“Goddess of Anarchy: The Life and Times of Lucy Parsons, American Radical” a book review of a pathologizing biography

“Goddess of Anarchy: The Life and Times of Lucy Parsons, American Radical” a book review of a pathologizing biography

I was looking forward to “Goddess of Anarchy: The Life and Times of Lucy Parsons, American Radical” by Jacqueline Jones. Radical history is filled with white men, and if they discuss Black women, it’s usually a person from the 1960s. Rarely does the nonfiction world discuss radical Black women in early 20th century America. 

Parson was born an enslaved Black woman. She came of age during Reconstruction, a time of both progress and terror for Black people. The Black community’s progress during Reconstruction seemed to be isolated to Black people in the bourgeoisie, many of them referred to themselves as Colored. The NAACP dates to this period. Those Colored people were not only many times of mixed white and African heritage, but also had more economic means than your average Black person.

While Parson was of mixed heritage she was not part of the Black bourgeois society owing to her lack of formal education, economic standing, and unwillingness to be a pretty light skinned centerpiece for Black society.  At times she stated she was Mexican. All of these factors would put a person such as Parson at great risk. 

I bring this up because the author Jones’ does not seem to understand the conditions of the society where Lucy lived.  The United States is not only a white supremacist country. This country is also very sexist. A Black woman leaving the house during that time opened herself up to all manners of harassment, including rape, which was legal. After emancipation, while the de jure of the legality of the act was removed, the de facto idea of “you could not rape a Black woman” was very much in place.

“She ignored the unique vulnerability of African America, whose history was not merely a variation on the exploitation of the working class, but a product of the myth of race in all hideous iterations.”

Goddess of Anarchy: The Life and Times of Lucy Parsons, American Radical” by Jacqueline Jones

Jones’ constantly digs at Parsons for not embracing her Blackness or not working directly with Black organizations at the time. Jones’ 21st century lens does not seem to comprehend that most Black organizations of that time were not radical. Not wanting to be lynched and wanting a job are not radical goals. Jones also appears not to understand the various dangers Parsons avoided by not loudly proclaiming her Blackness. Jones is clearly of the school of “well you Blacks should be happy you are alive.”

She frequently mocks Parsons’ admiration of nice clothes and dressing well. 

“Did she with her love of fine clothes….miss her mother….”

This book is a middle class pathologization of working class people.   There is a wonderful story of Catholic Worker Dorothy Day confronting such a mentality that working class people should live in penury.

One day a woman came in and donated a diamond ring to the Catholic Worker. We all wondered what Dorothy day would do with it. She could have one of us take it down to a diamond exchange and sell it. It would certainly fetch a month’s worth of beans. That afternoon, Dorothy gave the diamond ring to an old woman who lived alone and often came to us for meals. “That ring would have paid her rent for the better part of a year,” someone protested. Dorothy replied that the woman had her dignity; she could sell it if she liked and spend the money for rent, a trip to Bahamas, or keep the ring to admire. “Do you suppose God created diamonds only for the rich?” 

The lost coin

The US, during Reconstruction, did not have social media to amplify injustices. If you got in a sticky situation, you could easily find yourself on the wrong side of a gun or rope. 

I am quite aware of Jones’ credentials as a distinguished historian of Black history, and her attitude and reputation are pretty disturbing after reading this book. 

In my circle we say how white liberals, progressives, and radicals call you a n***** for daring to be more than a mule is by calling you “bougie” and/or publicly calling into question your authenticity.

“Goddess of Anarchy” is an entertaining read. Jones’ is a good writer and picked an excellent subject. Unfortunately, her neoliberal perspective refused to showcase Parsons’ greatness, which could have been chalked up as simply a different  purview, but Jones is quite generous with Parsons’ husband, ex-Confederate Albert. Yes, she critiques him, but always gives sensible reasons for his outlandish actions and he even got a sympathetic backstory. 

I am sure Lucy, born into enslavement, had a much harder childhood than Albert.

Albert served in the Confederate Army. How can a person have no mercy and empathy for Lucy not being upfront with her Black heritage, show such generosity to a former Confederate soldier?

Reading this book reminded me of the unfairness of being a Black woman on the far left and I took this book quite personally, because all the things Lucy is accused of in this book, I have also been accused. White men get chance after chance at being horrible and Black women need to walk on water to get wilted flowers. 

There was no more of a contradiction in her life than the life of an average African American at the time. Any African American doing more than plowing a field and praying was suspect. The African American’s life is full of contradictions because the United States will kill you if you say more than yes sir and yes ma’am

Goddess of Anarchy: The Life and Times of Lucy Parsons, American Radical” cites already known facts and then decorates those facts with digs on her manner of dress, questions of the sincerity of her motives, and the policing of how she lived as a Black person. 

Jones’ seemed not to understand Lucy’s desire to be treated like a lady. Even today, being a pretty black woman who gets to choose where you have sex and dress nicely is very radical. Look at the treatment of Cardi B for “WAP” and compare it to 2020 reactions of Madonna’s High-Art Coffee-Table Porno Book “SEX” with Marky Mark in 1992.  Today, that book is seen as a banal attempt to be provocative and a youthful excess.

What is radical in the United States is living fully, and Parsons’ definitely lived.  Why do we cheer on fictional rich scions living fully in “Dead Poets Society” (1989) but sneer through faint praise at a real radical living in the style of Emma Goldman?

If this book had revealed some new insight into Parsons early life, this book might have been worth it. This book did nothing but restate what we know with references and did it cruelly. It almost appears as if Jones wanted to knock Lucy down and peg and show how “woke” she was in comparison.

If you’re a fan of Lucy Parsons, this book will pointlessly and unnecessarily infuriate you.  Don’t bother.

Teka Lo, Public Intellectuals

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