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"We are black..."—Verso books for Black History Month

Leo Goretti10 October 2012

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.

History of slavery and colonialism

Richard Gott's  Britain's Empire: Resistance, Repression and Revolt is soon to be newly published in paperback. 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. 

Robin Blackburn's The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery (1776-1848), first published in 1988, has hitherto been acclaimed as a masterpiece for the study of slavery and the abolitionist movement. 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."

The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery (1776-1848) has been recently been republished in a new edition, as part of the Verso World History Series. The series also features another Robin Blackburn's title, The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern (1492-1800). Dealing with the history of plantation slavery from the fifteenth up to the nineteenth century, Blackburn highlights the intimate link between modernity and slavery—"the dark side of progress." The Making of New World Slavery highlights both the role played by private traders and settlers in establishing plantation slavery, and the intertwined process of racialization of the slave population.

In his most recent The American Crucible: Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights, 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: as Eric Foner notes in a review of the book for The Nation,

Ironically, if ‘the West' is to celebrate the idea of universal human rights as one of its distinctive contributions to modern civilization, part of the credit must go to the mostly African-born slave rebels of Haiti.

Race and racism

In early 2008, Barack Obama revived his presidential campaign by winning the Democrat primary in South Carolina. The victory was greeted by his supporters chanting "race doesn't matter!" Actually, Obama had polled 80 per cent of the African American votes, and no more than 25 of the votes of white Democrats. The striking racial divide among Democrat electors confirms the point made by Manning Marable in Beyond Black and White: Transforming African-American Politics: despite all the calls for ‘post-racial' politics, race still divides the US, politically, economically and socially. According to Marable, however, a separatist approach to politics would be a no-go: instead, African-Americans should value their own cultural identity, but also join all the other oppressed groups in a struggle for change.

Marable's book should be read together with David Roediger's investigation into How Race Survived US History: From Settlement and Slavery to the Obama Phenomenon. The book 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.

David Roediger's works are an illuminating demonstration of how the ideas of "whiteness" and "blackness" are intimately intertwined. 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."

The interrelation of racial, national and class identities is also the crux of the classic dialogue between Étienne Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein on Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities, that has been recently republished in the Verso Radical Thinkers series. Moreover, in November 2012, Verso will also release a new edition of Theodore W. Allen's The Invention of the White Race, a seminal two-volume work that focuses on the birth of racism in seventeenth century America.

News for All the People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media, by Juan González and Joseph Torres, is instead 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.

Our latest title, Racecraft, brings a new language to the perception of racism. Or rather, it immediately challenges by asserting that there is in fact no legitimate language for thinking about or disscussing racism. Barbara and Karen Fields' compelling work is a myth-buster for the complacent ideas regarding the causes of racism. While we may believe racism comes from a close-minded view of human difference, the Fields say otherwise: it is through the practice of racism that we create the illusions of race. Racism, like the many spiraling forms of inequality, exists because we continually fail to confront it. 

Stories of Africa

On 17 January 1961, the first Prime Minister of the Republic of Congo, Patrice Lumumba, was assassinated. Many contemporary observers believed his killing to have been orchestrated by the US and Belgian governments, because of Lumumba's pan-African views and Western rapacious economic interests in the country. Famously, in 1964 Che Guevara stated that "Lumumba's murder should be a lesson" for all anti-imperialist fighters. It took almost forty years, however, for the truth to be uncovered. In his The Assassination of Lumumba, translated into English by Verso in 2001, the sociologist Ludo de Witte revealed the network of complicity in the murder, spreading from Belgium to the CIA and the United Nations. The book is a powerful demonstration of how Western interference in African politics continued far beyond the achievement of formal independence.

A complementary reading to The Assassination of Lumumba is Jules Marchal's Lord Leverhulme's Ghosts: Colonial Exploitation in the Congo. The book is a searing outcry against the system of forced labour implemented in colonial Congo, mainly at the hands of the British entrepreneur Lord Leverhulme. The brutal exploitation of native people reduced the population of Congo by half and accounted for more deaths than the Nazi Holocaust.

Moving to more recent years, Linda Melvern's Conspiracy to Murder: The Rwandan Genocide is a probing account of the events that led to the Rwandan genocide in 1994 (the estimated death toll is between half a million and one million). The book, voted the Best Book on Africa by Foreign Affairs and Outstanding Academic Title by Choice, is also a passionate indictment of the silent accomplices of the massacre sitting in the United Nations and the Western governments.

The idea of Western active intervention in today's Africa, however, is deeply ambiguous. Mahmood Mamdani's Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror is a thought-provoking critique of the Western narrative about the Darfur crisis. Mamdani challenges the idea that the Darfur conflict was an ethnic war between "Arab" perpetrators and "African" victims. Instead, he locates the Darfur crisis in its historical context, and argues that the real origin of the civil war was the growing tensions between tribes with land and tribes looking for land. In his view, calling for a humanitarian intervention in Darfur reflects the ideology lying behind George W. Bush's War on Terror.

The state of South African politics is the focus of Andrew Feinstein's After the Party: Corruption, the ANC and South Africa's Uncertain Future. 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 list of Verso books focusing on Africa can be found here.

Black skin, white music?

Q. Are you black or punk?
A. Both (and yes, FUCK YOU).

It is thus that James Spooner, the director of Afro-Punk, answers nowadays to the question that has nagged him since his teens. Growing up as a biracial kid with a penchant for punk rock was not easy: James felt compelled to choose between a black or a white punk identity.

The complex relationship between musical genre, subculture and racial identity is examined in depth in two new Verso books.

White Riot: Punk Rock and the Politics of Race, edited by Stephen Duncombe and Maxwell Tremblay, is 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.

Part memoir, part travelogue, part in-depth study of global hip hop culture, Close to the Edge: In Search of the Global Hip Hop Generation by Sujatha Fernandes 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.

A core text of black feminism, Michele Wallace's Invisibility Blues: From Pop to Theory also alludes in the title to the importance of music in the construction of gendered racial identities. In the book, Wallace notes how black female blues singer are often portrayed "as a paradigm of commercial, cultural and historical potency." Focussing on the invisibility that haunts black women, in her book Wallace also calls into question the traditional "white" paradigm in Western historiography:

My intention here is to point out the tendency for "history" in the major sense to corrobarate a racist, phallocentric hegemony by always marginalizing, trivializing, and decentering a black subject, even as its specific historical object may involve an apparent focus upon issues of ethnicity or racism or ... "minority revolutions."

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