This month sees the UK cinema release of Steve McQueen’s brilliant and brutal new film, 12 Years a Slave. McQueen has been vocal in condemning cinema’s wariness in confronting the subjects of slavery and race, and his film has galvanized a new interest in the unspeakably ugly period in American history.
Based on Solomon Northup’s 1853 documentary, 12 Years a Slave takes an unflinching look at the story of a free black man from New York who is abducted and sold into slavery.
Verso has long held a commitment to telling similar stories, and we now present a selection of books as the essential starting point for those looking to learn more about the roots, events and legacies of slavery and racial tensions in America and the world.
The workingmen of Europe feel sure that...the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy. — Karl Marx and the First International Workingmen’s Association to Abraham Lincoln, 1864
Today marks two hundred and thirty eight years on from the Declaration of Independence, penned by Thomas Jefferson and others. It was Thomas Paine's pamphlet Common Sense, published in The Rights of Man and Common Sense, which inspired people in the Thirteen Colonies to declare and fight for independence from Great Britain in the summer of 1776. In clear, simple language it explained the advantages of and the need for immediate independence. The passionate cry for independence continues to this day, with the recent call for a Scottish independence.
National commemorations of major historical events usually offer an incredible opportunity for the Right to showcase its jingoistic logorrhea about national identity and patriotism. Starting this coming August, the First World War centenary will most likely be no exception.
The Conservatives are battling on two different, though not unrelated, fronts. Contrary to what Max Hastings argues, it is the Right indeed who is “making an ideological argument out of World War I, as it does out of almost everything else in history.”
In a Telegraph article, David Cameron puts particular emphasis on commemorating, and even celebrating the break-out of World War I as a moment of national unity and cohesion, “a fundamental part of our national consciousness.”
We are black, it is true, but tell us, gentlemen, you who are so judicious, what is the law that says that the black man must belong to and be the property of the white man? ... Yes, gentleman, we are free like you, and it is only by your avarice and our ignorance that anyone is still held in slavery up to this day, and we can neither see nor find the right that you pretend to have over us ... We are your equals then, by natural right, and if nature pleases itself to diversify colours within the human race, it is not a crime to be born black nor an advantage to be white.
This excerpt is from a letter written in July 1792 by the leaders of the revolution of Haitian slaves. The letter has been republished in the collection of writings of the black leader Toussaint L'Overture, The Haitian Revolution, which includes also the correspondence between him and Napoleon Bonaparte. In the late eighteenth century, Toussaint L'Overture and his supporters established the first black republic in the world.
In the United Kingdom, October is Black History Month. The celebration was originally introduced in 1926 on the initiative of Carter G. Woodson, the editor of the Journal of Negro History. In 2007, no fewer than 6,000 events were held in the UK as part of its programme. Here are some key Verso titles past and present that are relevant to the study and celebration of African and Caribbean history.