Reading the History of Slavery: 3 Experts Offer Book Recommendations

Perhaps more than ever, we need to better educate ourselves on the history of slavery, and consider the ways in which it informs how we have arrived at the present. We invited three prominent scholars to recommend books that speak to the current historical moment and help us better understand the protests. Below are the recommendations of Sowande’ M. Mustakeem, Manuel Barcia, and Ana Lucia Araujo.

Sowande’ M. Mustakeem‘s Recommendations

Sowande’ M. Mustakeem is an Associate Professor in the Departments of History & African American and African Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. Her research and teaching interests focus on race, gender, slavery, violence, illness, criminality, and public memory of the past.  She has been featured on BBC radio, the PBS documentary series “Many Rivers to Cross,” Vox, and recently on the ABWH-TV episode, “Black Women, History, and State Violence.” Dr. Mustakeem is the two-time award-winning author of Slavery at Sea: Terror, Sex, and Sickness in the Middle Passage, published through The University of Illinois Press in 2016 (Wesley-Logan prize for the best book for the history of the African Diaspora jointly awarded in 2017 by The American Historical Association and the Association for the Study of African American Life and history; and the 2020 Dred Scott Freedom Award for Historical Literacy Excellence from the Dred Scott Heritage Foundation.) She is on Twitter @somustakeem.

  1. Julius Scott, The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution

This iconic book speaks to what we all see unfolding in the world today where masses are seeing, becoming, and most of all moving ideas that are taking collective hold across the globe. A new common wind is indeed blowing, and when we can understand and therefore historically trace the power of the seen and unseen in the movement of political ideas transmitted in unexpected yet everyday worlds of many peoples, as Julius Scott offers, then we can go deeper in understanding the power of the collective to make incredible changes for a better future. One of the most highly sought out intellectual histories of slavery that centers “rumors of emancipation,” this book shows the parallel not only to protest but the unending fears of the global influence that mobilization can have. Scott shows us how the modern revolutionary era was made in gripping detail, exposing the interlinks and networks among the masses of bond people, as well as the free. He shows and therefore centers colliding worlds amid insurrections on and off land, tracking the diasporic currents and showing even more how ideas of Black resistance flowed to become the catalyst for nuanced visions of freedom, forever changing the transatlantic world.

  1. João José Reis, Death is a Festival: Funeral Rites and Rebellion in Nineteenth-Century Brazil

Death appears to be taking hold of the world right before our eyes, changing every aspect of how we make sense of the living and make room for the dead, in the middle of massive global health changes. João José Reis shows how a similar history began in 1836 with a revolt in Brazil, while intricately laying out the many lessons that we can learn when attempts to transform ideas of cleanliness and funerary culture result in demands for revolution and change. He goes much further to show how a people’s led implosion can happen when massive change is forced in the name of modernity, and other entangled ideas of politics, class, and medical power attempt to forever alter normal ways of living and grieving. This award-winning social history of death and funeral rites during the early decades of Brazil’s independence from Portugal centers customs of death and burial in Bahian society while calling useful attention to the massive attempts and subsequent conflicts behind the move for funerary reforms. It demonstrates how the policing of everyday rituals of dying were sparked by modernization and distant ideals of science.

  1. Kennetta Hammond Perry, London is the Place for Me: Black Britons, Citizenship and the Politics of Race

As the world reflects on the enduring meaning of race and racism not only within America but across the globe, place, belonging, and who racially matters in the living and historical memory of nations has taken global view. Kennetta Hammond Perry centers this critical need for remembrance while making clear how racism and the policing of Black bodies within Britain extended towards the post-World War II wave of Afro-Caribbean migrants who made claims to a British identity and imperial citizenship owing to what they saw as a part of their birthright. While Britain historically and even contemporarily is touted as less burdened by racism and racial injustices in contrast to America, Perry shows up close how Afro Caribbean migrants arrived in a nation that was frequently hostile and violently unwilling to incorporate Black people as British. She dynamically shows how their confrontation with historically entangled racial politics continually denied their British citizenship and in turn led to the expansive growth of political agents challenging anti-Black racism to redefine the boundaries of what it meant to be both Black and British. Race and the Black experience in Europe is critically centered while showing the critical role that Black people historically played in the formation of contemporary British society, much as in many global cities.

  1. Vincent Harding, There is A River: The Black Struggle For Freedom in America

Every generation is part of a river flow of new ideas, change, and movement towards something new. For this historic moment, the work of noted historian, theologian, and civil rights activist, Vincent Harding is befitting given his iconic text, published in 1981, where he wrote about the river of struggle and the unending rise of revolution, protest, and demands that yet still flow from the slave ship onward to the shores of the Americas, where Black people continuously fought for better. The present moment represents a contour in that river that will flow continuously into the future, and that must be remembered. Harding provides an unflinching and deeply poetic text, chronicling an important history of blackness and the endless quest for freedom in a nation racially aggressive against Black equality and justice. Harding intentionally resurrects forgotten heroes, tracing the struggle of their descendants in order to keep the spirit and dreams of an uprooted people central in the minds of future generations.

  1. Mamie Till Mobley, Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America

As the world mourns George Floyd and the growing body count of Black people, communal mourning has been set upon the global stage. The story of both Emmett Till and his mother, Mamie Till Mobley, who ensured his memory lived on, can prove instructive on how a hate crime can alter the course of a nation and its people, and can offer insight as to why protest happens. Moreover, this important text sheds critical light on Black journalism, local Black leadership, and the complicated evolution of American society through Black politics post-1955. The story of Emmett Till’s mother remains significant today, as she recounts the story of her life and that of her son, as well as his tragic death at the age of 14 in 1955. For example, the reader gains insight into the courageous decision to have an open-casket funeral, and to commit to a life of activism. In telling her story, she recounts, too, the dawn of the civil rights movement, which her son’s brutal murder, and her activism, helped galvanize, leaving an indelible mark on our racial consciousness, one from which we can all learn.

Manuel Barcia‘s Recommendations

Manuel Barcia is Chair of Global History at the University of Leeds, and an editor of Atlantic Studies. He has written extensively on the history of slavery and the slave trade in the nineteenth-century Atlantic World. His most recent book, entitled The Yellow Demon of Fever: Fighting Disease in the Nineteenth-Century Slave Trade, was published earlier this year by Yale University Press. He is on Twitter @MBarcia24.

  1. William C. Van Norman Jr. Shade Grown Slavery: The Lives of Slaves on Coffee Plantations in Cuba

Van Norman Jr.’s book on coffee plantations in nineteenth-century Cuba rectifies the shortcomings of a historiography almost exclusively focused on sugar production and commerce. Although he explores a plethora of issues, it soon becomes apparent that the enslaved and their lives on coffee holdings are at the very center of the book, just as the title suggests. Some of the arguments presented here are groundbreaking. Being the first book completely dedicated to the study of daily life on coffee plantations in Cuba, one of its main strengths is, precisely, the many new avenues for research that it has opened.

  1. Kay Wright Lewis. A Curse upon the Nation: Race, Freedom, and Extermination in America and the Atlantic World

This important volume offers an innovative, profound, and striking approach on the origins of racialized violence in the United States. By taking into account numerous instances of such violence recorded over the years, Wright Lewis takes us on a tour of a nation tainted by violence, often justified by the strident tones of the Manifest Destiny doctrine. A Curse upon the Nation is a paradigmatic example of current scholarship on the history of the African and African-descendant populations in the Atlantic World. Wright Lewis’ ideas are original, her prose is absorbing, and her contribution goes well beyond that of a simple historical study in the sense that it will serve to inform not only current historiographical debates, but also public debates on the situation of African Americans in the United States today.

  1. Ada Ferrer. Freedom’s Mirror: Cuba and Haiti in the Age of Revolution

This wonderful book deals with the relationship between the French colony of Saint Domingue and the neighboring Spanish colony of Cuba, during a period in which the former underwent a revolt that turned into revolution, while the latter profited from it. In that respect, the title could not be more appropriate. Although studies on the Haitian Revolution and its repercussions across the region abound by now, Ferrer’s take on the events is certainly novel. Not only does she look in detail into those revolutionary repercussions in early nineteenth-century Cuba, but she also digs out and exposes the almost unknown story of the Cuban-Spanish military intervention in the war that engulfed Saint Domingue, and eventually Spanish Santo Domingo, from 1791 onwards.

  1. Walter Hawthorne. From Africa to Brazil: Culture, Identity, and an Atlantic Slave Trade, 1600–1830

Walter Hawthorne’s book of the Upper Guineans in Maranhão and Pará is a refreshing, innovative and groundbreaking study of the connections that existed between Africa and the Americas during the centuries of slave trade. Both theoretically and especially methodologically, this book offers new ways of looking at and writing the history of the Africans in the Americas. Its contribution and value as a pillar amongst the new studies of slavery in the Atlantic World is unquestionable.

  1. Rosanne M. Adderley. “New Negroes from Africa”: Slave Trade Abolition and the Free African Settlement in the Nineteenth‐Century Caribbean

An outstanding study of two periods in the history of a human group that had the misfortune of being uprooted from its homelands to another continent against their own will. Adderley does answer many questions in this monograph, but she also poses many new ones that now need to be answered. Just to mention an example, her discussion of the patterns of resettlement of the liberated Africans in the British Caribbean will be a welcome addition to those scholars involved in the endless discussion about the profitability of free labor versus slave labor in plantation societies. But there is more in Adderley’s book that needs to be taken into consideration by anyone studying the history of the Africans in the Atlantic World.

Ana Lucia Araujo‘s Recommendations

Ana Lucia Araujo is a professor of history at historically black Howard University. She is the author and editor of a dozen of books, including  Reparations for Slavery and the Slave Trade: A Transnational and Comparative History (2017). She is also a member of the International Scientific Committee of the UNESCO Slave Route Project. Her book Slavery in the Age of Memory: Engaging the Past will be published in October 2020. Follow her on twitter at @analuciaraujo_.

Preface to Araujo’s list: The murder of George Floyd ignited anti-racist protests all over the United States. Black international solidarity emerged in Britain, Belgium, Brazil, France, Portugal, and other countries. As demonstrators denounce the murder of black citizens by the police of these nations, they also put down monuments to white supremacy that still populate European and American cities. In this post, I recommend six books that I think may help us better understand the protests, why they are happening, their symbolic dimensions, and what may be accomplished through them.

1.     Ariella Aïsha Azoulay Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism

“In this theoretical tour-de-force, renowned scholar Ariella Aïsha Azoulay calls on us to recognize the imperial foundations of knowledge and to refuse its strictures and its many violences. Azoulay argues that the institutions that make our world, from archives and museums to ideas of sovereignty and human rights to history itself, are all dependent on imperial modes of thinking. Imperialism has segmented populations into differentially governed groups, continually emphasized the possibility of progress while it tries to destroy what came before, and voraciously seeks out the new by sealing the past away in dusty archival boxes and the glass vitrines of museums. By practicing what she calls potential history, Azoulay argues that we can still refuse the original imperial violence that shattered communities, lives, and worlds, from native peoples in the Americas at the moment of conquest to the Congo ruled by Belgium’s brutal King Léopold II, from dispossessed Palestinians in 1948 to displaced refugees in our own day. In Potential History, Azoulay travels alongside historical companions—an old Palestinian man who refused to leave his village in 1948, an anonymous woman in war-ravaged Berlin, looted objects and documents torn from their worlds and now housed in archives and museums—to chart the ways imperialism has sought to order time, space, and politics. Rather than looking for a new future, Azoulay calls upon us to rewind history and unlearn our imperial rights, to continue to refuse imperial violence by making present what was invented as ‘past’ and making the repair of torn worlds the substance of politics.”

2.     Keisha N. Blain, Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom

Set the World on Fire is the first book to examine how black nationalist women engaged in national and global politics from the early twentieth century to the 1960s. Historians of the era generally portray the period between the Garvey movement of the 1920s and the Black Power movement of the 1960s as one of declining black nationalist activism, but Keisha N. Blain reframes the Great Depression, World War II, and the early Cold War as significant eras of black nationalist—and particularly, black nationalist women’s—ferment. In Chicago, Harlem, and the Mississippi Delta, from Britain to Jamaica, these women built alliances with people of color around the globe, agitating for the rights and liberation of black people in the United States and across the African diaspora. As pragmatic activists, they employed multiple protest strategies and tactics, combined numerous religious and political ideologies, and forged unlikely alliances in their struggles for freedom. Drawing on a variety of previously untapped sources, including newspapers, government records, songs, and poetry, Set the World on Fire highlights the flexibility, adaptability, and experimentation of black women leaders who demanded equal recognition and participation in global civil society.”

3.     Vincent Brown, Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of An Atlantic War

This book is “a gripping account of the largest slave revolt in the eighteenth-century British Atlantic world, an uprising that laid bare the interconnectedness of Europe, Africa, and America, shook the foundations of empire, and reshaped ideas of race and popular belonging.In the second half of the eighteenth century, as European imperial conflicts extended the domain of capitalist agriculture, warring African factions fed their captives to the transatlantic slave trade while masters struggled continuously to keep their restive slaves under the yoke. In this contentious atmosphere, a movement of enslaved West Africans in Jamaica (then called Coromantees) organized to throw off that yoke by violence. Their uprising—which became known as Tacky’s Revolt—featured a style of fighting increasingly familiar today: scattered militias opposing great powers, with fighters hard to distinguish from noncombatants. It was also part of a more extended borderless conflict that spread from Africa to the Americas and across the island. Even after it was put down, the insurgency rumbled throughout the British Empire at a time when slavery seemed the dependable bedrock of its dominion. That certitude would never be the same, nor would the views of black lives, which came to inspire both more fear and more sympathy than before. Tracing the roots, routes, and reverberations of this event across disparate parts of the Atlantic world, Vincent Brown offers us a superb geopolitical thriller. Tacky’s Revolt expands our understanding of the relationship between European, African, and American history, as it speaks to our understanding of wars of terror today.”

4.     Felix German, and Silyane Larcher, Black French Women and the Struggle for Equality, 1848-2016

Black French Women and the Struggle for Equality, 1848–2016 explores how black women in France itself, the French Caribbean, Gorée, Dakar, Rufisque, and Saint-Louis experienced and reacted to French colonialism and how gendered readings of colonization, decolonization, and social movements cast new light on the history of French colonization and of black France. In addition to delineating the powerful contributions of black French women in the struggle for equality, contributors also look at the experiences of African American women in Paris and in so doing integrate into colonial and postcolonial conversations the strategies black women have engaged in negotiating gender and race relations à la française. Drawing on research by scholars from different disciplinary backgrounds and countries, this collection offers a fresh, multidimensional perspective on race, class, and gender relations in France and its former colonies, exploring how black women have negotiated the boundaries of patriarchy and racism from their emancipation from slavery to the second decade of the twenty-first century.”

5.     Achille Mbembe,  Necropolitics

“In Necropolitics Achille Mbembe, a leader in the new wave of francophone critical theory, theorizes the genealogy of the contemporary world, a world plagued by ever-increasing inequality, militarization, enmity, and terror as well as by a resurgence of racist, fascist, and nationalist forces determined to exclude and kill. He outlines how democracy has begun to embrace its dark side—what he calls its ‘nocturnal body’—which is based on the desires, fears, affects, relations, and violence that drove colonialism. This shift has hollowed out democracy, thereby eroding the very values, rights, and freedoms liberal democracy routinely celebrates. As a result, war has become the sacrament of our times in a conception of sovereignty that operates by annihilating all those considered enemies of the state. Despite his dire diagnosis, Mbembe draws on post-Foucauldian debates on biopolitics, war, and race as well as Fanon’s notion of care as a shared vulnerability to explore how new conceptions of the human that transcend humanism might come to pass. These new conceptions would allow us to encounter the Other not as a thing to exclude but as a person with whom to build a more just world.”

6.     Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being

“In this original and trenchant work, Christina Sharpe interrogates literary, visual, cinematic, and quotidian representations of Black life that comprise what she calls the ‘orthography of the wake.’ Activating multiple registers of ‘wake’—the path behind a ship, keeping watch with the dead, coming to consciousness—Sharpe illustrates how Black lives are swept up and animated by the afterlives of slavery, and she delineates what survives despite such insistent violence and negation. Initiating and describing a theory and method of reading the metaphors and materiality of ‘the wake,’ ‘the ship,’ ‘the hold,’ and ‘the weather,’ Sharpe shows how the sign of the slave ship marks and haunts contemporary Black life in the diaspora and how the specter of the hold produces conditions of containment, regulation, and punishment, but also something in excess of them. In the weather, Sharpe situates anti-Blackness and white supremacy as the total climate that produces premature Black death as normative. Formulating the wake and ‘wake work’ as sites of artistic production, resistance, consciousness, and possibility for living in diaspora, In the Wake offers a way forward.”

What books would you recommend?

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