Keisha N. Blain
Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America
Beacon Press, 2021
Reviewed by Joshua L. Crutchfield
“The personal is political” became a popular adage for activists and intellectuals within the Women’s Liberation Movement during the late 1960s and early 1970s. The phrase underscored the relationship between our intimate lives and public politics. Not only do our personal beliefs, convictions, and intimate relationships impact our politics, but our political systems also deeply invade our lives. A cursory glance at racial disparities within the United States reveals the aforementioned truths to be particularly accurate for black folks. Throughout the history of the United States, black unemployment has consistently doubled the national average. In addition, despite medical advances, black women still experience infant mortality and death during childbirth at disproportionate rates. Slavery, segregation, and mass incarceration fostered anti-black conditions that have kept black folks on the lowest tier of the social and political economy and consequently impacted black peoples’ physical and mental health and possible life outcomes. Political organizers like Fannie Lou Hamer were keenly aware of this reality, and through her activism and political thought, she established clear connections between the struggle to abolish oppressive systems and the improvement of black people’s material and spiritual well-being.
In Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America, historian Keisha N. Blain contends that Fannie Lou Hamer’s activism and ideas are crucial sites of intellectual production to draw from when considering ongoing social justice issues. Just as contemporary activists continue to grapple with problems around state-sanctioned violence, voting rights, and reproductive justice, Hamer also wrestled with these issues throughout her years as an organizer. Blain illuminates the relationship between Hamer’s ideas and our ongoing political discourse through short opening vignettes in each chapter that highlight how society and activists still engage with problems around which Hamer theorized and organized decades ago. In employing a point of connection between the unresolved past and present issues, Blain brilliantly suggests that while the context of the problems we face in society may have changed, our most pressing issues resemble those black women like Hamer faced years ago. In six short chapters, Blain argues that Hamer’s evoking ideas about freedom and self-determination still resonate as we take on today’s challenges.
In the first two chapters, Blain situates Hamer within the political milieu of black southern sharecroppers, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) student civil rights workers, white police, and white property owners. Hamer was born in Jim Crow, Mississippi, and like other poor and working-class black Mississippians, she was sent to the cotton fields at an early age—six years old. Poverty was a constant presence in Hamer’s life, and until SNCC students began organizing voting drives in Mississippi, it kept Hamer and other sharecroppers from participating in the formal political process. At forty-two, Hamer attended one of SNCC’s mass meetings and learned that she had the ‘right’ to vote. That SNCC meeting changed Hamer’s life, and she began her activist career. As Blain’s second chapter illustrates, the fact that Hamer and many other black sharecroppers in Mississippi were unaware of their rights was because state officials set up a political and economic system that kept black folks tied to the land and working in the fields. The capacity of Mississippi’s black sharecroppers to earn a meager living depended on them remaining docile and politically unaware. This oppressive Jim Crow system was supported by both legal and extralegal means. As a result of her subsequent activism of registering voters in Mississippi, police sexually assaulted Hamer, and her boss forced her out of her home. Drawing attention to Hamer’s experience with racialized and sexualized violence, Blain highlights black women’s experiences while organizing during the Civil Rights Movement.
As Blain notes in Chapters Three and Four, attention to Hamer’s positionality as a poor black woman organizer illuminates how black women faced anti-black, classist, and sexist hurdles from without and within the era’s freedom movement circles. At many junctures during her activist career, Hamer challenged the idea that leadership only derived from middle-class black men or white women. For example, during the 1964 Democratic National Convention, Hamer traveled to Atlantic City to represent the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). She refused to broker a compromise that would have given the MFDP two non-voting delegates, even as other mainstream male leaders like representative Adam Clayton Powel Jr. urged her to compromise because compromise was how ‘real’ politics operated. Not only did Hamer face sexist and classist assumptions from black men within the movement, but her positionality as a black woman often placed her at odds with the mainstream Women’s Liberation Movement. Hamer reasoned that white, mainstream feminists were fighting for access into a workplace that black women had long been forced into. Although Hamer maintained that the Women’s Liberation Movement had not confronted its own racism, she consistently advocated for women’s roles as leaders in politics and within movement spaces. As Blain points out, Hamer’s life demonstrates that although many black women did not embrace mainstream feminism, they nonetheless contributed to an inclusive black feminist politics.
Finally, Blain’s final two chapters discuss Hamer’s international thinking and its connection to the activism toward the end of her life. According to Blain, Hamer was part of a wave of black American activists who traveled to newly independent African countries during the mid-twentieth century. As an example, Hamer traveled to Guinea with a cadre of SNCC workers. While there, she met with Guinean President Sékou Touré and other Guinean officials and activists. The trip transformed Hamer’s thinking, and she returned to Mississippi with a new analysis of her local struggle. She connected black people’s freedom struggles in Mississippi with black people’s global struggle for freedom and self-determination. Hamer’s trip abroad also encouraged her own sense of self-determination. Similar to the business cooperatives that President Sékou Touré promoted in the newly-independent Guinea, Hamer returned to the United States and formed the Freedom Farm Cooperative. The cooperative provided food, work, and even homes for residents in Hamer’s rural community in Mississippi. As Blain notes, Hamer developed a collective notion of liberation that positioned her freedom as bound to the freedom of others.
Blain joins a growing wave of scholars reinterpreting mid-twentieth-century freedom narratives by highlighting black women’s intellectual contributions to those movements. With the recognition of black women theorists like Hamer, scholars can chronicle the overlap among movements and activists during the 1960s and 1970s. Moreover, Blain’s Until I Am Free demonstrates how scholars might construct what C.L.R. James calls “history of our time,” or histories contributing to our contemporary understanding of oppression and freedom. Blain’s rendering of Hamer maintains that another future is possible, and we don’t have to start from scratch. The ideas of those who came before us, such as those of Fannie Lou Hamer, are bountiful and filled with possibilities of how we might move forward.