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The following review appeared 29 July 2011 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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Thyra J. Edwards: Black Activist in the Global Freedom Struggle is the latest book from Dr. Gregg Andrews, author of City of Dust: A Cement Company Town in the Land of Tom Sawyer (reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum on 11 December 1996) and Insane Sisters: Or, the Price Paid for Challenging a Company Town (reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum on 30 November 1999).
The city of Hannibal was not only the boyhood home of Samuel L. Clemens but also the former place of residence of Thyra Edwards's grandparents, slaves who escaped Hannibal by crossing the Mississippi River into Illinois and then continuing via Underground Railroad to Galesburg. Edwards's grandmother, Liza, had been "born a slave in Virginia around 1841 [and] had come to Hannibal with her owner's family.... The exact date and town of her birth are unknown" (8). Samuel L. Clemens's father, John Marshall Clemens, was also born in Virginia. He arrived in northeast Missouri by way of Kentucky and Tennessee. Hannibal appears briefly in the Thyra J. Edwards book (8-10), with the narrative of her grandparents' quest for freedom serving as part of the backdrop for Edwards's future life in Houston, Texas, and elsewhere.
Edwards sought to exorcise her difficult childhood through "a peripatetic search for the roots of oppression" (2). "Not even the deep sting of a tyrannical father's razor strap could crush her rebellious spirit as a child. Impulsive and impetuous, with magnificent charm, a restless spirit, and zest for life, she set out on a spiritual quest for freedom that took her around the world" (2). Edwards, in Houston, lit out from the territory as soon as she had the chance. She later ascribed her father's "volatility as a manifestation of frustrations over living in a Jim Crow society" (154).
From crawfish ponds in Wharton, Texas, to the bright lights of European capitals and the Kremlin, Edwards's rebellion against 'man's inhumanity to man' was the driving force behind her global quest for freedom. As a black woman and left-wing activist who negotiated in a white man's world, she spoke truth to power and contributed significantly to the radical roots of the post-1945 civil-rights movement (179).
Like Mark Twain, Edwards's most meaningful education consisted of those things that were self-taught through her journalistic pursuits. "She never finished her college degree. A life of travel and intellectual inquiry through field investigations and personal experiences meant more to her" (2-3). Edwards traveled with her typewriter "at all times," even balanced on her lap on train trips while she inquired and explored and wrote articles as a freelance correspondent and frequent diarist (3, 54, 130, 162).
Edwards appointed herself a worldwide ambassador to those she viewed as disadvantaged, oppressed, or dispossessed. Edwards's approach might not be everyone's choice for the righting of wrongs, but she did as she deemed fit. Edwards was investigated by the U.S. government (ix, 4, passim), due to her affinities with certain elements within the labor movement. "Unlike most of her activist contemporaries, she put her faith in the Communist Party and trade unions as the political instruments of mass mobilization to tear down the walls of racial segregation" (179), although "whether or not Edwards was a Communist is not entirely clear" (180).
For Edwards, the Spanish Civil War represented the central battleground in the war against fascism. Risking her life on the ground in Spain, she devoted her skills as an activist social worker, journalist, and fund-raiser to the defense of Spain's elected Republican (or Loyalist) government, a Popular Front coalition. Upon her return to the United States from her month-long stay in Spain, she would tirelessly direct much of her political energy toward fund-raising and promoting support for the Loyalists, especially in the African American community (100).
After the defeat of the Spanish Loyalists, "Edwards pressed ahead with plans to spend six months in Mexico as a freelance writer to cover the resettlement of Spanish refugees there and to write an autobiography" (130).
Forum members may recall that Andrews's previous books, City of Dust: A Cement Company Town in the Land of Tom Sawyer and Insane Sisters: Or, the Price Paid for Challenging a Company Town, involved issues of labor, gender, class, and ethnicity. Dr. Andrews is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at Texas State University-San Marcos, and as such has done significant research into Houston's black longshoremen. It was in that context he encountered the individual at the center of this current book (vii). Dr. Andrews's wife, Dr. Victoria E. Bynum, also retired from Texas State-San Marcos, is a professor specializing in gender, race, and class relations in the 19th-century South and is author of Unruly Women: The Politics of Social and Sexual Control in the Old South. Put Unruly Women, Insane Sisters, and Thyra J. Edwards alongside each other, and one would undoubtedly create an unusual, diagnostic triptych of distaff experience. Thyra Edwards is described as an unconventional woman, an independent woman--yes, even an unruly woman--who eschewed orthodoxy and questioned authority. In other words: precisely Mark Twain's kind of folks.
Thyra J. Edwards may not have the name recognition of Samuel L. Clemens, but during her life she steeped herself in the human condition and "paid...attention to the complexities of race" (14). "For Edwards...the solution was not an individual but a collective one" (15), and "as was her style, she immersed herself in their life stories" (134).
Much more can likely be drawn from gazing long and deep into the dual fires of Mark Twain, "son of Hannibal," and Thyra Edwards, "grand-daughter of Hannibal." Ruminating upon the dynamics of their respective lives, one perceives that socioeconomics may have contributed to their divergent outcomes, but the writings of both were nevertheless forged in that collective crucible called human experience.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER: M. L. Christmas, M.S., is a writer/editor/communications
professional whose Hannibal-centered Master's thesis involved tourism, marketing,
business and economic development, and world cultures. Her 1999 review for
the Mark Twain Forum of Gregg Andrews's _Insane Sisters: Or, the Price Paid
for Challenging a Company Town_ (University of Missouri Press) won first place,
"web page editorial," from Delaware Press Association in 2000. This
is her eleventh review for the Mark Twain Forum.