Note this review was written in August 2012 and meant for #USIH. For reasons all due to me, it was not published at that time. I’m indebted to Tim Lacy (@t_lacy) for his editorial comments
Maylei Blackwell’s extraordinary Chicana Power: Contested Histories of Feminism in the Chicano Movement is an intellectual history based on the writings and images produced by “ordinary people” [read mostly not (yet) academics]. Joining the concerns of social history for the “bottom” with a firm commitment to the notion that ideas matter (and everyone has them), Blackwell crafts a narrative about history-making out of the lives of Chicana activists in Southern California in the 1960s and 1970s.
In many ways the book is structured like other works that emerged from a dissertation, (she completed her doctorate at Santa Cruz), six tight chapters with the final serving as a conclusion, but Blackwell does a lot in those 300 pages. Her first chapter pulls a host of historians into various overlapping historiographies to reveal how Chicana feminism has been decentered in all accounts. The subsequent chapter explores the role of gendered narratives in the emerging Chicano movement to expose the “internalities of power.” Next Blackwell introduces the idea of “retrofitted memory,” a form of countermemory that uses fragments of older histories … to create space for women in historical traditions that erase them” (2). Chicana activists retrofitted the iconography of various female figures from Mexican culture and history. The result, la nueva chicana, was a politically empowered individual whose image circulated via a Chicana counterpublic comprised of movement periodicals and anthologies. The final chapter reveals how, having crafted an historical narrative of agency, “the landscape of Meaning” splintered in and around the 1971 Conferencia de la Mujeres por La Raza. Blackwell leaves wide open much of this contested history and resists imposing a single meaning, instead preferring to highlight one of the key dilemmas of the oral historian, that of interpretative authority.
Blackwell’s sources include: oral histories she conducted with twenty-three activists, as well as their personal archives, forty Chicano movement periodicals, as well as conventional scholarly archives. She incorporates a broad range of secondary sources in postmodern, post colonial, ethnic and women’s studies, along with history. She deftly draws on scholarship that has come before. Blackwell completed her doctorate at Santa Cruz and she builds on the history of consciousness work that precedes hers including Gloria Anzaldua, Chela Sandoval, Angela Davis, and Hayden White. Emma Perez’s The Decolonial Imaginary: Writing Chicanas into History joins Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge, along with the theoretical analyses by Patricia Hill Collins, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, and Antonio Gramsci among others. .
“I was taught in the Cherokee way to believe that stories have power” is the first line of Chicana Power: Contested Histories of Feminism in the Chicano Movement. The Chicana feminists about whom Blackwell writes recognized that history consists of the stories we tell. The tropes they adapted, revised and recirculated in historical narratives of empowerment are central to Blackwell’s contention that their work paved the way for more academically oriented explorations of Chicana history. While the work done in the ‘70s provides the scaffolding for Chicana feminist theorists whose work gets recognized by academia, and while many of those scholars diligently cite their (activist) predecessors, ultimately it is the academic texts that get credit, with others relegated to footnotes. Most of the women discussed by Blackwell went on to lives that did not involved Ph.D.s, although some did enter academia. Still Blackwell has more than amply illustrated that they deserve a position in intellectual history.
I wanted to review this book for USIH because of the ongoing conversations about the role of gender in intellectual history, and the presence, or lack thereof, of women intellectuals.
At the 2011 #S-USIH conference, the plenary on women and intellectual history circled around this question of who determines what ideas matter? The panel included: Lucy Knight (moderator and presenter), Megan Marshall, Philippa Strum, Sherie Randolph, and Maria Cotera. I tweeted my comments, which Lauren Keinz Anderson then blogged. Many months later, Raymond J. Haberski, Jr. blogged the talks of the plenary members.
I loved that plenary, particularly the Q and A which circled around how
“dominant intellectual history narratives exclude” and the idea that “writing about women of color intellectuals as an act of willful anachronism because they had no ‘discourse community.’” ”
Blackwell has documented a lovely discourse community, but not one that would normally draw the attention of people who consider themselves “intellectual historians.” The focus on individuals who are recognized as important, the qualifications for what is an “idea,” the desire to focus on “big” historical questions, and limited notions of source material, all exclude certain people from intellectual history.
Over the many years of teaching from Hollinger’s fine anthology (although I hate the title The American Intellectual Tradition, as though there is a singular one) I’ve repeatedly discussed with students the following propositions
If people have ideas
If people have bodies
If Bodies exist at specific intersections of time, place, and space
Then ideas must be positioned accordingly
The “ideas” of Charlotte Perkins Gilman do not sound like the ideas expressed by Sumner or Veblen. If we persist in behaving as though ideas emerge from a vacuum, rather than the largely white, male, elites inhabiting the “center” to borrow bell hooks phrase, that still comprise the vast majority of U.S. intellectual history, then we will never shift our own discourse community in any significant way. Blackwell’s work on Chicana activists’ creation of “contested histories” is an important step in recognizing the “discourse communities” of “regular people” and how they influence ideas. Intellectual historians should to read it.
[Editor’s note: The theme of the 2012 S-USIH Conference is “communities of discourse.” – TL]