Our Top 10 Black Classics are not only for independent discerning minds but also the general reader: prejudice is a result of ignorance. The prolific outpouring of support in the press, book trade newsletters and across social media in the wake of the brutal murder of George Floyd in eight minutes and forty-six seconds in Minneapolis gives a glimmer of hope at a time of pandemic bleakness and flawed leadership.
The murder of a black citizen at the hands of a white policeman, and protests against it, is nothing new, and is not only an American problem, but “shooter bias” is prevalent in Britain and Europe too. The 1967 film In the Heat of the Night starring Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger is a must-see film classic.
Myriad anti-racism fiction lists and calls to support black-owned publishers and bookshops have been posted in the wake of the worldwide protests at Floyd’s death. In the UK, publishers like the African Books Collective in Oxford, Peepal Tree Press in Leeds, and in London Cassava Republic Press, HopeRoad Publishing, Jacaranda Books, New Beacon Books and Knights Of children’s books are some of the best independent presses publishing literature from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean that all book lovers can explore. In the US, Black Classic Press has published significant works by and about people of African descent since 1978, and Akashic Books since 1997.
A book can change your life and open windows on to different worlds. I discovered this in my teens when my mother gave me E. R. Braithwaite’s books Honorary White and To Sir, with Love to read. The shelves at home were full of books by storytellers from a wide range of worlds and cultures: what an education! Now that’s what I call privilege — not public school, which is a system set up, as Al Alvarez put it: “to produce people to run the British empire: if you could survive five years at public school, there was nothing the Kalahari desert or Antarctica could throw at you.”
BookBlast® writing agency was founded in 1997 to give voice to new or neglected writers, and to showcase world writing. That the Empire Windrush arrived on the shores of Britain in 1948 carrying with it the hopes and dreams of young men and women from the Caribbean is now common knowledge, and is considered to be a major landmark in the history of modern Britain. But this was not the case over twenty years ago when I was selling the first ever collection of writing charting the impact of the new arrivals on their hosts, edited by TV producer and (then) journalist at The Voice newspaper, Onyekachi Wambu, (now at AFFORD).
The responses of commissioning editors at the major publishing houses ranged from sceptical — “it won’t find an audience,” and puzzled — “its mix of genres is too unorthodox” to downright discriminatory and shockingly ignorant — “Blacks don’t read.”
Mike Petty, at Gollancz — who first published Nick Hornby — had no such doubts and went for it. We clinched the deal in June 1997. The anthology was subsequently picked up by Nick Weir Williams, then Executive V-P and Associate Publisher at Continuum in New York. The US title has resonance: Hurricane Hits England. Regrettably, in 1999, e-books had not yet taken off. Empire Windrush: Fifty Years of Writing About Black Britain would be a good book to feature on the National Curriculum.
There are many great authors at work today, writing vitally important books giving insights into systemic issues of institutional and cultural racism, including Ibram X Kendi whose books Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America and How to be an Anti-Racist are crucial reading.
Taking the long view, this top ten reads list gathers together a varied selection of non-fiction, and a smattering of poetry, that I have read over the years, or that is on my TBR pile. Many of these books seem to have fallen below the mainstream radar since they are not bestsellers per se, or are backlist, but they are essential in terms of quality, ideas, for acquiring deeper understanding and alternative views to the status quo.
“Anonymity was the usual fate of the millions of people who were enslaved in America during the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. With no access to legalised marriage and family life, no rights to make contracts or enter into business relationships, American slaves rarely entered the public record of their own accord. Instead they more often entered as property: the subject of sales, division of estates, and in extreme cases, when they were participants in criminal cases. They do of course appear in private documents. The family letters of slave owners refer to the enslaved, very often those who served in the household and were closely involved in the day-to-day life of masters and mistresses and their children [. . .] Every now and then, a few people, because of circumstances and fortuitous timing, were able to escape the shroud of anonymity. Paul Jennings was just such a person.”
Based on the slave memoir A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison published in 1865, and supporting legal documents, correspondence, journal entries and interviews with Jennings’s descendants, A Slave in the White House is a firsthand account of the relationship between slave and slaveholder. It sheds light on how the benefits of personal freedom and liberty were eloquently expressed in the nation’s founding documents, but only for white, not black, people to enjoy.
James Madison was a founding father of the United States, the fourth American president, and composed the first drafts of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, earning him the nickname “Father of the Constitution.” After Madison died of heart failure, his widow, Dolley, went against his wishes and sold Jennings for 200 USD to an insurance agent. New England senator Daniel Webster then bought Jennings for 120 USD allowing him to purchase his own freedom at a rate of 8USD per month.
Reading A Slave in the White House, I was reminded of how history is filled with examples of practices that were legal at one time that are illegal today, and are viewed retrospectively as immoral. Will the white powers-that-be in America ever come to accept that the reigning economic and racial order cannot go on as is, and embrace moral change, or is racism too ingrained in American culture and law enforcement — supported by a national obsession with guns? As the saying goes, “Not all that is legal is moral, but what is moral is worth legalising.”
A complementary read, The Invisibles: Slavery Inside The White House and How It Helped Shape America by Jesse Holland, tells the story of the African American slaves who lived with the American presidents who owned them. It a gives further insights into presidents and their views as they preached liberty from the pulpit, but disregarded the rights and feelings of those they held in bondage. President Trump is anything but the first racist U.S. president in American history.
“In his commentary on the Rastafari, George Lamming joined the ranks of those members of the Caribbean community who correctly noted that the Rastafari movement carried with it a certain continuity from the days of slavery, a continuity of resistance and confrontation with white racism. The Rastafari movement, in all its contemporary manifestations, challenges not only the Caribbean but the entire Western World to come to terms with the history of slavery, the reality of white racism and the permanent thrust for dignity and self-respect by black people.”
There is more than meets the eye to the dreadlocks and 1970s reggae music of the Rastafarian movement. Rasta and Resistance is a very readable and illuminating study of rebellion against the neo-colonial society of Jamaica from a socio-political perspective, its roots which can be traced back to the 18th century, and the panafrican context out of which the movement emerged.
Ras Tafari Makonnen was crowned as Emperor Haile Selassie I in 1930. He was seen to be the fulfillment of a prophecy that “Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God”, (based on verse 31 of Psalm 68 of the Bible). The most important figure in the early days of the movement was Leonard Howell, a former member of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association.
Rastafarians in Jamaica today see themselves as the conscious heirs of Garveyism. Their call for brotherhood against “downpression” and redemption in the face of racism — one of the most resilient and adaptive social forces in all of human history — and dog-whistle politics, is all too apposite.
Black Looks: Race and Representation – Bell Hooks (Turnaround, 1991)
“A culture of domination demands of all its citizens a self-negation [. . .] One of the tragic ironies of contemporary black life is that individuals succeed in acquiring material privilege often by sacrificing their positive connection to black culture and black experience.”
In twelve iconic essays, the author, professor, feminist and activist, Bell Hooks, examines how American pop culture marginalises, exploits and stereotypes black people across literature, music, and film. She shows how white women often commodify black culture — “fascinated yet envious of black style, Madonna appropriates black culture in ways that mock and undermine, making her presentation one that upstages” — how toxic masculinity within black communities perpetuates homophobia, misogyny and racism, the shared oppression of Native Americans and black individuals, and other incisive insights.
“Resurgence of black nationalism as an expression of black people’s desire to guard against white cultural appropriation indicates the extent to which the commodification of blackness (including the nationalist agenda) has been re-inscribed and marketed with an atavistic narrative, a fantasy of Otherness that reduces protest to spectacle and stimulates even greater longing for the “primitive.”
Bell Hooks tells it as it is, lambasts humbug, and conceptualises power as a resource to be (re)distributed and shared, as opposed to power as domination. Publishers Weekly dubbed her as being “one of the foremost black intellectuals in America today.” Black Looks is one of the best and most thought-provoking books I’ve read in a long time.
Third World Girl, Selected Poems – Jean Binta Breeze With Live readings DVD (Bloodaxe, 2011)
dere’s more to you
“my fingers witlow
from years of cleaning corners
where brush an dustpan
use to plait yuh hair
il it thickness
wid hope an dreams
tie it up wid ribbons
of some rainbow future [. . .]”
— Jean “Binta” Breeze
Introduced by the critic Colin MacCabe, Third World Girl brings together new work, poetry and reggae chants from four previous collections: Riddym Ravings, Spring Cleaning, On the Edge of an Island and The Arrival of Brighteye. Some are included on the accompanying DVD featuring two Jean “Binta” Breeze performances filmed by Pamela Robertson-Pearce at Leicester’s Y Theatre, and an interview with Jane Dowson.
“A major, perhaps even a great voice. For stature, Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze invites a Caribbean comparison with Maya Angelou, except that her range is broader still. Her poetry shifts effortlessly through standard English to a native Jamaican which has no equal in its emotional depth.” – Alexander Linklater, The Herald.
Discourse on Colonialism – Aimé Cesaire translated by Joan Pinkham. Introduction by Robin D.G. Kelley (Monthly Review Press, 2000)
A classic work first published in France in 1955, Discours sur le colonialisme influenced the scholars and activists at the forefront of liberation struggles in Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Nearly two decades later, when published for the first time in English, Discourse on Colonialism inspired a new generation engaged in the Civil Rights, Black Power and anti-war movements.
Aimé Césaire eloquently describes the brutal impact of capitalism and colonialism on both the coloniser and colonised, exposing the contradictions and hypocrisy implicit in western notions of “progress” and “civilization” upon encountering the “savage,” “uncultured,” or “primitive.” Césaire reaffirms African values, identity, and culture and their relevance, reminding us all that “the relationship between consciousness and reality are extremely complex . . . It is equally necessary to decolonise our minds, our inner life, at the same time that we decolonise society.”
The Negritude Poets: An Anthology of Translations from the French – Ellen C. Kennedy, Editor; Maya Angelou, Foreword (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1989)
“In my innermost vein I must hide him,
My ancestor with the lightning-scarred, the stormy skin.
I must hide my guardian animal
Or a scandal will break out.
His is my faithful blood, requiring my fidelity
To protect me from my naked pride,
And the arrogance of lucky races . . .”
— Léopold Sedar Senghor
“Since the 1930s black French language or ‘negritude’ poets have reflected not only an awareness of their ethnic past, but a sensitivity to current events. Damas in Pigments, published in 1937, was even then aware of the horror of Nazi racism toward the Jews and tis threatening implications for the black man. Poems of Roumain in the early 1940s, of Césaire and David Diop in the late 1950s, react to incidents of racial injustice in America as well as those in the French colonies and South Africa [. . .] The American public had little or no notion that the new African poetry in French was closely related not to the African poetry of English-speaking neighbouring lands which blossomed later under different influences, but to work of contemporary black West Indians [. . .]”
The literary movement known as negritude grew out of colonialism, its express aim being to redeem the spiritual and cultural values of a people. This volume presents “a representative spectrum of black poets from the former French colonial empire.” A broader complementary read is Julio Finn’s Voices of Negritude (Quartet Books, 1988) which concludes with a collection of poems translated from the French, Portuguese and Spanish.
The breadth of the appeal and the durability of the poetry featured in both these books is beyond doubt today. Words are used all too often to instill fear and doubt, but words can also be used to create beauty and hope, and to make people believe in the right things. The writing of the negritude poets may be known in literary circles and to readers of African origin, but has never enjoyed the mainstream acclaim it so deserves.
Women Race & Class – Angela Davis (The Women’s Press, 1983)
“Proportionately, more black women have always worked outside the home than their white sisters. The enormous space that work occupies in Black women’s lives today follows a pattern established during the very earliest days of slavery. As slaves, compulsory labour overshadowed every other aspect of women’s existence. The salve system defined black people as chattel. [. . .] In the words of one scholar, ‘the salve woman was first a full time worker for her owner, and only incidentally a wife, mother and home-maker.’ [. . .] Uncle Tom and sambo have always found faithful companions in Aunt Jemima and the Black Mammy.”
Although this book was written over thirty years ago by foremost American political activist, academic and author, Angela Davis, re-reading certain sections of the book, I wonder how much progress has in fact been made in the light of recent events.
President Trump has assiduously targeted women, black people, Latinos, Muslims and immigrants: reactionary authoritarianism, it seems, is alive and well. His stance highlights the material differences that come with being black or poor or female in America, and gives credence to the view held by many that the American political project is based upon white supremacists exacerbating divisions so that they can fleece people of colour.
Angela Davis teaches at UCLA and elsewhere as a visiting professor, and is committed to the importance of “liberating minds as well as liberating society.” A controversial figure, it is important to read her for yourself with a clear mind, and consider her views.
Her exposé on the legacy of slavery, its dehumanising rigours and impact on family; the link between the anti-slavery campaign and the struggle for women’s rights; class and race in the early women’s rights campaign; racism in the women’s suffrage movement; education and liberation; working women; communist women; racism, birth control and reproduction rights; and the counter-productive divisions within the women’s movement remain urgent questions. In the early 1970s, she spent eighteen months in jail and on trial, after being placed on the FBI’s “10 Most Wanted List.” A trailblazer fighting for women’s rights and race relations and an inspirational figure, her struggles have paved the way for future generations.
Communion: The Female Search for Love – Bell Hooks (William Morrow, 2002)
What does love actually mean and how is it manifested? What makes it last in a relationship? What does a woman come up against when she seeks to achieve unconditional self-love? In our patriarchal society – the underlying principle of which is domination and control – it is not only women who are robbed of freedom and power, but men also.
In The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love, Bell Hooks writes: “Learning to wear a mask (that word already embedded in the term ‘masculinity’) is the first lesson in patriarchal masculinity that a boy learns. He learns that his core feelings cannot be expressed if they do not conform to the acceptable behaviors sexism defines as male. Asked to give up the true self in order to realize the patriarchal ideal, boys learn self-betrayal early and are rewarded for these acts of soul murder.”
Communion: The Female Search for Love is the third title in her love trilogy. Looking for love, finding freedom; ageing to love, loving to age; finding balance: work and love; gaining power, losing love; women who fail at loving; choosing and learning to love; the search for men who love . . . Bell Hooks explores the ways ideas about women and love have been changed by the feminist movement, by women’s full participation in the workforce, and the culture of self-help.
Women want to be powerful in ways that enhance, rather than diminish, the power of others. “The absence of a hierarchy in which someone is on top and someone on the bottom based on gender creates an environment where sharing and reciprocity is more the norm . . . Males who have been raised from the time they were bon rot be holistic, to develop emotionally and intellectually, do not fear that loving makes them weak or that a powerful woman diminishes them.”
Walter Rodney Speaks: The Making of an African Intellectual – edited by Robert Hill, with an introduction by Howard Dodson, (Africa World Press, 2015)
“When we were studying at the university in Jamaica, C.L.R. James’ Black Jacobins and Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery were really two of the foremost texts that informed national consciousness [. . .] One could recognize one’s self in that history. One could feel with it [. . .] My experience of English society, of its racism, and of its exploitation was in a sense second-hand. Yet I understood it because I lived among West Indian workers, and I understood what it meant to be part of the most exploited section of the working class in that society.”
This short book was developed from transcripts of conversations held over two days in April 1975, in Amherst, Massachusetts. The son of a tailor, Walter Rodney was a prominent Guyanese historian, political activist and academic who was assassinated in 1980.
His revolutionary ideas about black power, advocacy of African liberation, and views on the relationship between race and class in black political and social development highlight the crisis in capitalism and imperialism. Rodney’s groundbreaking book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, (Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications, 1972), is considered to be one of the most important works written in the last century about African development and post-colonial theory alongside Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth.
White Bolts, Black Locks: Participation in the Inner City – David N. Thomas (Allen & Unwin, 1986)
“This is an exploratory study of the relationship between black and white people as it affects participation in community groups in urban neighbourhoods. In essence it is about the racism of white individuals, groups and institutions, but it is also an attempt to search for, and to ask for, more recognition of the complexity of black-white relationships. The study explores some aspects of the community participation of black British citizens who were born here and/or have spent the greater part of their lives in this country [. . .] The project began in October 1984 and ended in the Spring of 1985. The first draft of this book was completed by June 1985, and distributed for comments to over 100 people in the summer of that year.”
This intense, informative book was written, in part, as an investigative response to the 1981 riots in Brixton, London; Toxteth, Liverpool; Handsworth, Birmingham; Chapeltown, Leeds; and Moss Side, Manchester. Over thirty years ago now, the Scarman report concluded that the 1981 Brixton riots were essentially an outburst of anger over the stop-and-search operation known as ‘Swamp 81’.
The 1985 Brixton riots began after a police raid on Michael Groce’s house (he was in his sister’s flat) and in the ensuing confusion, his mother, Cherry, was shot in bed. She was permanently paralysed from the chest down. Anger over stop and search was implicated in the outbreak of rioting across the country more recently in 2011. Use of stop and search may have fallen by almost 75% since January 2012, but black Londoners are still being stopped and searched at three times the rate of their white counterparts.
Although social conditions, training and awareness have improved, and the strong anti-discrimination laws of 1965-1976-2001 mean overtly racist incidents have become more of an exception than the rule, unconscious bias is still rife. In March 2020, the publication of the independent inquiry into the government’s handling of the Windrush scandal, when British citizens were wrongly deported, dismissed from their jobs and deprived of services like NHS care, was damning about institutional racism, and called into question British immigration policy and Home Office practice. And now, the Covid 19 crisis has thrown into sharp relief the black-white economic gap. National economic relief needs to reach the country’s most vulnerable places.
Will all the calls for social justice and inclusivity lead to genuinely equal cultural exchange, and long-lasting change in the political mindset and the law? Solidarity means nothing if words are not backed up by meaningful action. Eve Ensler sums it up eloquently: “Bullets are hardened tears, that’s where it all goes when you cut off your heart.”
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