Gaiutra Bahadur


2016-2017: Sheila Biddle Ford Foundation Fellow

The Woman from America

Project Description

The Woman from America

I plan to research a biography of the late Janet Rosenberg Jagan, the Chicago-born Marxist who was president of Guyana in her seventies. She was the first American woman to lead a nation. Time named her one of history’s 16 most rebellious women. In her life, two of the twentieth century’s most arresting struggles — against colonialism and against Communism — were writ small. Her story provides an opportunity to write about these principal postwar narratives involving superpowers in an original way: from an overlooked place on the world’s margins, a country that, despite its peripheral status, ended up mattering a great deal to great powers.

It’s the story both of an exceptional American and American exceptionalism gone awry. During the Cold War, the United States intervened in Guianese politics on the eve of independence to maneuver Janet and her husband Cheddi from office and to place their rival Forbes Burnham in power. In so doing, they indelibly divided a fragile decolonizing society along racial lines. My book will unfold chronologically, following the arc of Janet Jagan’s life, but it will also evolve as an essay exploring competing ideas of America: as guardian of democracy around the world, as immigrant beacon and as irredeemably, structurally racist. During Burnham’s regime, Guyana became a haven for African-Americans, including fugitive Black nationalists granted political asylum. It was a field for clashing notions of Pan-Africanism, with polestars of the movement such as Walter Rodney and Eusi Kwayana working beside the Jagans to end Burnham’s dictatorship.


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