Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism brought me to Marxism and not the other way around.
In this series we ask organizers, artists, and academics to share books that inform their thinking about abolition. This week’s contributor is Tiana Reid.
Three books that radicalized me:
Radicalization is an infinite process and I can’t really neatly pinpoint its genesis. Before refusing the prompt, though, I decided to ask my mother, as she is part of the background to how I am the way I am today. Her first answer was the Ladybird Sunstart Reading Scheme, a set of Caribbean books that help teach kids how to read. Any way I swing it, reading did and does go hand and hand with my own political formation. It’s certainly not the only way. (Though abolition and anti-racism are worlds apart, I still have on my mind Lauren Michele Jackson’s question about the proliferation of anti-racist reading lists recently: “Who is this for?”) My mom still has some of these Ladybird books and flipping through, there are markings I made throughout. Editing, reframing, and pushing back at a text is part of reading for me, and part of a lifelong process of seeing books as something that don’t belong to me but belong to a crisis of intellectualism itself, a crisis of self.
I just spent too long looking for my copy of No Telephone to Heaven by Michelle Cliff in the piles and piles of books around my apartment. I’m fostering kittens and now the piles of books are rightly turned into playgrounds, pillows, and chew toys. I could not find the book. In lieu of coherent reflection, here is a list of things I remember from memory: armed insurgency, gender trouble, corrosive bourgeois anxieties, Cockpit Country, capital S-Savage, petit marronage, murderous revenge, thick fragmented prose, “white sanity laundry,” obeah, what do we do when Europe calls, food as politics, Bed-Stuy to Kingston, self-effacement, IMF veterans, ruses of Hollywood, botched feminist futures.
Assata Shakur’s “Women in Prison: How We Are” is not a book but an essay published in 1978 in The Black Scholar and I reread it on July 16, her birthday, which she shares with Ida B. Wells. Struggling over subsistence, women are disappeared into prisons. Shakur’s critical observations are prescient: abuse in queer attachments (“the butch-fem relationships are often oppressive, resembling the most oppressive, exploitative aspect of a sexist society”), the vast distance of black women’s liberation movements from their lives, and the ills of congratulatory reformism. Her physical description of Riker’s interpretation of a “woman’s jail,” with its “optimistic colors,” cells called rooms, “plenty of plants and flowers” in the visiting areas, appliances that don’t work, reminds me of how so-called innovation in jails is described by corporations today, where everything is supposed to be new, airy, tech-savvy, environmentally friendly and inclusive. “The guards have successfully convinced most of the women that Riker’s Island is a country club,” she writes.
Two books I think with every day:
It’s summer so I’m working on my dissertation almost every day and I read a lot of my teachers’ work. Saidiya V. Hartman is one of those teachers. I am with Jade Bentil on this one: Hartman has made my work possible. More specifically, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteeth-Century America transformed how I understand the relation between freedom and unfreedom. This book helped me look more closely at quotidian forms of violence, a study which also leads us to “pedestrian practices [that] illuminate inchoate and utopian expressions of freedom” (13). In “A Note on Method,” Hartman asks: “How does one tell the story of an elusive emancipation and a travestied freedom?” (10). The answer to that question is partly formal and imaginative, lying somewhere between M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! and Toni Morrison’s Beloved, between “a story which can't be told, which must be told” and “this is not a story to pass on.”
And then where would I be without Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition? I came to Marxism by way of a critique, which is to say, Black Marxism is not an addendum to Marx for me. Black Marxism brought me to Marxism and not the other way around. The book informs my own critique of Black Marxism in particular and a general tendency in black radicalism toward a sexism that considers itself an anti-sexism. The 2000 edition, with a forward by Robin D. G. Kelley, contains an especially insightful formulation by Robinson: “The Black Radical Tradition was an accretion, over generations, of collective intelligence gathered from struggle” (xxx).
One book every abolitionist should read:
I am not one for “shoulds” but I saw that K Agbebiyi, one of the contributors to 8 to Abolition, recently recommended the zine What about the rapists? Anarchist approaches to crime and justice and it was a “should” for me. The zine, which is available for free online, offers some practical tools, tactics, and skills for addressing gender-based violence if you are interested in abolition work. But it also outlines some of the limits of transformative justice and accountability processes. One anonymous contribution writes, “we are not sorry, and we will not stop: from now on, we will respond to sexual violence with violence.” The zine comes out of the anarchist scene but I think anyone in collective action working toward abolition can get something out of it by supplementing their own knowledge. What about the rapists? has not only given me the language for mediation in groups to which I belong but also has left me a little dumbstruck when it comes to the gendered brutality within my blood family.
Tiana Reid is a PhD candidate in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University where she conducts research in black studies, Marxism, and feminism. She has written for American Quarterly, Art in America, Bookforum, The Nation, The Paris Review, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, VICE, and elsewhere. She’s also a member of several editorial collectives, including The New Inquiry, Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory, and Pinko, a new magazine of gay communism. Most recently, she taught a class at Columbia called “Hauntings: American Poetry in the 1980s.”
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