A reading list of nine essential books on black history and the struggle against racism
1Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain
Peter Fryer (London 1984)
This remains an essential reader for anyone wanting to understand the roots of the British establishment’s embrace of racism. Inspired by the 1981 Brixton riots, it is a detailed unpicking of the threads of profit, slavery and racism. From the opening sentence - “There were Africans in Britain before the English came here.” – to the closing line, ‘traces of black life have been removed from the British past to ensure that blacks are not part of the British future’, there is much that those inspired by the BLM protests can draw on.
It is no coincidence, as Fryer makes explicit, that the major uprisings against institutionalized racial oppression have been centred on those port-cities most integral to the abomination of the slave trade – London, Bristol and Liverpool. And it is no coincidence that those most closely tied to the institutions of “British democracy” are the most appalled by the attacks on the icons of that institution, and the weakest in their condemnation of the attacks (and murders) of actual, real people.
It’s not short; it’s not light; but Fryer’s work remains an essential tool for those who work not just to pull down statues, but to pull down the social structure that erected them in the first place. RA
2Women, Race and Class
Angela Davis (New York 1981)
In Women, Race and Class, Angela Davis outlines the fundamental sense in which the struggle for women’s rights and for black liberation were connected to the struggle against capitalism. The book examines the condition of women’s lives under slavery and the role of black women as profitable to the modern capitalist system, where racism and exploitation combined to force them into the worst jobs.
Davis argues that sections of the white feminist movement accepted the conditions of capitalism, and by failing to challenge the existing economic order, were bound to fail working-class and black women. She talks about how people like Sojourner Truth exposed the racism and class-bias of the new women’s movement and of the dangers of fighting on a sectional basis, effectively neglecting the root of oppression embodied in the capitalist system. She notes that both white and black workers were victims of economic exploitation but they always resisted, from the very beginning of slavery. This book contains an urgent analysis that is all the more relevant in the political and economic upheaval of our times. It is an antidote to pessimism, arguing not only for the possibility of revolution but the necessity of being a revolutionary. FI
3Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire
Akala (London 2018)
A powerful account of the rapper and musician Akala’s upbringing as a working class child racialised as black. It offers a sharp analysis of the history of racism as a product of British imperialism and capitalism and charts the way racist ideas have persisted amongst the British ruling classes.
Growing up in London with his mother, Akala describes the path that society leads young, black men down and the struggle that he faced to avoid it. He outlines how the state neglects and demonises black people and crushes many young black people’s hopes and ambitions, preferring to incarcerate them disproportionately.
The chapter titled “Why do white people love Mandela? Why do Conservatives hate Castro?” points out that people who fight against racism are only lauded as heroes by the ruling class if they don’t challenge the power structure. Mandela stopped short of challenging South Africa capitalism, whereas Castro is vilified because he tried to revolutionise class relationships.
The book finishes by facing the challenge of an emboldened right with the hope that there will be many race and class struggles ahead giving birth to new forms of resistance and struggle for change. JE
4Capitalism and Slavery
Eric Williams (London 1944)
Capitalism and Slavery pioneered an analysis of the transatlantic slave trade rooted in historical materialism. The book attacked both the ruthlessness of the British ruling class of previous centuries that profited from ‘the Middle Passage’ and the hypocrisy of their modern descendants who tried to obscure how their status was rooted in slavery. Before Eric Williams’ study, conventional history preferred to neglect British participation in the establishment of the slave trade and focus primarily on the alleged humanitarianism that motivated its abolition.
What became known as the ‘Williams Thesis’ was founded on two revolutionary new perspectives. Firstly, that Britain’s ascent to becoming the dominant industrial power of the nineteenth century was directly founded on the profits its ruling class had accumulated from transatlantic slavery; and secondly that the abolition of the trade within the British Empire was largely the consequence of its declining profitability, rather than the benign intervention of reformers such as Wilberforce. 75 years later, this pioneering work remains the starting point for the Marxist analysis of how racism is not an incurable prejudice but one of the outcomes of class-based exploitation. SL
5Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression
Robin Kelley (North Carolina 1990)
Robin Kelley's book covers a period before the Civil Rights movement but one that helped shape it. The communists focused on three things in the 1930s.
First unemployment - raising demands for work and government support. Second, they made an international issue of the Scottsboro case in 1931, in which nine young black men were falsely arrested for raping two white women. Unlike the conservative NAACP which focused on whether or not the boys were guilty, the communists demonstrated that these accusations were part of a history of oppression; that the boys were in fact class war prisoners; that they were the victims. Thirdly, the communists organised around civil rights; the right to vote and against segregation.
The Communist Party probably never had more than 6/700 members in the South. However, its militant but non-sectarian campaigning meant that it touched the lives of tens of thousands. The complex history of the Communist Party in this period cannot be divorced from the history of Stalin's Russia. But the importance of the Communist Party work among black workers and the poor must not be underestimated.
We're all familiar with an activist whose first issue was the Scottsboro case. While she never joined the Party she attended their meetings. Her name was Rosa Parks. UM
6Detroit: I Do Mind Dying: A Study in Urban Revolution
Dan Georgakas & Marvin Surkin, (Massachusetts 1974)
Georgakas and Surkin tell here the extraordinary story of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement and the League of Black Revolutionary Workers in 1960s Detroit. Following civil rights legislation in 1965, the focus of the US struggle shifted from the segregated south to the ghettos of the north. This was when Martin Luther King launched his Poor People’s Campaign and the Black Panther Party spread beyond its base in Oakland.
Much less known are the black revolutionaries who, following the 1967 Detroit uprising, set up the Inner City Voice paper. Influenced by Marxism and black nationalism, they combined community campaigns with international issues and the struggle of black workers inside Detroit’s car factories. Following wildcat strikes, the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) was born. It fought the car corporations which ran the city and the United Auto Workers Union leadership which collaborated with the employers. It led a series of heroic struggles that attracted militants across Detroit and shook the motor city powers that be.
The late Manning Marable considered the League’s attempt to fuse the black liberation with working class militancy as the most significant expression of black activism at that time. As new opportunities open up to do the same today, this is an essential read. TW
7The Making of the Black Working Class in Britain
Ron Ramdin (London 1987)
This is a classic examination of the centrality of black workers to working class struggles and movements in Britain. Born in Trinidad of Indian parentage, Ramdin came to Britain in 1962 and was witness to some of the key moments in anti-racist struggle of the twentieth century. The Making of the Black Working Class in Britain charts the development of Back British communities from the sixteen century, though to the post-war demand for colonial labour that irrevocably changed the character of British society. It charts the continued struggles against racism and exploitation and the emergence of an inclusive black radical ideology developed on picket lines, in communities and by such activists as Darcus Howe and AmbalavanerSivanandan. Last year I was fortunate to attend a lecture by Ron Ramdin in Liverpool. His understanding of the structural nature of racism, and its relationship to capitalism remains as sharp and relevant today as his book. MH
8Communists in Harlem During the Depression
Mark Naison (Illinois 1983)
A fascinating investigation into a half-forgotten history. Mark Naison shows that by the later1930s the Communist Party was the leading force in the great struggles in Harlem, attracting many talented black organisers and intellectuals. The party won this role through uncompromising militancy and a willingness to forge alliances with black organisations and between black and white working people. This was a strategic combination more effective than the liberal approach of National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People and the more narrowly-based black nationalist organisations. The Communists’ reputation for relentless campaigning against unemployment, rackrenting and racist policing was enhanced by the national campaign in defence of the Scottsboro boys, nine African American teenagers falsely accused in Alabama of raping two white women. Its campaign against the Italian invasion of Ethiopia was also hugely popular.
Naison is excellent too on the way the party's Stalinist politics led to decline in Harlem. First the turn towards popular front respectability left militants feeling betrayed, then Stalin's pact with Hitler in 1939 shredded the party’s anti-racist credentials. These disastrous Stalinist twists and turns understandably make Naison sound a little cynical about the project. But this remains a fantastically useful account of a high point in anti-racist organising. CN
9The Black Jacobins
C L R James, (London 1938)
The Black Jacobins is the classic history of one of the most important revolutions in modern history. The uprising of the slaves of the French colony of Saint-Domingue in 1791, which as a result became renamed Haiti, sent shock waves throughout the Atlantic world, no less than the revolutionary actions of the working people of Paris which inspired it. C. L. R. James tells the story of the reception the ideas of liberty and equality had on the people of the colony, slaves and free people of colour alike, who were determined that the new equality should apply to them too.
Toussaint L’Ouverture, a slave at the time of the uprising, became a key leader of the revolution. James (1901-1989), a socialist revolutionary from Trinidad, shows his strategic brilliance and political sophistication in knitting together alliances of slaves and free people of the colony. The book remains essential reading all these decades later.
Reviews by Richard Allday, Feyzi Ismail, Jamal Elaheebocus, Sean Ledwith, Unjum Mirza, Tom Whittaker, Madeline Heneghan, Chris Nineham and Dominic Alexander
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