Keisha Blain on Fannie Lou Hamer's Life and LegacyHistorians in the News
tags: civil rights, African American history, womens history, Fannie Lou Hamer, Keisha N. Blain
This is an interview with Dr. Nicole Gipson, an elected Early Career Member of the Royal Historical Society of the United Kingdom, and 2020 doctorate recipient in American Studies from the University of Manchester, and Dr. Keisha N. Blain. Dr. Blain, a 2022 New America National Fellow, is an award-winning historian and writer. She is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh, the president of the African American Intellectual History Society, and a columnist for MSNBC. She is currently in residence at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University and a member of the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study. Her latest book, Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America, will be published by Beacon Press on October 5, 2021. The book explores Hamer’s ideas and political strategies, highlighting their relevance for tackling modern social issues including voter suppression, police violence, and economic inequality.
Nicole Gipson (NG): You first learned about Fannie Lou Hamer in 2008. Is there a reason why you decided to publish your book about her in 2021?
Keisha N. Blain (KNB): Fannie Lou Hamer first left an impression on me more than a decade ago, and I have been thinking about writing about her for several years. The opportunity first presented itself sometime around 2016, when I was invited to write an op-ed for the anniversary of her famous 1964 speech at the Democratic National Convention (DNC). I had been teaching a course on the Civil Rights Movement at the time, and since my research centers primarily on working-class Black women, I welcomed the opportunity to contribute a piece on Hamer. To my surprise, that piece did remarkably well—it resonated with so many people, and I was astonished by the great feedback I received. Since then I have been reading and doing research on Hamer–though I was initially unsure how I would incorporate her in my future book projects. In 2019, everything came together for me. I wrote a second piece on Hamer—and much like the first, the piece resonated with so many. It was one of the most popular op-eds I have written to date, and I was deeply moved when I saw a presidential candidate at the time sharing the piece through his social media networks. Several friends and readers suggested that I expand the article into a book. They insisted that it was a book that people needed to read. One afternoon that fall, I finally sat down and began writing it. I decided I would devote a few hours a week to it while simultaneously working on another book project. The uprisings of 2020 as well as the global pandemic brought on a new sense of urgency, and I decided to shift my attention to finishing the book on Hamer. Like so many people, I struggled to make sense of everything that was unfolding, and I began to doubt whether change was possible. The more I read Hamer’s words, the more clarity I found. Her vision for the world and her commitment to improving conditions for all people gave me a renewed sense of hope and purpose. I wanted to share that gift with others—and I firmly believe this is the opportune moment to share her story.
NG: You argue that Hamer believed in the power of public testimony as a means of making her audience “co-owners of trauma.” Today, the public forum of social media has become a digital space ridden with political division and rampant disinformation. Given this new reality, do Hamer’s beliefs on public testimony still reign true?
KNB: You’re absolutely correct to point out the rampant misinformation that we all encounter on a daily basis today. Social media certainly makes it a lot easier to spread these ideas. And I do not wish to downplay its negative effects on society or how it has been used to indoctrinate and recruit white supremacists and other extremists. But I think it’s important to remember that activists of the 1960s were dealing with rampant misinformation too. In many cases, this misinformation was being spread by the state. The FBI’s vicious tactics in the attempt to dismantle Black political movements is a case in point. While activists in the South were organizing for change, federal agents and local law enforcement were known to actively spread misinformation—suggesting, for example, that interracial civil rights groups were merely sites for interracial sex or in other cases, labelling activists as communists as part of a smear campaign to detract from the vital work these activists were doing to dismantle Jim Crow. Hamer therefore lived in a period of history where misinformation was rampant, and she viewed public testimony as one crucial strategy for combatting these false narratives. Hamer used her radical honesty to challenge injustice and bring attention to the violence that Black Southerners faced on a daily basis when advocating for rights. Her testimonies helped to lay bare the persistent problems of state-sanctioned violence and voter suppression in the United States. Will public testimony change every heart and mind? Certainly not. But it will change some and for that reason alone, it is worth it.
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