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February 10, 2021

Black History in Three Acts

The story of how Black people confront systems of racial capitalism and plot world liberation. A reading list from Robin D. G. Kelley.

Police violence is only the enforcement arm of a system of racial domination and racial capitalism that was with us at the beginning of American history. Here you can find the story of how Black people confront that system and plot world liberation. Let’s call this reading list Black History in Three Acts.


Act I: Freedom, Founders, and Finance

David Waldstreicher dives into the 1619 Project debate by reminding us that the American Revolution’s position on slavery was, well, complicated.  Whether the Constitution protected slavery or planted the seeds for its demise  is simply not a settled matter among historians.  But we know the outcome: a republic founded on racial capitalism.  Peter James Hudson reveals the consequences of that outcome in his illuminating story of how New York finance capital did its dirtiest bidding in the Caribbea during the early twentieth century.


Act II: Capitalism, Carcerality, and Climate Catastrophe

Contemporary Black precarity has many sources, some of which are explored in these powerful essays—Elizabeth Hinton on how racial liberalism advanced the carceral state; Donna Murch on the carceral (re)turn to debtors prisons under a neoliberal economy where everything—including punishment—is a profit-seeking venture; Walter Johnson’s poignant tour of the Black community of Centreville, Illinois, in the eye of the storm created by capitalism’s war on the earth and the Black poor. Meanwhile, Jordanna Matlon reminds us to pay attention to gender, to the unique privilege and precarity of Black men. “In the welcome resurgence of writing about racial capitalism,” she writes, “the integral role of patriarchy in upholding ideological and economic domination is often missed.”


Act III: Two Kings and a Prophet

What to do about racial capitalism? Here, Brandon Terry and his interlocutors seek to recover the radical Martin Luther King, Jr., and his oppositions to war, racism, and materialism. But David Stein reminds us that while the world mourned (and reinvented) Martin, Coretta Scott King kept up the fight—against war, against poverty, and for full employment. Finally, Adom Getachew returns to Jamaica’s socialist prime minister Michael Manley and the worldwide fight for a New International Economic Order. Here is Black history at its finest, reminding us how anti-colonial movements vowed to “remake the world.” The roads not taken offer lessons for the path ahead. “Our world . . . is characterized by a battleground of widening inequality and ongoing domination. We cannot simply recreate the 1970s vision of a welfare world, but we can take from its architects the insight that building an egalitarian and post-imperial world is the only route to true democratic self-governance.”

Act I: Freedom, Founders, and Finance

  • The Hidden Stakes of the 1619 Controversy by David Waldstreicher
    Critics of the New York Times’s 1619 Project insist the facts don’t support its proslavery reading of the American Revolution. But they obscure a longstanding debate within the field of U.S. history over that very issue.
  • How Wall Street Colonized the Caribbean by Peter James Hudson
    “The history of Citibank’s presence in the Caribbean reveals a story of capitalism and empire whose narrative is not one of inspiring innovation, but rather of blood and labor, stolen sovereignty, and military occupation.”

Act II: Capitalism, Carcerality, and Climate Catastrophe

Act III: Two Kings and a Prophet

  • MLK Now a forum with Brandon M. Terry
    Canonization has prevented a reckoning with the substance of King’s intellectual, ethical, and political commitments—he has become an icon to quote, not a thinker and public philosopher to engage.
  • Why Coretta Scott King Fought for a Job Guarantee by David Stein
    Coretta Scott King was committed to ending all forms of violence—chief among them, the violence of economic precarity. “I am not a ceremonial symbol—I am an activist. I didn’t just emerge after Martin died—I was always there and involved.”
  • When Jamaica Led the Postcolonial Fight Against Exploitation by Adom Getachew
    Before Bernie made it cool, democratic socialism had a strong history in Jamaica. Prime Minister Michael Manley advocated for land redistribution, state control of key industries, stronger rights for organized labor, and worker ownership of industries.

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