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Django Unchained and Lincoln: A reading list on race, plus your chance to win 3 titles

Lewis Bassett29 January 2013

Out in the UK this month, Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained and Steven Speilberg's Lincoln has energized interest in a period of American history defined by race. Rather than make our own critiques or slap downs, we present these books to fill the gaps left by Hollywood.

Django Unchained, Tarantino's A-list B-movie, is a take on a spaghetti Western whose characters and plot are set to the violent context of racism and slavery in America's deep south, several years prior to the American Civil War.

There has to be no better place to start on this subject than Theodore Allen's groundbreaking book The Invention of The White Race. In two volumes, Allen explores whiteness as a construct by ruling classes used as a means of social control. Beginning with the use of race as a form of rule in Ireland the story continues through to slavery in America and up to the present day. Simply put, these books are required reading for anyone interested in the development of racism and the history of slavery and class rule.

If it is deemed ok in Hollywood to make a film with the word "nigger" in it 110 times, then perhaps it's worth considering Barbara and Karen Fields' book Racecraft; The Soul of Inequality in American Life. In it the authors argue that the illusion of race is produced through the act of racism. Their book investigates this practice, which they name 'racecraft', and explore its uses in our understandings of history, politics and the everyday. Racecraft, the authors argue, is intimately intertwined with other forms of inequality in contemporary American life.

Obviously still relevant to the debate is David Roediger's Towards the Abolition of Whiteness. This collection of essays seeks to jar open the debate concerning the privilege and misery of whiteness – that is, whiteness as a means of normalizing repressed forms of existence and acceptance of oppression in society.

Beyond Black and White: Transforming African-American Politics by Manning Marable highlights contemporary racism in America, and the fight against it. Many in the US, including Barack Obama, have called for a 'post-racial' politics: yet, Marable argues, race still divides the country politically, economically and socially.

And not quite Hollywood, but with narrative and shady characters non-the-less, Daniel Trilling's Bloody Nasty People has to be mentioned as a key reference point in the rise of contemporary right wing, Islamaphobic politics in the UK. Trilling's book is quite likely the most up to date and relevant title on this subject available.

Now to another Hollywood giant, Steven Spielberg, whose latest epic Lincoln is set to clear up at the Oscar and Bafta awards. The prevailing critique leveled at this film, although reviewers have praised much else, is that it fails to miss a vital subject of the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery in America (around which the narrative of the film centers), and that is the subject of the slave herself.

Never failing to miss an important revolt or revolution, nor the perpetrators who bring such rupture to the world, we have several brilliant books to put forward on this subject.

Concretely, Robin Blackburn's The American Crucible: Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights is expansive on this history. Blackburn illustrates the importance of a structural understanding of slavery and colonialism and its economic and nationalist determinants. Yet, unlike Spielberg, Blackburn casts the subjects of class war in the leading roles.

Blackburn has also written two books on the subject from Verso's World History Series. The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492-1800 and The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery: 1776-1848 unravels the complexity of this history. The first book follows the development of commerce met by slavery and the second follows the dramatic events of a revolutionary age in a compelling narrative.

Perhaps with a little more swashbuckling action than found in Blackburn's books, but much to the same effect, The Many-Headed Hydra by Linebaugh and Rediker is a history that foregrounds the multitude of characters - from slaves to pirates - whose multi-racial revolts and uprisings have shaped our world.

After the credits have rolled on Lincoln's success story perhaps the book worth reading is David Roediger's How Race Survived US History: From Settlement and Slavery to the Obama Phenomenon. This book explores  why race has never been the exception and still lies at the heart of American life in the 21st Century.

Worth a mention too is also David Macey's Biography of Frantz Fanon. With a new paperback edition hitting the bookshops, this iconic figure of anti-colonial revolt in both activism and thought is captured here in what has been reviewed in the New Statesmen as "this year's biographical tour de force."

Author of Why It's Still Kicking Off Everywhere and BBC journalist Paul Mason has written this article on the links of solidarity between slaves in the cotton fields of America and workers in the textile factories of Manchester. As always his writing is exciting and well researched.

Which takes us in conclusion to Marx and the wonderful book An Unfinished Revolution, on correspondence between the German philosopher and Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, edited by Robin Blackburn. This exchange of letters at the end of the Civil War, other texts and press articles shows the agreement between the two men on the need to end slavery and their disagreement on much else. In his introduction, Blackburn shows the importance of international communists in this history.

Competition time:

For your chance to win copies of The American Crucible,Racecraft and An Unfinished Revolution just answer the following question:

Tarantino’s Jackie Brown drew influence from so called blaxploitation films of the 1970s. Name Pam Grier’s cell mate and heroine addicted girlfriend in the film of this genre released in 1971.

Please e-mail your answers to with the subject line "Django Unchained" by 4pm GMT on Friday 1st February. The winner will be chosen at random from the correct answers. Please do not post your answers as comments here, or on twitter or facebook. Only email entries will qualify.


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