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.
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.
The new issue of New Left Review (NLR 69 May/June 2011) is out now. Highlights include:
* Andrew Bacevich tracing the origins of the Bush doctrine of preemptive war to the thought of Albert Wohlstetter.
* Robin Blackburn, whose latest book, The American Crucible, examines the relationship between the struggle for emancipation and the discourse on human rights, reviewing The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History by Samuel Moyn.
* A study of Spain—last frontier of the Eurozone crisis and recent site of mass resistance to the austerity project—in which Isidro López and Emmanuel Rodríguez track the development of the Iberian bubble economy.
* A review of François Dosse’s biography of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari by Peter Osborne, author of The Politics of Time.
* ‘On the First Socialist Tragedy,’ an article from 1934 by Andrei Platonov, in which he reflects on man, technology and the dialectic of nature.
* Tariq Ali, whose book The Obama Syndrome is out in paperback soon, reviewing Manning Marable’s biography of Malcolm X.
For information on how to subscribe, visit New Left Review.
In an interview with Democracy Now! Dr. Cornel West accuses Obama of "looking for the wrong Lincoln." The greatness of Lincoln, he argues, lies instead in the way he repsonded to the demands of social movements led by the likes of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Beecher Stowe. These movements were not responding to some professed American value, but rather fighting against the construction of race and racism though the ideas, policies and institutions that reproduced its fundamental logic. This is the argument David Roediger advances in How Race Survived US History: From Settlement and Slavery to the Obama Phenomenon. A reviewer in The Journal of American History praises the book as "a compact survey of race in U.S. History."
Viewing race as part of a series of dialectical formations, the author unravels a number of paradoxes at the heart of American history, explaining, for example, how the democratization of white citizenship was accompanied by a dramatic expansion in black bondage and the dispossession of native lands, how a capitalist system that was only supposed to see profit (and labor as an abstraction) organized some of the most racially stratified workforces on the planet, how a "color-blind" liberalism gave rise to deeply entrenched racial inequalities in the postwar period, and why race will likely survive the election of a black president.