In anticipation of the new year I had a discussion with Marc Steiner about the books that had the greatest impact on me over the past year. A Brief History of Seven Killings (Marlon James), Black Silent Majority (Michael Fortner), Between The World and Me (Ta-Nehisi Coates), Octavia’s Brood (Adrienne Maree Brown and Walida Imarisha, editors), and Only the Strong (Jabari Asim).
Briefly, in a Brief History of Seven Killings, James uses an attempted assassination on Bob Marley and a bloody crack house rampage to tell a story about postcolonial governance, globalization, the beginnings of the crack cocaine epidemic, black migration, class, sexuality, and popular culture. Juggling five distinct time periods, the first person perspectives of dozens of characters, and two different spaces (Jamaica and New York) calling this book ambitious is an understatement. I borrowed a Kindle to read it…and then ended up buying a hard copy that I hope to get back to before I die.
Michael Fortner’s Black Silent Majority represents an attempt to contribute to the growing literature on the carceral state by noting the role blacks played in passing the notorious Rockefeller Drug Laws, viewed by many being responsible for what has now been a five decades long punitive approach to crime. Two prominent historians (Donna Murch and Khalil Gibran Muhammad) have both attacked Fortner’s work for assigning too much agency to black populations. While I think both Murch and Muhammad are excellent scholars, in my estimation they both overstate Fortner’s premise. Fortner isn’t suggesting that black people are to blame for the punitive turn. He isn’t suggesting it’s their “fault”. However he is suggesting that we can’t talk about or write about the punitive turn without talking about or studying the attitudes of blacks who tend to be the victim of crime that occurs in black communities. He’s right. Over the past twenty years political officials in Baltimore have increased police spending dramatically. When Martin O’Malley was elected mayor he implemented zero tolerance policies that over a brief three or four year period resulted in more arrests than Baltimore had residents. You think this move didn’t happen without the support of a significant portion of black residents? I’m hoping that the next few decades sees a new wave of scholarship that emphasizes political economy and black heterogeneity and focuses a bit more on history and institutional development than on large N survey research. I think Fortner’s book will do important work in moving this project forward.
Like James’ book, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ work is on every top-ten list worth its salt. And it should be. I think he does a masterful job of communicating the visceral effect the anti-black life equation has on contemporary American life while at the same time recognizing black agency and power. And like Fortner’s book, Between the World and Me has come under scrutiny…but whereas scholars critiqued Fortner for putting too much weight on black agency, scholars have critiqued Coates work for not putting enough weight on black agency. More to the point, they have critiqued Coates’ for being far too pessimistic. I don’t buy this at all. If anything, he is a realist, combining Ralph Ellison’s appreciation of antagonistic cooperation with Richard Wright and James Baldwin’s keen understanding of the visceral impact of racism. Coates set out to write a Baldwin like book. He’s succeeded.
I’ve been a fan of Octavia Butler’s work for decades. Butler’s probably more responsible for putting black life into science fiction than any other author. Now the more I think about this, the crazier it sounds. If there’s anything worth examining through the lens of science fiction it’d be black life. But, you know, white supremacy. What Brown and Imarisha have done is meld Butler’s appreciation for dystopia with their own radical impulses, and the result is impressive. In the video below, Brown, Jennifer Culbert (political theorist, Johns Hopkins University), and I wrestle with Butler’s work and then with Octavia’s Brood. As you can gather, there’s a lot to be mined.
Last but not least we’ve Only the Strong. Although Asim, like the other authors above, has received his fair share of accolades, I don’t think he’s gotten the credit he really deserves. He’s mastered four very different genres, children’s books, young adult fiction, non-fiction, and with A Taste of Honey and Only the Strong, fiction. This, at the same time he’s running The Crisis, teaching Creative Writing at Emerson, and most important of all being husband, father, and now grandfather. With Only the Strong, Asim has introduced a character in Guts Tolliver as interesting as Easy Rawlins, Fearless Jones, or Leonid McGill. And in Gateway City we see a landscape as dense and rich with storytelling possibilities as Mosley’s Los Angeles.
I look at “best of the year” lists the way I look at NBA drafts…with the passage of time some “best ofs” end up being weak, while others end up being pretty strong. I expect each of these books to stand the test of time.
The Public Archive is one of the most insightful blogs I’ve come across over the past several years. They published their best of list, and Knocking the Hustle made the cut. I was honored to even have been considered.
Lester K. Spence’s Knocking the Hustle is the book many of us have long been waiting for. Spence analyzes contemporary racism through the lens of hardnosed political-economic critique while offering a radical interpretation of neoliberalism that accounts for the structuring forces of whitesupremacy. Brilliantly caustic and eminently readable,Knocking the Hustle unravels the culture of insecurity, precarity, and dismal entrepreneurialism that has marked out the terrain of Black political life in a world completely turned over to the market. Necessary reading.