“If you don’t learn history, and I mean learn it like the way you learn to love music, poetry and kissing, then the world will always be a mystery to you,” writes Montreal social justice writer Taylor Sparrow in his introduction to Firebrands, an absorbing compendium of iconic and obscure historical figures. Of the 78 individual biographies featured here, all make up a vital but marginalized radical history, though some may be unfamiliar to readers who share my limited knowledge of history.
Spanning from before Columbus to the present day and presenting a range of influential figures, the personalities documented here have frequently gone unacknowledged simply because they are “too brown, too female, too poor, too queer, too uneducated, too disabled, or because they daydreamed too much.”
From Helen Keller to Tupac Shakur, the selection is thorough and inclusive within its self-imposed geographical restrictions. The writing is clear and concise, and many of the biographies include moving quotations that capture the essence of these revolutionaries and their fight for social justice across the Americas.
The portraits lovingly and skillfully portray their subjects in non-traditional and striking ways. Collages depicting Big Bill Haywood and Eugene V. Debs by Nicolas Lampert spoke to the zinester in me. Line drawings of Frida Kahlo by Favianna Rodriguez and of Ricardo Flores Magón by Pete Yahnke made me stop and stare. Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative has accomplished the important work of heralding the undocumented and misrepresented. Learning these stories is enriching, inspiring and also imperative. Firebrands should be made required reading for any history class. (Ellie Anglin)
Edited by Shawn Slifer and Bec Young, Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative, 192 pgs, Microcosm Publishing, microcosmpublishing.com, $10