Roman on Blain and Gill, 'To Turn the Whole World Over: Black Women and Internationalism'

Keisha N. Blain, Tiffany M. Gill, eds.
Meredith Roman

Keisha N. Blain, Tiffany M. Gill, eds. To Turn the Whole World Over: Black Women and Internationalism. Black Internationalism Series. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2019. 280 pp. $26.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-252-08411-9.

Reviewed by Meredith Roman (The College at Brockport) Published on H-Diplo (September, 2019) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

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To Turn the Whole World Over constitutes a valuable contribution to the dynamic scholarship on black internationalism that has helped to decolonize the field of diplomatic history in the past several decades.[1] To be sure, this innovative collection demonstrates how black women protested their systematic exclusion from the ranks of state power by practicing their own brand of international relations that advanced the global liberation struggle. Contributors succeed in moving black women of various class backgrounds and political affiliations from the margins to the center of the scholarly discourse on black internationalism.[2] Creativity, self-fashioning, network building, and mobility effectively connect the essays and enhance our understanding of the complexity of black women’s significant yet too often unacknowledged contributions to notions of universal freedom and human rights.

Editors Keisha N. Blain and Tiffany M. Gill open this engaging volume by contesting the male-centric lineage of conceptualizations of black internationalism. They foreground the role of Afro-Martiniquean intellectuals and sisters Jeanne “Jane” Nardal and Paulette Nardal in its articulation. The Nardal sisters founded Depeche africaine, a central journal of the Negritude movement, which in 1928 published Jane Nardal’s influential essay titled “Internationalism noir” (“Black internationalism”) in which she called on black women and men to explore the history of persons of African descent. Notions of black internationalism have expanded and evolved beyond Nardal’s articulation, and Blain and Gill define it “as a global political, intellectual, and artistic movement of African-descended people engaged in a collective struggle to overthrow global white supremacy in its many forms” (p. 2). Indeed, several of the collection’s contributors explore how black women outside of the political sphere creatively “forged global connections and innovated strategic alliances through their consumption activities and economic pursuits, leisure and religious practices, as well as through performance and artistic expression” (p. 4). To Turn the Whole World Over also extends the geographic boundaries of the practice of black internationalism beyond the United States and countries of West Africa to include Australia, Germany, Spain, China, and the French and Belgian colonies of Central Africa that Eslanda Robeson visited in the decade after the Second World War with the objective of forging a transnational feminist network and advocating for African self-rule. Annette K. Joseph-Gabriel argues that Robeson skillfully turned the eye of surveillance on the colonial state itself in order to ensure that she was afforded a mobility that was typically only granted to white missionaries.

Like Robeson, the less well-known female actors in this volume pursued travel and alliance building to challenge the degraded stereotypes of black women and cultivate positive diasporic identities that affirmed black humanity and dignity. In the collection’s only essay set in the nineteenth century, Brandon R. Byrd highlights how Madame Parque, a Reconstruction-era black woman who was likely born enslaved in Alabama, fashioned herself of Haitian origins to give her voice greater authority on the subject of blacks’ right to self-determination and thus enhance her appeal to the white and black audiences who came to hear her speak in the decade after the Civil War. As Byrd contends, Parque used her remarkable mobility across the United States of the 1870s to challenge white supremacy and connect the African American freedom struggle to the heroism of the Haitian revolutionaries, thus setting the precedent for black feminists of the second half of the twentieth century who linked the US black liberation struggle with the national liberation movements of the Global South.

In the process of restoring black women to their proper place within the historical narrative of black internationalism, the volume’s contributors refrain from romanticizing their subjects. Instead, they address the ways that female internationalists at times replicated the imperialist discourses that they were supposed to be dismantling, subscribed to patriarchal gender roles that contradicted their daily practice of proto-feminist politics, or downplayed the injustices that Japanese imperialists and Chinese communists committed in order to sustain alliances of freedom. To this point, Grace V. Leslie observes in her contribution on the renowned Mary McLeod Bethune that Bethune, like so many historical actors, has left us a complicated history. Bethune actively campaigned for a United Nations charter that recognized racial and gender equality as indispensable to human rights and lasting world peace. However, Bethune later refused to defy the US Cold War consensus and reprimanded representatives of the National Council of Negro Women who spoke out abroad about the hypocrisy of America’s commitment to human rights. Vicki Garvin, in contrast, made the international stage of the 1960s her base for attacking US racial apartheid. As an African American leftist feminist who lived in exile in Nigeria, Ghana, and later China, Dayo F. Gore argues, Garvin embraced her position as a representative of the black liberation struggle in China to mobilize opposition to US global white supremacy, while bolstering that country’s image as the world’s leader for anti-imperialist politics at a time of the violent Cultural Revolution.

Working-class black women who for financial reasons could not travel abroad used letter writing to transcend the boundaries of the nation-state and situate themselves in a global movement for freedom. Mittie Maude Lena Gordon, a black nationalist with limited formal education, practiced what Blain calls “grassroots internationalism” (p. 172). In the early 1930s, Gordon used the South Side Chicago restaurant that she briefly owned as a physical space of resistance politics to establish the peace movement of Ethiopia that focused on immigration to West Africa. Gordon engaged in massive letter-writing campaigns in an attempt to forge alliances with Japanese officials, Nigerian activists, and Liberian leaders from whom she sought a promise of land for African American migrants during the Great Depression. Liberia is also the focal point of Stephanie Beck Cohen’s innovative essay in which she argues that Liberian female quilt makers used their art to engage in cultural diplomacy, forge community and transnational networks, and articulate their vision of the nation and its place in the international arena.

While Blain and Cohen illuminate how letter writing and material culture facilitated transnational networking, several essays underscore the critical role that the African American press played in fueling black women’s practice of internationalism. Anne Donlon analyzes the scrapbook that labor activist Thyra Edwards compiled of the Spanish Civil War as an alternative history text and creative expression of her vision of internationalism that identified women’s rights as inseparable from the struggle against fascism. The clippings from the black press that Edwards selected testifies to a much broader array of African American support for republican Spain than mainstream accounts typically allow and reveals just how critical the black press was to supporting Edwards’s and Salaria Kea’s fund-raising tour on behalf of the Spanish Loyalist forces.

All black women who engaged in internationalism were not as politically active as Edwards and Kea. Kim Gallon argues that the popularity contests that the African American press organized afforded young black women the opportunity to practice internationalism. Analyzing the Chicago Defender’s contests from the early 1950s, Gallon contends that this brand of leisure tourism encouraged African Americans’ investment in the island, enabled African American women to forge transnational networks with elite Haitians, and allowed readers to envision the Haitian-African American relationship through a female-centered lens thanks to the travel columns that many of these women authored. Similar to Gallon, Nicole Anae emphasizes the need to include non-radical voices like film actress Nina Mae McKinney in our understanding of the practice of black internationalism. Anae shows how McKinney used her prominence as a black female performer in the context of the “‘White Australia’ policy” of the 1930s to forge an internationalist African American aesthetic (p. 128). Just as Edwards capitalized on the power of the African American press, McKinney exploited her access to interviews in the black and Australian press to speak out against American racial and gender oppression.

Whereas McKinney used her mobility as a performer to internationalize US race relations, according to Julia Erin Wood, travel to newly independent, non-aligned Guinea in 1964 empowered female leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to spearhead the organization’s subsequent shift to emphasize black pride, African beauty, and the teaching of African and African American history. Wood thus challenges the male-centric narrative of SNCC’s promotion of Black Power values and posits that this transformative trip fueled a global consciousness of oppression that encouraged women leaders to insist on the institutionalization of a more sophisticated critique of the intersection between US domestic and foreign policy that ultimately manifested in the establishment of the Committee for International Affairs in May 1966.

The majority of the female protagonists whom we meet in the pages of To Turn the Whole World Over are African Americans. Yet Tiffany N. Florvil, a leading scholar of black Europe, reminds us that feminists of African descent on that continent were also important practitioners of internationalism. Florvil examines how May Ayim, an Afro-German intellectual-activist, protested the erasure of Afro-Germans from the history of the German nation in which they were maligned as “in but not of” (p. 77). Ayim channeled her outrage at classism, racism, and sexism into her writings and forged antiracist networks based on “‘connected differences’” that, in other words, linked the struggles of minorities in Germany and throughout Europe with the majority of people struggling against oppression worldwide (p. 84).

Scrapbooks, quilts, speeches, writings, artistic performances, transnational networks, and travel constitute the diplomatic records that scholars in To Turn the Whole World Over analyze to bring to life the richness of black women’s contributions to the global struggle against racism, sexism, and colonialism. In a provocative afterword, Michael O. West places these black women practitioners of over a century of internationalism in the context of America’s long history of disavowing blacks’ human rights and argues that their legacy is carried on most recently by the female founders of the internationally relevant movement to make Black Lives Matter. The contributions that Blain and Gill have compiled here will inspire future research into the myriad innovative ways that black women worldwide have dreamed of freedom in international terms and built feminist alliances to make those dreams a reality. Scholars of diplomatic history and international relations should not ignore this enlightening collection of essays that illuminates how black women’s global visions of freedom and diplomacy sought To Turn the Whole World Over.


[1]. See, for example, Carol Anderson, Eyes Off the Prize: The United Nations and the African American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944-1955 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Gerald Horne, The End of Empires: African Americans and India (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2008); Robin D. G. Kelley, “‘But a Local Phase of a World Problem’: Black History’s Global Vision, 1883-1950,” Journal of American History 86 (1999): 1045-77; Robin D. G. Kelley, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002); James Meriwether, Proudly We Can Be Africans: Black Americans and Africa, 1935-1961 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002); Brenda Gayle Plummer, Rising Wind: Black Americans and U.S. Foreign Affairs, 1935-1960 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996); Brenda Gayle Plummer, In Search of Power: African Americans in the Era of Decolonization, 1956-1974 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013); Penny Von Eschen, Race against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism, 1937-1957 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997); and Michael O. West, William G. Martin, and Fanon Che Wilkins, eds., From Toussaint to Tupac: The Black International since the Age of Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009).

[2]. For other works that take seriously women’s contributions to black internationalism, see, for example, Keisha N. Blain, Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018); Carole Boyce Davies, Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011); Dayo F. Gore, Radicalism at the Crossroads: African American Women Activists in the Cold War (New York: New York University Press, 2011); Gerald Horne, Race Woman: The Lives of Shirley Graham Du Bois (New York: New York University Press, 2000); Erik McDuffie, Sojourning for Freedom: Black Women, American Communism, and the Making of Black Left Feminism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011); Barbara Ransby, Eslanda: The Large and Unconventional Life of Mrs. Paul Robeson (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013); and T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, Bricktop’s Paris: African American Women in Paris between the Two World Wars (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2015).

Meredith L. Roman is an associate professor of history at SUNY Brockport, and the author of Opposing Jim Crow: African Americans and the Soviet Indictment of U.S. Racism, 1928-1937.

Citation: Meredith Roman. Review of Blain, Keisha N.; Gill, Tiffany M., eds., To Turn the Whole World Over: Black Women and Internationalism. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. September, 2019. URL:

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