Fannie Lou Hamer and the Meaning of Freedom in Contemporary AmericaRoundup
tags: civil rights, African American history, Mississippi, Fannie Lou Hamer
Keisha N. Blain is a historian of the 20th century United States with broad interdisciplinary interests and specializations in African American History, the modern African Diaspora, and Women’s and Gender Studies. She is the author of Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018). Follow her on Twitter @KeishaBlain.
Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America was a book that I felt compelled to write. I first encountered Fannie Lou Hamer during my senior year of college. It was 2008, and I had enrolled in a class on the civil rights movement. The professor, Anne Bailey, made the strategic decision to center the voices and experiences of lesser-known activists in the movement. While we certainly engaged a variety of texts on the most iconic figures, we also spent time reading about—and reflecting on—the “ordinary” people who made the movement possible. It is in this space that I “met” Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, a woman whose story immediately captivated me. At the time, I did not even imagine I would one day write a book about her, but the encounter with Mrs. Hamer that year was a transformative experience and one that I will never forget. In the years to follow, as I worked my way through graduate school, I had the great fortune to read a biography on Hamer by Chana Kai Lee. Lee’s remarkable biography, For Freedom’s Sake: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer, gave me a window into the activist’s inner life and it powerfully captured the intersecting dynamics of race, gender, and class during the twentieth century. I would not have been able to write Until I am Free without Lee’s groundbreaking scholarship—which provided a brilliant model—as well as the significant contributions of several other scholars, including Maegan Parker Brooks, Davis W. Houck, and the late Kay Wright Mills.
During the 2020 uprisings, it became clear to me that I needed to write a book on Fannie Lou Hamer. Just a year before, I had written an article on Hamer for Time Magazine. The response to the piece was very positive—so many people resonated with my engagement of Hamer’s ideas, and they were especially moved by the way I had drawn on Hamer’s words and life experience to make observations about the current moment. “The fight for equality seems never-ending and the roadblocks are many,” I argued in Time, “but Hamer’s words offer much-needed guidance, direction and determination: faith without action is dead.” While I had envisioned the article as a piece others would read and connect with, I realized that it was also an article for me. Like so many other Black people living in the United States, I struggled to find my way under the weight of a seemingly never-ending cycle of violence directed toward Black people. These realities, combined with the myriad of troubling developments under the Trump presidency, was enough to make me discouraged. And I know that so many others were discouraged too. How could I respond? And how might I be able to draw upon my training as a professional historian to offer something useful in this moment?
The answer became increasingly clear as more people asked me to say more about Fannie Lou Hamer. The uprisings of 2020 against state-sanctioned violence and the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 diagnoses and deaths in Black and Brown communities brought on a renewed sense of urgency for me. The more I read Hamer’s words, the more clarity I found—clarity about how I might move forward; clarity about how we might respond individually and collectively to racial injustice in this country. While there is often an emphasis on what’s “new” and seemingly “original” in our society, I was compelled to look back in order to look forward. In other words, I was reminded that some of the answers we seek can be found in returning to the freedom fighters who came before us. What did Fannie Lou Hamer think about state-sanctioned violence? How did she seek to bring it to an end? What strategies and tactics did she employ in her lifetime to respond to a number of social issues? Which strategies “worked” and how might they work for us today? Ultimately, I settled on writing a book that would answer one question that I had been grappling with for some time: “What might we learn, and how might our society change, if we simply listened to Fannie Lou Hamer?” Until I Am Free is one response to this question.
If the reviews in this roundtable are any indication, then it appears that I have effectively answered this question. I am deeply honored by this forum and most thankful to the stellar group of historians—Rhonda Y. Williams, Stefan Bradley, Danielle McGuire, and Peniel Joseph—who carefully read and deeply engaged the book. Their rich observations and insights tease out the remarkable intellectual legacy of Fannie Lou Hamer. As Peniel Joseph writes in his review, I worked to place “Hamer within a long tradition and powerful historical trajectory of Black women’s activism.” Here I was greatly aided by the growing scholarship on Hamer as well as the rich sources available to me—including Hamer’s speeches and interviews, films, historical newspapers, oral histories, and archival material. These materials provided insight into the influences, forces, and developments that shaped Hamer’s thinking and political vision. They also offered glimpses into the painful experiences Hamer endured before and after her entry into the civil rights movement. As I wrote the book, I tried to be attentive to what might best be described as both the pain and the beauty of Hamer’s life story. I wanted readers to leave with a sense of the highs and the lows of her experiences—to present an honest rendering of Hamer’s life.
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