Everybody’s Grandmother & Nobody’s Fool: Frances Freeborn Pauley and the Struggle for Social Justice, Kathryn L. Nasstrom (Ithaca: Cornell University Press) 2000.

For Freedom’s Sake: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer, Chana Kai Lee (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press) 1999.

Reviewed by Kali Tal. All rights reserved.

Fannie Lou Hamer was born in 1917, in the town of Ruleville, Mississippi. A share-cropper and plantation worker for most of her life, she joined the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee’s (SNCC) voter registration drive when they came to her home town in 1962. For the rest of her life she would be in the public eye, a tireless worker for the cause of civil rights. Hamer was a founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, challenging the right of the all-white Democratic Party to represent the African Americans of Mississippi at the Democratic National Convention in 1964. She stood on the stage beside virtually all of the major players in the civil rights movement, from Malcolm X to Martin Luther King, Jr., and most often got equal billing. Her theme song, “This Little Light of Mine,” became an anthem of the freedom movement. She ran for the legislature, supported black unions, built Freedom Farm (a black farm cooperative), and was an inspiration to and a role model for many of the men and women who worked with her and came after her in the civil rights movement.

Alice Freeborn Pauley was born in 1905 and was raised in Decatur, Georgia. She came from a northern middle-class background—a Yankee who early on developed a strong dislike of the Jim Crow system. From the 1930s to the 1990s she was involved in social justice work, much of it focusing on addressing the problem of racism in the American South. She assisted in building clinics, in the work of desegregating Southern schools, and in addressing issues ranging from poverty to AIDS. Like Hamer, she worked with many of the most famous civil rights activists, and with scores of those who were lesser known but still vital to the movement. Though she was not a singer like Hamer, she too appreciated the inspiring power of song, and associated it with the movement for civil rights. She resembles Hamer, as well, in the way she serves as a model for feminists without ever explicitly embracing feminism herself. Both were married women in long and stable relationships, both had children (Hamer’s were adopted), and both had activist careers that took them far outside the constraints of contemporary gender roles. Both criticized the men who, in their eyes, treated them poorly because they were women, yet neither saw sexism as the first among evils.

Fannie Lou Hamer was black. Alice Freeborn Pauley is white. Both were at times confined by and at times transcended the boundaries of race and class. Both deserve detailed biographies, and leave us a rich legacy to preserve and explore. But of the two authors in question, only Kathryn L. Nasstrom rises to the occasion and presents us with a work worthy of the woman.

Everybody’s Grandmother & Nobody’s Fool is a careful and thoughtful work. It consists of selected transcripts of taped interviews with Pauley, conducted over a period of years both by the author and by other scholars. The transcripts are briefly contextualized by the author. After the transcripts, the final third of the book contains Nasstrom’s reflections on the relationship between storytelling and activism in Frances Pauley’s life. This section concludes with a discussion of the editorial process Nasstrom went through as she compiled and wrote her book. The combination of autobiographical reminiscence and scholarly critique creates a complex image of Frances Pauley in the reader’s mind, without undermining Pauley’s authority as a speaker. The best feminist biography sustains the balance between subject and author that Nasstrom achieves.

Chana Kai Lee’s For Freedom’s Sake, on the other hand, is a puzzling book. Published in 1999, it followed in the wake of several other biographies, histories, and oral history collections that focused on or featured Fannie Lou Hamer, and it draws very heavily upon a few of these. Chief among its sources are June Jordan’s biography for juveniles, Fannie Lou Hamer (New York: Crowell, 1972), Hamer’s own autobiography, To Praise Our Bridges (Jackson, MI: KIPCO, 1967), and Kay Mills', This Little Light of Mine (New York: Dutton, 1993). Lee’s book, in fact, covers much the same ground as Mill’s work, and opens similarly, with an emphasis on Hamer’s poverty, laying a groundwork for our understanding of her as an unlikely hero.

Both the Lee and Mills texts follow a birth-to-death trajectory and draw on so many of the same sources in such a similar order as to make reading one an echo of the other. The difference in tone is marked, however. Mills was a journalist who, like Nasstrom, knew her subject personally, and allowed Hamer’s voice to guide the path of her work. She is careful to provide context for Hamer’s words and actions, but does not presume to have access to Hamer’s unvoiced thoughts or emotions. Lee, on the other hand, is clearly influenced by Timothy Dow, whose book, Telling Lies in Modern American Autobiography (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press,1990) she references in her bibliography.

Dow focused on Mary McCarthy, Lillian Hellman, Jerzy Koszinski, and other writers who wrote multiple autobiographies containing contradictory narratives. One senses that Lee is attempting a similar critique of Hamer’s self-representations, but she is hampered by the heavily mediated nature of her material. In both Dow and Lee there is a tendency to presume access to the intentions and internal constructions of the subject. This leads Lee to make claims like the following:

Clearly the issue of power was of paramount importance in Fannie Lou Hamer’s life. She needed to feel and believe in her mother’s strength and ability to exert control, especially in a setting where personal power or the perception of it was the only real clout or privilege that black sharecroppers had. This was probably especially true for sharecroppers’ children, who were even more powerless than their parents. (12)

Assertions of this sort are supported by no footnotes, and often begin with the words “clearly,” or “certainly.” Such analysis might be acceptable if the author had extensive primary sources and interviews upon which she could draw to support such conclusions, but in Lee’s case she refers to no such body of evidence.

Lee’s analysis verges on the presumptuous at times, as when she alleges that if Hamer was not telling the truth about the way she stood up to a voter registrar, that “probably” her story

should be regarded as one of many instances in which she was crafting an image of herself as the big, bad, strong and daring black woman. If this is the case, then Hamer, as an historical figure conscious of her own place in public life and history, stands among substantial historical company (38, emphasis mine).

This tenuous argument hardly seems warranted by the material upon which Lee draws. It has the effect, however, of removing Hamer’s agency and placing all authority (however timorously assumed) in the hands of the biographer. As such, it gives us less insight into Hamer’s life and thoughts than it does into Lee’s technique as a biographer.

Lee and Mills relate the same incidents, and quote the same sources to very different effect. One example is the manner in which they treat Hamer’s critique of the young white women who came down to join SNCC during the 1964 Freedom Summer registration campaign. Mills focuses on Hamer’s concern for the safety of the SNCC worker, while Lee reads much more into it:

Clearly, the naïve conduct of some white women volunteers left her agitated as never before… [Her] Freedom Summer experience with some white women left Hamer wavering between disbelief and profound disquietude, and this was not simply in response to the behavior of a group of ingenuous young adults. As Hamer reacted to the women, she was also responding to the weighty and complex place of race and sex in her personal life history, as well as that for all of black Mississippi. (76)

These are bold claims to make, and they are neither supported with evidence, nor followed up with discussion. For those reasons they may be regarded both as irresponsible and potentially damaging to an uninformed reader’s understanding of Fannie Lou Hamer’s life and work.

Mills and Lee also differ in their understanding of Hamer’s work with the fledgling National Women’s Political Caucus (NWPC). Both are clear that Hamer differed with the predominantly white feminist leadership of the Caucus. Mills describes and quotes Hamer in a manner that both confirms Hamer’s identification with NWPC women, and Hamer’s sense that women, like men, are divided on the issue of race. The gauntlet thrown down by both Hamer and Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm at the NWPC convention was explicitly racial: if the NWPC didn’t build antiracist work into their central mission, both black women would walk out. The organization accepted Chisholm’s and Hamer’s terms. But nothing in the literature exists that seems to support Lee’s claim:

Clearly, Hamer did not regard herself as a feminist, not by anybody’s definition, even if her own accomplishments and stature translated into greater influence and other positive results for other women. She was a “nonfeminist” whose life and powerful presence had undeniably feminist consequences. In this sense, she was like many other black women of her generation and of other historical periods and dates. (172)

The problem with this assertion is that it denies Chisholm's comments on their sense of sisterhood with the NWPC. Racism was more important to Hamer and Chisholm than sexism, but that did not make sexism unimportant.

“[We] felt it was important to be there and identified with the development of this organization so that our ideas would flow over the sisters,” said Chisholm. (Mills 277)

According to Nasstrom, Frances Pauley also felt that racism was more important than sexism, and so never became an active participant in feminist causes. This might indicate to readers that the factor limiting both Pauley’s and Hamer’s involvement in the feminist movement had a great deal to do with the feminist movement’s narrow definition of itself, and its tendency to unconsciously or consciously embrace the racist worldview so prevalent in the United States. Had the movement been open to the concerns of women of color (and those concerned with women of color), feminists might have more easily attracted women like Pauley and Hamer into their organizations to stay. Nasstrom seems aware of this possibility, while Lee emphatically does not.

Surprisingly absent from For Freedom’s Sake is any reference to Charles M. Payne’s lengthy study, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), particularly the chapter “Mrs. Hamer Is No Longer Relevant: The Loss of the Organizing Tradition.” If there is one area in which Lee could have markedly improved upon Mills’ biography, it is in placing Hamer’s work in the context of a broader struggle for freedom.

Nasstrom’s book is unique in representing the life and work of Frances Freeborn Pauley, and is a valuable addition to the literature on women and social justice in the United States. Those who have read Kay Mills’ This Little Light of Mine will probably not find much that is new in For Freedom’s Sake. For those new to the story of Fannie Lou Hamer, Mills’ This Little Light of Mine is, in the opinion of this reviewer, a better introduction.

© Kali Tal 2001