Emma Goldman’s dance revolution: a lesson in historical inaccuracy and meme devolvement


Emma Goldman is often shown in images like this one, saying some variation of “If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution!” And it certainly is a quotable statement, one that has all the feistiness and zing of, say, Gloria Steinem or Kathleen Hannah, the kind that resonates with anyone who might want a world freed from the shackles of capitalism and the stultification of patriarchy. It’s radical and utterly feminist: it says hell no to even those within leftist movements who would ask that women’s issues be put in the backseat as we drive towards revolution. After all, who is Goldman talking to in that quote, if not to mortified male chauvinists among her comrades in arms?

emma-Goldman-shirtBut although it’s certainly a nice slogan, and the kind of thing Goldman probably would have said, and although I agree with it, the inconvenient truth is that this quote is completely made up. Worse, it was literally made up to sell t-shirts!

But I’ll get to that in a second. Here’s author Alix Kates Shulman describing the Goldman quote that this t-shirt was inspired by, as she reported in Women’s Review of Books in 1991:

In fact, though the sentiment is indeed Emma Goldman’s, one she frequently pronounced and acted upon, she wrote none of the above, notwithstanding that each of these versions and more has been attributed to her on buttons, posters, banners, T-shirts, bumper stickers, and in books and articles, for nearly twenty years. Here, rather, is what she did say, in her 1931 autobiography Living My Life:

At the dances I was one of the most untiring and gayest. One evening a cousin of Sasha [Alexander Berkman], a young boy, took me aside. With a grave face, as if he were about to announce the death of a dear comrade, he whispered to me that it did not behoove an agitator to dance. Certainly not with such reckless abandon, anyway. It was undignified for one who was on the way to become a force in the anarchist movement. My frivolity would only hurt the Cause.

I grew furious at the impudent interference of the boy. I told him to mind his own business, I was tired of having the Cause constantly thrown into my face. I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from conventions and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy. I insisted that our Cause could not expect me to become a nun and that the movement should not be turned into a cloister. If it meant that, I did not want it. “I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.” Anarchism meant that to me, and I would live it in spite of the whole world–prisons, persecution, everything. Yes, even in spite of the condemnation of my own comrades I would live my beautiful ideal. [Living My Life (New York: Knopf, 1934), p. 56]

ifIcantdanceitsnotmyrevolutionSo, if Emma never said the quote that’s attributed to her, how did this whole thing get started? Well, Shulman was there, and she actually takes a portion of the blame for not correcting the guy:

I would like to confess and set the record straight. Here is what happened. Sometime early in 1973 I received a phone call from one Jack Frager, an old-time anarchist who worked in the anarchist center at 339 Lafayette Street in Lower Manhattan … Like many dedicated radicals of the era before desktop publishing, he was a printer; now he had the original idea to raise funds for the Cause by printing up a batch of Emma Goldman T-shirts to hawk in Central Park at the huge upcoming festival celebrating the end of the Vietnam War…

ificantdanceShulman had recently published a biography of Goldman and a collection of her essays, which before the 70s had been virtually unavailable. She also had a rare photo she could loan to Frager for making a screen print for the T-shirt, and suggested the above quote to him as a source of inspiration, implying that he might want to use the “everybody’s right to beautiful radiant things” line.

But just like in Emma’s day, once again a male anarchist thought he knew best.

Several days later, when I picked up my shirts along with my precious glossy, I was surprised to find a succinct abridgement of Emma’s dance story spread boldly acoss the shirt–the first (and most common) version of the now-famous slogan: “If I can’t dance I don’t want to be in your revolution.”

dance2I searched Emma’s texts for the statement; it was nowhere to be found. But Jack was so pleased, the festival was so soon, Emma looked so lively printed in red and black on a variety of rich background colors, that I hadn’t the heart to register an objection in the name of scholarship. After all, the apocrypha appeared on a mere gross or two of T-shirts, which surely could not require the same standards of accuracy as, say, book blurbs extracted from book reviews–and the sentiment expressed was pure Emma indeed.

But history (and fashion) exploded so quickly in those hungrily feminist days that the slogan on the original shirt-run was soon dispersed and copied and broadcast nationwide and abroad, underground and above, sometimes, absent a text to be checked against, changing along the way like a child’s game of Telephone, until Jack’s initial lighthearted liberties had taken wing as quotable lore and soared up into the realms of myth.

use-the-force-harryI think this is a valuable lesson for the era of the internet: myths spread fast. You just can’t be too careful in calling out misquotations for what they are and stomping them out at the root, even if it might hurt someone’s feelings. Otherwise we could all enter a world of pain, as John Gielgud once said on Parks & Recreation.

And although, one the one hand, Emma Goldman’s fake quote seems have had a lot of positive results–it’s been a rallying cry for feminists, a rallying cry for anarchists, an inspiration for Atari Teenage Riot-type musicians, a perfect stencil for graffiti artists, a dope-ass sticker for culture jammers who want to go to EDM parties and recruit hacker activists to break into the source code for iTunes so they can download Hillary Clinton’s secret playlists and put them up on Wikileaks (“She likes Liars? … of COURSE she does!”), and a goldmine for t-shirt makers–on the other hand, isn’t it still wrong? Don’t you feel stupid if, like me, you used to think it was a real quote? That shit ain’t right, to us or to Emma Goldman.

People who are gone have nothing left but their legacies. And while perhaps more people know who Emma Goldman is at all because of this misquote, I worry that it’s diminished her charisma down to a soundbite, one that reinforces comfortable notions about the personal being political–and yes, dancing is political! But so is spending a year in prison for encouraging starving people to buy guns and take bread from the rich.

One thing’s for sure: it’s time to take that legacy back! By the power invested in me by the Adobe Suite, I hereby declare this to be the REAL Emma Goldman meme!


5 thoughts on “Emma Goldman’s dance revolution: a lesson in historical inaccuracy and meme devolvement

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: