Reading list

Black History Month Reading List

Lily Dessau10 October 2016

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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. 

In November, we will be launching set 13 of the Radical Thinkers series focussing on Black radicalism, including WEB Du Bois’s autobiographical essay
Darkwater, and Michele Wallace’s consideration of the late-twentieth century black female experience in America, Invisibility Blues.

To mark Black History Month, we're proud to present Verso titles past and present that are essential to the study and celebration of African and Caribbean history.

The Beautiful Struggle: A Memoir by Ta-Nehisi Coates
In extraordinary memoir on growing up in 1980s Baltimore, from the most important new voice in the US race debate and the author of New York Times no. 1 bestseller Between the World and Me, hailed by Toni Morrison as “required reading.”

This small and perfectly formed epic that follows the lives of boys on the journey to manhood in black America in a city on the verge of chaos. Ta-Nehisi’s father Paul, Vietnam veteran who rolled with the Black Panthers, is an old-school disciplinarian, and an autodidact who launched a publishing company in his basement. The Beautiful Struggle is a moving father-and-son story about the reality that tests us, and the love that saves us.

Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life by Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields

Co-authored by two distinguished scholars, sociologist Karen E Fields, and historian Barbara J Fields, Racecraft tackles the myth of a ‘post-racial’ society. They argue that the practice of racism produces the illusion of race, through what they call “racecraft.” And this phenomenon is intimately entwined with other forms of inequality in American life. So pervasive are the devices of racecraft in American history, economic doctrine, politics, and everyday thinking that the presence of racecraft itself goes unnoticed.

That the promised post-racial age has not dawned, the authors argue, reflects the failure of Americans to develop a legitimate language for thinking about and discussing inequality. That failure should worry everyone who cares about democratic institutions.

Policing the Planet edited by Jordan T. Camp and Christina Heatherton
With contributions from #BlackLivesMatter cofounder Patrisse Cullors, Ferguson activist and Law Professor Justin Hansford, and poet Martín Espada, as well as articles from leading scholars Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Vijay Prashad, and more, Policing the Planet combines firsthand accounts and scholarly research to trace the global spread of the broken-windows policing strategy, first established in New York City under Police Commissioner William Bratton. Crucial to our understanding of black life in America today, this book describles the ongoing struggles from New York to Baltimore, and beyond the States in London, San Juan and San Salvador.

Seizing Freedom by David R. Roediger
This is a forceful and detailed account of the struggle for ‘freedom’ after the American Civil War. Roediger’s radical new history redefines the idea of freedom after the jubilee, using fresh sources and texts to build on the leading historical accounts of Emancipation and Reconstruction.

Reinstating ex-slaves’ own “freedom dreams” in constructing these histories, Seizing Freedom is a masterful account of the emancipation and its ramifications on a whole host of day-to-day concerns for Whites and Blacks alike, such as property relations, gender roles, and labor.

Also by Roediger, How Race Survived US History: From Settlement and Slavery to the Obama Phenomenon offers a panoramic overview of the role played by race identities in the US history from the sixteenth to the twenty-first century-from the Fundamental Constitutions of South Carolina, drafted by John Locke, according to which "every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute power and authority over his negro slaves," to today's US prison system, in which 60 per cent of the inmates are people of colour. And in his groundbreaking study The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class, first published in 1991, the Verso author sheds light on how the racial identity of white working-class Americans was forged in opposition to black laborers. According to Roediger, "whiteness was a way in which white workers responded to a fear of dependency on wage labor and to the necessity of capitalist work discipline."

Traces of History: Elementary Structures of Race by Patrick Wolfe
Wolfe asks how race rose and spread across the globe. Patrick Wolfe presents a new approach to race and to comparative colonial studies. He brings a historical perspective to bear on the regimes of race that colonizers have sought to impose on Aboriginal people in Australia, on Blacks and Native Americans in the United States, on Ashkenazi Jews in Western Europe, on Arab Jews in Israel/Palestine, and on people of African descent in Brazil. In doing so, Wolfe shows how race marks and reproduces the different relationships of inequality into which Europeans have coopted subaltern populations: territorial dispossession, enslavement, confinement, assimilation, and removal.

Charting the different modes of domination that engender specific regimes of race and the strategies of anti-colonial resistance they entail, the book powerfully argues for cross-racial solidarities that respect these historical differences.

Beyond the Pale: White Women, Racism, and History by Vron Ware
Published as part of the Feminist Classics series, this pioneering study asks how ideas about white women have shaped the history of racism. Vron Ware argues that they have been central, and that feminism has, in many ways, developed as a political movement within racist societies. Dissecting the different meanings of femininity and womanhood, Beyond the Pale examines the political connections between black and white women, both within contemporary racism and feminism, as well as in historical examples like the anti-slavery movement and the British campaign against lynching in the United States. Beyond the Pale is a major contribution to anti-racist work, confronting the historical meanings of whiteness as a way of overcoming the moralism that so often infuses anti-racist movements.

Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman by Michele Wallace
Another title in our Feminist Classics series, Michele Wallace’s seminal work caused a storm of controversy when it was first published in 1978. Wallace blasted the masculine biases of the black politics that emerged from the sixties. She described how women remained marginalized by the patriarchal culture of Black Power, demonstrating the ways in which a genuine female subjectivity was blocked by the traditional myths of black womanhood.

The book sparked debate between intellectuals and political leaders, one that has not changed in the time since. Black Macho continues to be deeply relevant to current feminist debates and black theory today.

Wallace's Invisibility Blues: From Pop to Theory, is another essential text on the black experience in America, and a landmark work of black feminism. Available from November 15th in our Radical Thinkers series.

Beyond Black and White: Transforming African-American Politics by Manning Marable
Also forthcoming in the Radical Thinkers series, this is a dissection of the 'new racism', from one of the greatest black radical intellectuals of our time. Marable rejects both liberal inclusionist strategies and the separatist politics of the likes of Louis Farrakhan. Looking back at African-American politics and the fight against racism of the recent past, and outlining a trenchant analysis of the ‘New Racial Domain’ that must be uprooted, he argues powerfully for a ‘transformationist’ strategy, which retains a distinctive black cultural identity but draws together all the poor and exploited in a united struggle against oppression.

No God but Gain: The Untold Story of Cuban Slavery, the Monroe Doctrine, and the Making of the United States by Stephen Chambers
This breakthrough history, based on years of research into private correspondence; shipping manifests; bills of laden; port, diplomatic, and court records; and periodical literature, makes undeniably clear how decisive illegal slavery was to the making of the United States. US economic development and westward expansion, as well as the growth and wealth of the North, not just the South, was a direct result and driver of illegal slavery. The Monroe Doctrine was created to protect the illegal slave trade.

In an engrossing, elegant, enjoyably readable narrative, Stephen M. Chambers not only shows how illegal slavery has been wholly overlooked in histories of the early Republic, he reveals the crucial role the slave trade played in the lives and fortunes of figures like John Quincy Adams and the “generation of 1815,” the post-revolution cohort that shaped US foreign policy. This is a landmark history that will forever revise the way the early Republic and American economic development is seen.

Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties by Mike Marqusee
This timely antidote to the apolitical celebration of Ali as “a great American” revisits the man and the period with a fresh eye, casting new light on both his courage and his confusions. And, in a new afterword for this second edition, Marqusee reflects on Ali’s legacy in the era of the “war on terror.”

Mike Marqusee puts the great boxer back in his true historical context to explore a crucial moment at the cross-roads of popular culture and mass resistance. He traces Ali’s interaction with the evolving black liberation and anti-war movements, including his brief but fascinating liaison with Malcolm X, as well as his encounters with Martin Luther King. Marqusee’s elegant and forceful narrative explores the origins and impact of Ali’s dramatic public stands on race and the draft, and reinterprets the “Rumble in the Jungle,” shedding new light on its triumph and tragedy. Above all, he imbues Ali’s story with a long-neglected international dimension, revealing why he was embraced with such warmth by diverse peoples across the globe.

The Dialectics of Liberation
edited by David Cooper
One of our Radical Thinkers essential texts, this book compiles the revolutionary speeches from the Dialectics of Liberation congress in London, 1967.  The speeches produced a political groundwork for many of the radical movements in the decades that followed the now legendary congress. This book collates interventions from congress contributors Stokely Carmichael, Herbert Marcuse, R. D. Laing, Paul Sweezy, and others, to explore the roots of social violence.

Against a backdrop of rising student frustration, racism, class inequality, and environmental degradation—a setting familiar to readers today—the conference aimed to create genuine revolutionary momentum by fusing ideology and action on the levels of the individual and of mass society. The Dialectics of Liberation captures the rise of a forceful style of political activity that came to characterize the following years.

News for All the People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media, by Juan González and Joseph Torres
A fast-paced account of how American media contributed to racial segregation. The US media system has traditionally been under the hegemony of white journalists and businessmen (and still is: in 2005, just 7.7% US radio stations and virtually none of the daily newspapers were owned by people of colour, who made up 33% of the country's population). As a result, US white media have often been a vehicle for racist stereotypes, and racial hatred. Covering a number of cases ranging from the anti-abolitionist riots of 1835, to the Camp Grant massacre of Apaches in 1871, News for All the People shows how the white press has an appalling record in inciting racist violence. At the same time, the book tells us also "other" stories: the stories of non-white media (such as the Cherokee Phoenix, established in 1828) and journalists (for example, Thomas Morris Chester, the black correspondent for the Philadelphia Press during the final years of the Civil War), of how the rise of (white) media tycoons in the first half of the Twentieth Century reduced the spaces available to these "other" voices, and thus of how today's battles against media concentration are also battles to overcome the racial divide.

After the Party: Corruption, the ANC and South Africa's Uncertain Future by Andrew Feinstein
A former MP in the South African Parliament, Feinstein questions the record in power of the African National Congress in South Africa; in particular, he denounces the corruption and the power struggles that took place at the top of South African politics under Nelson Mandela's successor Thabo Mbeki. In the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, this important and brave book illustrates the extent to which South Africa's multibillion-dollar arms deal has undermined the rule of law, accountability and constitutionality in the country. A full list of Verso books focusing on Africa can be found here.

White Riot: Punk Rock and the Politics of Race edited by Stephen Duncombe and Maxwell Tremblay
The first comprehensive study about racial identities in the punk scene. The book includes first-person writing, lyrics, letters to zines, and analyses of punk history from across the globe.

Close to the Edge: In Search of the Global Hip Hop Generation by Sujatha Fernandes
Part memoir, part travelogue, part in-depth study of global hip hop culture, this is a vibrant and lyrical journey though the sounds and struggles of today's urban youth. Fernandes traces the black roots of hip hop culture, stressing the role played by figures such as the DJ Afrika Bambaataa, the founder of the Universal Zulu Nation. In the late 1990s, the linkage between hip hop culture and radical black activism was rekindled by the Black August Hip Hop Project.

Britain's Empire: Resistance, Repression and Revolt
by Richard Gott
A lively indictment of the crimes of British colonization and also a panoramic reconstruction of the many anti-colonial struggles against British rule-such as those of the Jamaican Maroons, or the Gambian troops led by Kemintang. Gott's book is the best response to the apologists of British brutal colonialism. 

The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery (1776-1848) by Robin Blackburn
An acclaimed masterpiece on the study of slavery and the abolitionist movement, with a broadened scope which also focuses Instead of focussing only on the anti-slavery campaigns conducted in the metropolis (a traditional limitation of European historians working in the field), The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery also sheds light on the role that slave revolts and resistance had in the decision to abolish slave trade. As Paul Gilroy wrote in a review for New Society, Robin Blackburn "never lets the detail of his European and anti-colonial narratives fog his basic commitment to act in furtherance of their own liberation." Another from Blackburn, The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern (1492-1800) deals with the history of plantation slavery from the fifteenth up to the nineteenth century. Blackburn highlights both the role played by private traders and settlers in establishing plantation slavery, and the intertwined process of racialization of the slave population. The American Crucible: Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights, also by Blackburn, widens the scope of research to slavery into the nineteenth century. The book also examines the case of those countries in which slave emancipation took part in the late 1800s: the United States, Cuba, and Brazil. Once again, the Haitian Revolution emerges as a defining moment for the history not just of abolitionism, but more generally of human rights.

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