The books in focus explore the ways an anti-black world tries to interdict the possibilities of Black life, and how Black people resist and overcome such assaults.
“I don’t know of any Black scholar that would be able to do the work we’re endeavouring to do now without the brilliance of Toni Morrison.”
In this series we ask organizers, artists, and academics to share books that inform their thinking about abolition. This week’s contributor is Jade Bentil.
Three books that radicalized me:
Nervous Conditions, by Tsitsi Dangarembga
Nervous Conditions is one of the most beautiful and urgent novels I’ve ever read. Through the experiences of two Black girls, Tambu and Nyasha, Tsitsi Dangarembga charts the myriad forms of coloniality, dispossession, ruptured kinship and patriarchal domination that come to bear upon a Shona family living in 1960s pre-independence Zimbabwe. What I found the most profound about this book was its exploration of mental health and eating disorders within the experiences of young Black girls and women. When I read it in my teens, I’d never before come across any recognition of the many physiological and psychological ways that anti-blackness and misogyny are mapped onto and through our bodies.
This book was also key to my understanding of what it means for Black people to be indigenous to Africa and the scale of loss, displacement and generational trauma that proceeded in the wake of colonialism, and in the specific context of then-Rhodesia, settler colonialism. This was my first understanding of what it meant to have an autochthonic connection to the earth and land disrupted and what it might mean for us to abolish the conditions upon which such rupture is made manifest.
The Heart of the Race, by Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie, and Suzanne Scafe
I first read The Heart of the Race in 2016 when I began my research on the historical narratives of Black women in Britain. Every year since then, I’ve returned to it and found new dimensions that shape how I understand myself as a Black woman in Britain and in relation to the world. The Heart of the Race is a groundbreaking book written by Black feminist scholars Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie and Suzanne Scafe about the historical resistance of Black women under slavery, colonialism and neo-colonialism. Published in 1985, the book is colossal in its breadth as it spans across centuries, bringing us into the contemporary context that the writers were organising within and speaking to: Black feminist activism in 1980’s Britain.
For me, this book allowed me to truly understand what it means to speak from a location, but not be of it. To know what it means to address place and space, and from that position, speak against the organizing logics of nation-states and borders. Each time I re-read it, it reminds me of the atemporality of Black life – they were writing in the mid-eighties and they’re also speaking to 2020.
Scenes of Subjection, by Saidiya Hartman
Scenes is very much a book that I consider to be both foundational to Black Studies and my own work. Hartman interrogates the forms of anti-black terror that shape Black life, but are typically obfuscated under the rubrics of humanity and the rights of Man. This work is particularly important because it contends with violence against the enslaved that is not considered “exceptional” or “spectacular” in its dimensions – Hartman places brutality that is quotidian in its nature under the microscope. In doing so, we’re both able to grapple with the myriad grammars of anti-blackness whilst also understanding the many ways in which Black people have historically revolted, resisted and rebelled against these constitutive conditions.
Scenes is important because it is a part of a Black feminist genealogy that can be located within the work of Hortense Spillers and Sylvia Wynter that critically examines the conceptualizations of civil society that are customarily taken for granted, such as humanity, gender and freedom. In its exploration of what these logics mean for the enslaved, Scenes provides new possibilities to reimagine the terms and vision of the unfinished project of Black freedom.
Two books I think with every day:
In the Wake, by Christina Sharpe
In the Wake is a book that still renders me completely speechless. Christina Sharpe is a poet as she beautifully attends to the lives of Black people living in the afterlives of slavery and colonialism. Throughout the four chapters of the book, Sharpe unweaves the many waves of anti-blackness that structure Black life in a multitude of different geopolitical contexts and locations. Understanding how the disaster of the Zong massacre in 1781 is inextricably linked to the catastrophe of the 2010 Haiti earthquake changed how I understood temporality and historical periodisation.
What struck me the most about this book is the care with which Sharpe explores some of the most violent ways that an anti-black world has endeavoured to interdict the possibilities of Black life. As she theorises how Black people living under the conditions of everyday violence find ways to care for each other whilst in the wake – ‘wake work’ – this book provides new ways to understand the magnitude of what it means to love in a world that seeks to make this impossible. I read it for the first time in May 2019 and it is a book that I continue to think about every single day.
Beloved, by Toni Morrison
I don’t know of any Black scholar that would be able to do the work we’re endeavouring to do now without the brilliance of Toni Morrison and Beloved in particular. I don’t know that I’ve ever read a book like Beloved and I don’t know that I ever will again. The modes of historical recovery that Morrison engages throughout this work are immense in their scope. Her exploration of the ways in which slavery endeavoured to steal Black women’s maternity so thoroughly and what it means to dare to mother over and against these conditions is something that has stayed with me years after I first read it.
The character of Baby Suggs in particular is what really binds all of the strands of the novel together for me. The sermons she delivers in the clearing as an “unchurched” preacher to the formerly enslaved and nominally free Black people of her community is one of the most important and healing ways that I’ve seen the genealogy of Black women’s thought and formations of otherworlds mapped out. Black freedom is something that is routinely thwarted throughout the novel but is still a possibility that Sethe, Baby Suggs and Denver dare to live.
One book every abolitionist should read:
Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, by Saidiya Hartman
Wayward Lives is the most beautiful ode to Black women living in the afterlife of slavery and who dared to live as if the project of freedom had already been realized. To exceed the limits of the archive, Hartman uses critical fabulation to recover and recreate the lives of poor and working-class Black women living in Philadelphia and New York in the final decades of the nineteenth century and the first quarter of the twentieth century. Reading the beautiful, poignant, and complicated stories of each of the gender nonconforming people and women anchored me to a history of Black people who, within the daily reproduction of their lives, have created the conditions for contemporary Black rebellion. As we are invited into the circle to think with, imagine with and refuse with each of the people that we come to know throughout this book, hegemonic periodization becomes unfixed as a future in which abolition has come to fruition is being staged within the now.
Wayward Lives is a gorgeous ode to Black women who have always made a way out of no way and who have always created possibility in the space of enclosure. As we anticipate and struggle to bring about the end of the world, this love letter to wayward Black girls acts as a reminder that we have always crafted new ways to live with each other in the space of death.
Jade Bentil is a Black feminist historian and PhD researcher at the University of Oxford. Her scholarship uses oral history methodology to centre the experiences of women of African and African-Caribbean descent in Britain and their long history of feminist activism. Jade’s debut book, Rebel Citizen, uses oral history interviews to explore the lived experiences of Black women who migrated to Britain following the Second World War and will be published by Penguin Press in 2022.
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