Ten books we read in 2012 that surprised us, stayed with us, and made us see the world in a different light. Listed in no particular order.
- William Alpheus Hunton, Decision in Africa: Sources of Current Conflict (International Publishers, 1960). Walter Rodney approvingly cites Hunton’s Decision in Africa in his How Europe Underdeveloped Africa but one wonders if anyone has read it since. Hunton, an African American educator and activist with the Council on African Affairs who had his career ruined by anti-Communist witch-hunts, went into exile in Guinea, and then Ghana, where he joined W.E.B. DuBois. Decision in Africa is a searing assessment of the political and economic fortunes of Africa after World War II that pays special attention to the history of US neo-colonialism and the politics of, as Hunton put it, “Dollars and Empire.” It’s a classic of Pan-Africanism. Why isn’t it in print?
- Basil Davidson, Black Star: A View of the Life and Times of Kwame Nkrumah (James Currey, 2007). To dismiss Davidson as an old dead white guy is to dismiss a historian who writes with an insight and elan that places him among the greatest chroniclers of the history of the African continent. Davidson has the instincts of a journalist, the discernment of an academic, and the elegance of a poet. His portrait of the rise and fall of Nkrumah and of Gold Coast’s transition to independent Ghana is intimate but unsentimental and offers a lesson on how to write about Africa that contemporary writers and pundits would do well to learn.
- Maya Angelou, All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes (Vintage, 1991). Angelou’s memoir of her time in exile in Nkrumah’s Ghana contains the grandiloquent, occasionally purple, flourishes typical of her writing but it is also a clear-eyed and moving account of Black expatriate life in Ghana and of the vexed relationship of African Americans to Africa. Candid, occasionally brutal, resisting any slide towards romanticism, Angelou nevertheless captures the profound but fraught bonds that stretch across the Atlantic.
- Willie Esterhuyse, Endgame: Secret Talks and the End of Apartheid (Tafelberg, 2012). Esterhuyse is a professor of philosophy at South Africa’s Stellenbosch University and an Afrikaner liberal who believed in gradual, reformist transformation of the Apartheid regime. He was contacted to begin covert, private meetings with Thabo Mbeki and the African National Congress in the late eighties, facilitated by mining conglomerate Consolidated Goldfields and the South African security forces. Endgame is Esterhuyse’s critical recollection of those meetings. It is a book that is thoughtful and considered though sometimes self-righteous, and that inadvertently provides a stark anatomy of the political calculus and the economic consolidations that led to the compromised and inegalitarian form of South Africa’s post-Apartheid nation.
- Brenda Gayle Plummer, Haiti and the Great Powers, 1902-1915 (Louisiana State University Press, 1988). Diplomatic historian Brenda Gayle Plummer’s first book describes the conditions and narrates the events that led to the landing of US Marines in Haiti on July 28, 1915 and their initiation of a military occupation that would last for nineteen years. Drawing on US, European, and Haitian archives, Plummer highlights the inter-imperial rivalries – and the domestic political contentions – that shaped Haiti’s affairs. Masterful but understated, Haiti and the Great Powers is a critical text for understanding not only the history of the US intervention—but also the history of the Black Republic’s present.
- Brian Meeks and Norman Girvan, The Thought of New World: The Quest for Decolonization (Ian Randle, 2010). Meeks and Girvan’s edited collection grew out of a 2005 conference at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica assessing the legacy of the New World Group, the loosely-affiliated band of economists and political scientists that emerged around the figure of Trinidad’s Lloyd Best in the late 1960s and that sought to develop an indigenous critique of Caribbean political economy. The collection contains an extended interview with Best and a dozen essays, the best of which are Girvan’s distillation of the “seven theses” of New World, Kari Levitt’s account of New World’s activities in Montreal and James Millette’s unsparing skewering of New World’s shibboleths. The Thought of New World is a critical compendium of a moment in Caribbean intellectual history while the New World Group’s thought – unfinished, ill-defined, and occasionally diffuse – offers a welcome alternative to IMF and World Bank orthodoxies.
- Maximilian Forte, Slouching Towards Sirte: NATO’s War on Libya and Africa (Baraka Books, 2012). Forte, a Montreal based activist and anthropologist, provides a compelling counter-narrative to mainstream media accounts of the war on Libya and the overthrow and assassination of Muammar Gaddafi. Slouching Towards Sirte has an excellent analysis of the contradictions and paradoxes of Gaddafi’s pan-Africanism and Libyan anti-Black racism while arguing persuasively that regime change in Libya is but a preview of US strategy in Africa through AFRICOM.
- Lisa Robertson and Matthew Stadler, editors, Revolution: A Reader (Publication Studio, 2012). We haven’t yet finished reading Revolution: A Reader, though at 1,200 pages – and with an accompanying annotated online version hosted on a “public reading commons” – we don’t expect we ever will. An open and ecumenical compilation of statements on the theme, Revolution: A Reader is probably best approached through a reading strategy of errancy and discovery – or by simply opening its pages to the writers you already know. Hakim Bey, Franz Fanon, Angela Davis, and Mahmoud Darwish were among the names we first flipped to, but they alone barely suggest the incredible scope and ambition of Robertson and Stadler’s project.
- Derrick O’Keefe, Michael Ignatieff: The Lesser Evil? (Verso 2011) In a style that can best be described as “measured evisceration,” Derrick O’Keefe coolly guts the star-crossed career of Michael Ignatieff, the Canadian journalist, Harvard academic, failed politician, and early, unapologetic liberal interventionist. O’Keefe’s intellectual biography, however, can be read not just as an account of the slippery and self-serving contortions of Ignatieff’s thinking, but of the bankruptcy of both Canada’s political aristocracy and of the strange beast that passes as North American liberalism. Other lesser evils deserve a similar treatment.
- Nile Rodgers, Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Disco, Family, and Destiny (Spiegel & Grau, 2011). We forget, I think, that the bass line of Chic’s “Good Times” provided the blueprint for contemporary popular music while Chic front-man Nile Rodgers produced practically every major pop act of the post-disco era, from Diana Ross to David Bowie. Le Freak, Rodger’s fast-paced and entertaining autobiography, is also a drug-addled, surprisingly star-struck account of this moment of American musical history – one that is tinged with the melancholy of the dark-skinned genius child who never quite received the recognition he deserved, even as everyone stole his sound.
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Image: Stan Douglas, McLeod’s Books, Vancouver, (2006).