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A Noble Band of Women by Melinda Plastas (Aarti’s thoughts)

September 28, 2011

Y’all know Aarti from BookLust, right? We’ve been friends for awhile now, and when she saw that I had requested A Noble Band of Women by Melinda Plastas from Netgalley, she suggested a read-a-long. I happily agreed (because she is made of Awesome and we’ve had fun discussing race stuff in the past), and once we’d finished, we decided we’d each answer the same three questions and then post each other’s replies on our blogs. As it happens, Aarti answered first, so my answers are in some sense a response to hers, which means they make a bit more sense if you read this post first (no, that wasn’t particularly farsighted on my part). Once you have, pop on over to her blog to see my take on things!

First, let me briefly tell you what the book is about. It’s from Syrcause University Press and details the work of black and white women in the Peace Movement in post-WWI US. Specifically, it looks at how racial concerns affected the women’s activism, times when the two groups cooperated and seperated, and details the lives of a few women, both black and white, who were major figures. It also includes some more general background on race relations in interwar America and civil rights activists in the period. With that background, let’s move to Aarti’s thoughts! :)

What did you find most interesting?
Aarti: There were many interesting ideas presented in this book, and it’s hard for me to choose just one to focus on. I was completely engaged in learning more about the racism that existed during World War I, and how Black men fighting in a war in Europe and risking their lives were still segregated from whites, made to do horrible tasks and treated very poorly. And Black women who wanted to go over the Europe and help were severely restricted and limited in numbers and jobs, so they were completely helpless to help the people who needed them most, as described in Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s poem “I Sit and Sew”:

But- I must sit and sew.
The little useless seam, the idle patch;
Why dream I here beneath my homely thatch,
When there they lie in sodden mud and rain,
Pitifully calling me, the quick ones and the slain?

I can imagine the frustration of Black women in the peace movement. They wanted world peace, yes, but they also wanted to fight for their rights, and the tension between these two desires was very interesting to me, particularly in the ways it played out during the war.

How did you feel about the book’s structure?
Aarti: I think the structure was horrible! I don’t know why the author chose to set the book up in the way that she did, but it led to no real cohesion whatsoever. She jumps around from one period to another without any real explanation as to why, she goes from one idea to another in a similar manner and there are so many women involved in so many different acronym-based organizations that I got very confused. I wish she had moved chronologically through the movement instead of going in a biography-centered format. She would reference people in one section that we hadn’t learned about yet, and then we’d end one chapter in the mid-1920s only to jump back to 1890 on the next page. I don’t find this structure at all intuitve, and I think it really weakens the book and makes it significantly harder to read.

After reading this book, who do you most want to learn more about and bring other people’s attention to?
Aarti: I fell in love with Emily Greene Balch. What a fantastic person! I can’t believe I knew nothing about her before reading this book. She wrote Our Slavic Fellow Citizens, a book that established her as an “advocate of unrestricted immigration, intermarriage, and the emerging concept of race as culture.” She helped change the perception of immigration in America, describing the hardships of immigrant lives but also how strong the communities were. She fought against the idea that immigration should be limited to “Nordic” people because people from other areas would not assimilate well. She hated scientific racism and had a “profound skepticism” that stereotypes and generalizations were of any value in the modern world. Balch said that intermixing the races would rejuvenate the “rather sterile and inbred [Anglo-Saxon] stock with valuable varieties of inheritance to a rather puritanica, one-sided culture rich in middle-class commonplaces.” Balch is such an inspiring person, fighting against racial stereotypes and “facts” that held no basis, even when everyone around her believed them. She is someone I want to learn much more about, and I hope to read Our Slavic Fellow Citizens soon.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. September 28, 2011 9:22 am

    This book sounds rather interesting. I will have to see about giving it a read. Fun review!

  2. September 28, 2011 10:39 am

    It was so great to read this with you. I loved the leisurely pace of our responses and I hope the next book we read together (because we WILL read another book) will be better structured. Once I get through the next few months, I’ll scan NetGalley for Evaarti books of interest :-)

  3. September 28, 2011 10:42 am

    Great review! I`m reading this for sure!

  4. September 28, 2011 2:23 pm

    I really enjoyed learning about this book. It is a sad period in our history and very few know about it. I’ll hop over to Aarti’s blog and see what you think about it Eva!

  5. September 29, 2011 1:33 pm

    Hmmm while this book sounds fascinating, it doesn’t sound like a great read due to the format issues. Glad to learn about Emily Greene Balch though!

  6. September 29, 2011 2:21 pm

    The subject does sound really interesting – and the women themselves, if not the way the book is organized! Maybe if I read it thinking of it as a series of short stories it won’t be so disjointed to me. Also forewarned.

Thank you for commenting! For a long while, my health precluded me replying to everyone. Yet I missed the conversation, so I'm now making an effort to reply again. It might take a few days though, and there will be times when I simply can't. Regardless, I always read and value what you say.

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