Soon after The Public Archive launched in 2010, we began featuring reading lists. Syllabi, some might call them, though regardless of the name, they were critically annotated compilations of texts grouped together under a number of general themes. “Reading Haiti,” for instance, gathered recently-published books that challenged mainstream media representations of the Black Republic and offered serious, non-voyeuristic readings of its history, politics, and culture. The initial “Reading Haiti” list was posted in 2011. Subsequent versions followed in 2012 and 2014. “Radical Black Reading” surveyed the contemporary literature on Black radical thought and politics, broadly conceived. Editions of Radical Black Reading appeared in 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014. Two versions (in 2012 and 2015) appeared under the banner of “Radical Black Cities,” and focused on architecture, urbanism, and Black rebellion. Another examined the question of Blacks and Palestine. We also offered year-end round-ups featuring ten books, some new, some not, that had caught our eye and spoke to the contemporary political and cultural moment. These lists can be found here, here, and here.
In all cases – in all our lists – we attempted to highlight the work of writers from the Black World. We tried to avoid, as much as was possible, both commercial publishers and academic presses – as well as titles from the imperial, Anglophone centers of knowledge production. We strove to foreground the incredible work of Black-owned presses in North America, of independent imprints from the Caribbean and Africa, and of alternative and radical publishers from around the world, especially those publishing in languages other than English. (Of these presses, our recurring favorites include Mémoire d’encrier of Montreal, Présence Africaine of Paris, Peepal Tree Press of London and Ediciones Cielonaranja of Santo Domingo).
Our book choices have been shaped less by the marketing teams of white corporations or by the taste-making mandarins of white academic presses than by a belief that Black literary and political culture should be shaped autonomously and independently. Our sense is that Black readers are poorly served by the mainstream press. We suffer intellectually and politically in the absence of a truly pan-African, Black World review whose editorial policy is guided by a spiritual and critical commitment to the deep traditions of Black radicalism. To that end, we hoped out lists would be read for their juxtapositions and counterpoints and that readers would see the works talking to each other across time and space and genre and discipline.
We’ve been a little late offering another reading list. We’ve been reluctant to add to the incessant din of this extended season of syllabi. And we’ve been stricken with something of an existential doubt about the valence of the proliferation of lists. Lists without context. Lists without foundational evaluative principles. Lists of friends and colleagues. Lists for vainglorious self-promotion. Lists for the mere sake of listing. Moreover, our sense is that a list is not a course, a syllabus does not imply a pedagogy, and that reading without communal practice is not really reading at all.
Even so, given current political conditions we would be remiss if we did not in some way add a voice – and our list – to the ongoing appraisal of the present. So here, then, another list: a deliberately selected, briefly annotated, critically compiled list of books that try to apprehend the mistakes and missteps of the past, to assess the contorted terrain of the now, and to offer some guidance towards a radical, liberated future.
The Public Archive
Kwakwakaʼwakw writer, artist, and activist Gord Hill’s 500 Years of Indigenous Resistance offers a compressed, incendiary account of the incessant history of Native resistance to colonialism in the Americas. Beginning in 1492, Hill’s history also provides the deep historical background to background to the ongoing struggles for indigenous sovereignty against settler colonialism represented by Idle No More, NoDAPL and MMIWG. Also see The Winter We Danced: Voices From the Past, the Future, and the Idle No More Movement edited by The Kino-nda-niimi Collective, the late Métis writer Howard Adams’, Prison of Grass: Canada from a Native Point of View and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous People’s History of the United States.
Jennifer Morgan’s Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery offers a fierce riposte to those white patriarchal revisionists who still write of slavery – and of capitalism – as if Black women were somehow marginal to both. Building on the historiography of Black feminism while mining the archives of colonialism, Laboring Women writes the history of the doubled practices of reproduction burdening Black women in slavery while proving, decisively, the centrality of Black women’s bodies to the history of capitalism. Also see Kamala Kempadoo, Sexing the Caribbean: Gender, Race and Sexual Labor; Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women the Body and Primitive Accumulation.
Arguably the most important book on Reconstruction since W.E.B. DuBois’ Black Reconstruction, Nell Irvin Painter’s Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas after Reconstruction recounts in harrowing detail the forms of state violence – lynching, terrorism, bulldozing – meted out on Blacks in the US that spurred the late nineteenth century flight from the South. A forensic accounting of white supremacist violence, Exodusters is also a moving history of Black autonomy as Painter describes attempts to found free Black communities in Kansas, and recounts African American hopes of return to Africa.
Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary is a fast-paced, eye-witness account of the political tribulations of early twentieth-century Europe told from the perspective of a radical activist and a gifted writer. Serge is a keen-eyed witness who never succumbs to sentimentalism and never compromises with despotism and the Memoirs offer a severe accounting of the failures of liberalism in the face of fascism. Also see: Claude McKay, A Long Way from Home.
The Man Who Cried Genocide, the autobiography of San Francisco-born Black Communist and lawyer William L. Patterson, describes not only Patterson’s own political awakening, but also the origins of the strategies and tactics of the Civil Rights movement – and their roots in Communist activism. From the Sacco-Vanzetti trial to the Scottsboro campaign to the presentation of the “We Charge Genocide” petition to the United Nations, Patterson demonstrates how local struggles were energized by international support, how class solidarity was energized through inter-racial alliance, and how the critique of capitalism means little without that of white supremacy. Also: Gerald Horne, Black Revolutionary: William Patterson and the Globalization of the African American Freedom Struggle.
With all the talk of the false consciousness of the white worker and the racial fractures amongst the proletariat its worth remembering those radical, inter-racial attempts at organizing against capitalism and the state. Revolt Among the Sharecroppers, Howard Kester’s account of the struggles of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union and during the Great Depression recounts one such struggle. It is a study labor insurgency that deserves a place alongside those other great histories of rebellion from the 1930s, including George Padmore’s Life and Struggles of Negro Toilers and CLR James’ A History of Pan-African Revolt.
Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism is the classic polemic on the foundational barbarity that marked the birth of the West. Locating the origins of European fascism in the gulags and concentrations camps of the colonies, Césaire argues that fascism at home was forged in the furnaces abroad. Alongside Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, Discourse on Colonialism remains critical to our understanding of race and empire. Also: Siba N’Zatioula Grovogui, Sovereigns, Quasi Sovereigns, and Africans: Race and Self-Determinatino in International Law.
If there’s been a tendency in certain quarters to reduce the work of radical poet, librarian, and essayist Audre Lorde to a single slogan – that of “self-care” – a return to Lorde’s Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches serves as a reminder of Lorde’s intellectual range and brilliance and of her absolutely uncompromised, resolutely ethical vision. Sister Outsider contains the deservedly famous “Master’s Tools” talk. But it also has a stunning account of the US intervention in Grenada (and, with it African American complicity in US imperialism), urgent meditations on the meanings of the Sixties and the politics of anger, and an empathetic assessment of the legacy of Malcolm X. A rare, radical assertion of intersectional politics.
The reach and possibilities of the total surveillance society have radically expanded since the 1960s and with the emergence of information powerhouses like Alphabet and Facebook. But that doesn’t mean that some of the tactics and politics haven’t changed. To that end, Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall’s Agents of Repression: The FBI’s Secret Wars Against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement is as relevant now as it was when it was first published almost two decades ago. Churchill and Vander Wall’s documenting of the efforts by J. Edgar Hoover and COINTELPRO to wipe out a generation of Black and Indian activists remains unsurpassed.
The Black Atlantic is certainly the most debated book by British sociologist Paul Gilroy but “There Aint No Black in the Union Jack”: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation has always been our favorite. Gilroy provides a trenchant reading of the maelstrom of race, class, and nation in Britain and the rise of dangerous registers of populism, authoritarianism, and absolutism. But There Aint No Black is also buttressed by some deep-digging in the archives of Black music as Gilroy demonstrates how diaspora culture chants down racial capitalism. Also see: A. Sivanandan, Communities of Resistance; No Sizwe, One Azania, One Nation: The National Question in South Africa.
As heart-wrenching as it is searing, Brother I’m Dying, Haitian-American novelist Edwidge Danticat’s memoir of citizenship, migration, and the intimate violence of the state, is a stunning account of one family’s encounters with the cruel bureaucracy of the post-911 US immigration authority. Perhaps more relevant now than when it was first published.
We don’t think Butch Lee and Red Rover use the terms “neoliberalism” or “racial capitalism” but in many ways, Night-Vision: Illuminating War and Class on the Neo Colonial Terrain, is a vertigo-inducing critique of both. Lee and Rover historcize the rise of imperial- and corporation-friendly multiculturalism, seeing its emergence in the radical push back against the movements for decolonization and Black and Third World sovereignty. They also map the landscapes of the new modes of global, neocolonial capital accumulation, identifying, in the process, its historical subject. “Our primary question,” they write, “is who is the modern proletariat and what role does it play as a class? The answer is simple: it is primarily women, children, and alien labor. Those who are colonized.”
From here we should begin.
Mentions: Sergio González Rodríguez, The Femicide Machine. Abdourahman A. Waberi, Transit. Amitava Kumar, A Foreign Carrying in the Crook of his Arm a Tiny Bomb. Dana D. Nelson, Bad for Democracy: How the Presidency Undermines the Power of the People. Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being.
Image: Evil Buildings, Reddit.