Goddess of Anarchy: The Life and Times of Lucy Parsons, American Radical by Jacqueline Jones, Basic Books, US $32.00, Pp 480, December 2017, ISBN 978-0465078998
The number one problem of the working class Americans during the Gilded Age was that they were losing jobs to machines while the power of the unions diminished. The political parties were unable to solve the working class problems as the economic inequality rose. The vacuum left by the political parties was readily filled by activists with different political ideologies. One of these remarkable activists was Lucy Parsons whose speeches attracted adoring crowds and baton-wielding police officers. The contemporary news media were obsessed with her personality and politics while the wealthy Americans feared her. Lucy Parsons’ activism spanned the years from the Reconstruction to the New Deal years. She was America’s first popular black woman political activist.
Lucy Parsons promoted anarchy by writing and speaking about it and declared herself an anarchist. But did she live as an anarchist? In Goddess of Anarchy, Jacqueline Jones answers this question from a new perspective. Jacqueline Jones argues that, for her, the anarchist ideal offered a roadmap that led up from and out of the dark pit of wage slavery and into the bright light of voluntary associations of like-minded, generous people. Her particular brand of anarchy amounted to a literal call to arms among the laboring classes – men, women, and children at risk from predatory police and private security thugs no less than from the soul-crushing might of industrial capitalism.
She and her husband Albert thought in terms of grand economic faces, the relentless march of history. Albert had a penchant for quantitative data that reduced workers to so many factors in a scientific equation. Yet if their sweeping message was life-and-death grim, their day-to-day existence certainly was not. As a mixed-race married couple, they showed considerable courage in the face of widespread disapproval among whites, a testament to the love they had for each other. Together and alone they shared pleasurable times with their children and comrades, partaking of the music, dancing, picnicking, and general conviviality that were the hallmarks of the German American community in Chicago.
Jacqueline Jones argues that she never achieved a kind of anarchic life that was both more playful and more profound. This kind of life presupposes freedom from material deprivation, but also freedom from stifling social conventions, and from the everyday tyranny of mean-spirited bosses and abusive parents and partners. Jacqueline Jones says that it suggests a kind of liberation that would have allowed her to speak openly and honestly of her enslavement as a youth and of her free-spirited sexuality. Instead, she remained bound by the prejudices of the overwhelming majority of white Americans, including the Chicagoans and others who stared at her on the street and cruelly labeled her and her children “nigger.” Among the many ironies and contradictions of her life, perhaps the greatest was her own fractured existence, a bifurcated way of being in a world that forced her to deny, or suppress, her childhood as a slave and her adulthood as a sexual being even as she became an infamous radical.
In the end, Jacqueline Jones says that there are few lives that are not a bundle of contradictions and shortcomings – saying one thing and doing another, abandoning deeply held principles in the midst of temptation or anger, turning a blind eye to conditions that do not fit one’s stubborn view of the world. Born a slave, Lucy Parsons lived a singularly eventful life that spanned more than nine decades, a life full of remarkable achievements in her roles as orator, editor, and writer, as well as a life full of unrequited longings and suppressed desires. Her early years on a Virginia slave plantation and later in Waco no doubt shaped her outlook in ways she never admitted to family or friends, or perhaps even to herself, in her commentary, both written and spoken, yields little about her inner struggles, her power to inform and fascinate is enduring, and her story, in all its complexity, remains a powerful one for its useful legacies no less than its cautionary lessons.
Goddess of Anarchy is possibly the first comprehensive biography of Lucy Parsons that removes several myths woven around the personality and politics of one of the earliest woman radical activist in American history. This brilliantly written biography tells how this enslaved woman left her native Virginia and went to Texas during the Civil War where she met her future husband Albert Parsons, a veteran of the Confederacy Army, and how she was transformed from being a Republican loyalist to a socialist and anarchist. It is veritably the history of the Reconstruction to the New Deal period. Goddess of Anarchy explains the complex politics of race and class during this important period of our history.