Keisha N. Blain, Ph.D.: Chronicling Black Women on the Front Lines of Protest

February 16, 2018

Keisha N. Blaine, Ph.D. (Photo credit: Chioke I’Anson)


In a watershed year when more women publicly rebelled against inequality, unified, agitated, showed up, organized, and raised their collective voices, women’s movements globally have moved to the forefront and are making history almost on a daily basis. From the Women’s March to #MeToo, more stories are being lived and written about the power of women’s activism past and present. Historians bring important expertise to the table, which helps us to understand our world and tells us not only what happened, but also in many cases why it matters and how it can inform current research and activism.

AAUW 2016–17 American Postdoctoral Fellow Keisha N. Blain, Ph.D., does just that in her first solo-authored book, Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018). Blain, an assistant professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh, 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.” Blain also serves as editor of Black Perspectives, the blog of the African American Intellectual History Society and “the leading online platform for public scholarship on global black thought, history, and culture.” She was also one of the codevelopers of the #CharlestonSyllabus on Twitter, which identified pertinent readings on the history of racial violence in the United States.

“The book,” Blain notes, “grew out of my interests in global black history and women’s and gender studies. I wanted to better understand how Black Nationalist women engaged in national and global politics during the 20th century. One of the significant contributions of the book is that it centers the ideas and activism of working-poor black women who operated on the ‘margins.’ It is an act of recovery — it brings to light the previously hidden stories of a number of black women who I argue were key to the spread and development of Black Nationalist and internationalist movements in the United States and abroad.”

She added: “Excavating these women’s stories enriches our understanding of how black women, particularly members of the working poor and individuals with limited formal education, have functioned as key leaders, theorists, and strategists at the local, national, and international levels.”

Blain was one of more than a dozen scholars funded by AAUW in the 2016-17 academic year engaged in research about girls and women of color, and her fellowship coincided with AAUW’s invitation from American Fellowships alumna and Melissa Harris-Perry, Ph.D., to join an inaugural group of institutions and organizations coming together as the Collaborative to Advance Equity through Research, “a national coalition of institutions committed to supporting and advancing research addressing the lives of women and girls of color.” The collaborative was launched at the White House in the fall of 2016.Blain, along with Ashley Farmer, Ph.D.; Joan Morgan, Ph.D.; Mary Klann, Ph.D.; Crystal Chen, Ed.D.; and Sheila Katz, Ph.D., among others, were among those fulfilling AAUW’s five-year commitment to fund scholarship relevant to the Collaborative’s mission.

Her AAUW fellowship was instrumental to Blain’s success. “The process of researching and writing the book was challenging, but a fellowship from AAUW made all the difference. The fellowship came at an ideal moment — not long after I had received readers’ reports on how I needed to revise the book. The list of revisions appeared daunting, and I struggled to figure out how I could make the necessary revisions, conduct additional research, and write a new chapter in a timely manner — while effectively balancing teaching and service. With a postdoctoral research leave fellowship, I was able to work full time on finishing up the book and even managed to make some headway on my second book project. AAUW not only funded my research but also brought me into contact with a diverse community of talented women in the academy and provided a strong network of support during my fellowship year and beyond.”

History and activism are partners in the global movement against oppression as historians use trailblazers of the past to spark discourse, action, and radical change for our present and future. Blain’s ongoing work reminds us of its importance and impact on today’s movements.

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