More info about Keisha N. Blain - website 

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Music for This Episode

Jay Graham, ITPL Intro (

Kevin McCleod, “Impact Moderato” (Free Music Archive)

Andy Cohen, “Trophy Endorphins” (Free Music Archive)

Ketsa, “Stay the Course” (Free Music Archive)

Jon Luc Hefferman, “Winter Trek” (Free Music Archive)

The Bell, “I Am History” (Free Music Archive)

Production Credits

Executive Producer: Lulu Spencer 

Technical Advisors: Holly Hunt and Jesse Anderson

Podcasting Consultant: Dave Jackson of the School of Podcasting

Podcast Editing: Wildstyle Media

Photographer: John Buckingham

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© In The Past Lane, 2019

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