Several years ago ,* I wrote my first book for adults: The Everything Guide to Understanding Socialism. It is a history of socialism, from its roots in Utopian idealism through Tea Party accusations that Barack Obama is a socialist.** I spent considerable time reading and writing about socialism and anarchism in America prior to World War I. And I’m pretty sure I never read a word about Lucy Parsons, a famous (or infamous, depending on your politics) socialist/anarchist leader and speaker whose career lasted from Reconstruction to the New Deal . As her recent biographer, Jacqueline Jones, makes clear, its not entirely my fault. Parsons’s story has been obscured by that of her husband, by her own choice to re-write her past, and by the general tendency to file notable women in the “let’s forget about this” drawer of history.
Jones untangles Parsons’s story in Goddess of Anarchy: The Life and Times of Lucy Parsons, American Radical. She gives us a picture of a life filled with contradictions: a love story between a former slave and a former Confederate soldier, an African-American activist who focused on the cause of white labor in American cities, the “professional widow” of one of the martyrs of the Haymarket Square riots who took lovers after her husband’s death, a social reformer with a passion for fashion, a fiery public persona with a well disguised private life. With an eye for the telling detail and a vibrant writing style,*** Jones sets Parsons against a richly rendered background of American society in the years between the Civil War and the Great Depression, seen through the lens of the changing politics of race and class.
Parsons emerges as difficult, complicated, and not entirely admirable. But while Jones’ depiction of Parsons is not always a comfortable read, it is always a fascinating one.
We’re featuring Jacqueline Jones and Goddess of Anarchy on Non-Fiction Fans**** next week. If you’re interested in five days of Q & A and a book giveaway, come on over.
*2011. A simpler time in what feels like the distant past.
** My basic take on this was and remains that if professed socialists say Obama is not a socialist, we should take their word for it.
***There’s a reason Jones won the Bancroft Prize and is a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist.
****Which you were previous introduced to as Illuminate. We had to change the name because 1)it didn’t say clearly what the group is and 2)it was attracting crackpots.