Books I've Read in 2018

Last year I decided to keep a record of the books I’d read cover-to-cover. It was a good exercise, in that it helped force me to prioritize reading books, to read books to the end, and to collect my thoughts about what I had read. At the same time, blogging about them has been fun. It led some of the authors to contact me, which was nice. One risk, though, is that readers of my jottings on these books might take what I’ve written as definitive. Please don’t read what I write about these books as anything more than initial, cursory, incomplete, and reactive. These are not book reviews! They’re just quick reflections. And if I don't say much or I say a lot, don't take it as a signal of the book's quality.

Posted January 16, 2018

How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective, by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor 
This was a great book to begin 2018 with. Of course the Combahee River Collective’s statement is something I already knew well and had taught, but now there is no question that any time I teach it again I will assign this entire text. The interviews with the participants, particularly with Beverly Smith and Demita Frazier, are fascinating and insightful. When this document, the original Combahee statement, is discussed today, its historical context is at risk of being lost. This book could remedy that. It is a key contribution to the intellectual history not only of Black feminism but also of the radical Left more broadly in the United States during the 1970s. The context does really matter. I won’t spoil it for you, but the brief discussion of Fred Hampton by Frazier stopped me in my tracks. More generally, what this book contributes is an understanding of the possibility of “identity politics” as a collective and plural project, not a singular and individual one as it has too often been reframed. Further, the comparison between the politics and experiences of the original collective members and Alicia Garza, also interviewed here, is particularly notable, and it could serve as the basis for some new historical analyses. Taylor has done really important work here, and like everything she publishes, it's super-smart and politically astute.

Alabama in Africa: Booker T. Washington, the German Empire & the Globalization of the New South, by Andrew Zimmerman
This book has been heralded as a sterling example of what transnational history can do, and after finally reading it I can only agree emphatically. Zimmerman has done incredible, deeply researched work here in terms of recasting the New South, German empire, US social science, and race in transnational and imperial terms. As a few other scholars have shown, race is made through comparison and analogy across borders, and Zimmerman demonstrates that the adequate, methodologically reflexive way to grasp this process is to undertake relational transnational analysis and avoid traditional comparisons based on fixed units.
    I found the discussion of Du Bois, Weber, and the Chicago School in the final chapter to be utterly essential and illuminating. It should be widely read alongside Aldon Morris’s rethinking of Du Bois and sociology or Robert Vitalis’s discussion of race and IR. I should also mention that Zimmerman’s marxism comes through in subtle but crucial and inspiring ways in this text, and the centrality of a gender analysis throughout, though understated, was welcome.
    Finally, Zimmerman got me rethinking one problem with higher education today in the United States, among many: the increasingly common notion that elite students can be afforded the luxury of grappling with big ideas and wrestling with complex social problems or cultural products while students at lower-tier schools must necessarily get vocational and practical educations that will enable them to get a job and a paycheck, which liberal arts degrees will not. This is a profound error that is part of the system of elite reproduction and growing inequalities, but it also has a long history, as this book shows, going back in some ways to debates about race and labor in which Du Bois and Washington participated over a century ago. Here the neoliberalization of education may not be a good explanation.
    I could quote a thousand passages from this book, but a few insights that I feel I must highlight: 

  1. Zimmerman shows that the “Negro question” in the New South in the late 1800s was a question of how to maximize free labor and hence productivity. Race was inherently unstable. And the political and economic system was technologically advancing rapidly, also inherently unstable. Thus, posing a “question,” rather than defining the “Negro” as such in terms of industriousness or laziness, was a way to grapple with contradictions (39). 
  2. This gem on the politics of uplift among Black people in the late 1800s: “Aspects of the least radical phase of Du Bois’s political life overlapped with the most radical phase in Washington’s” (59).
  3. Du Bois’s rejection of a biological conception of race and adoption of a sociological conception coincided with his interaction with German social scientists (some of whom were avowed racists, though not anti-Black per se) and their attempts to solve problems of colonial rule and labor policy, which is why Du Bois’s formulation of the color line as the key sociopolitical problem of the age had an inherently transnational dimension. A sociological conception of race necessarily required an engagement with empire (108-109).
  4. Reminiscent of what Hitler’s American Model by Whitman shows, Zimmerman points out that the one-drop rule, as applied in German colonial territories in Africa, came from the United States, not from Germany or Africa, and so did some novel racist terminology (184).
  5. One of my favorite insights in this book is about Max Weber’s “Protestant ethic”: Zimmerman points out that European Protestants’ “inner compulsion” to labor indicated an obvious if unstated corollary: non-European peoples required external compulsion to force them to work hard (212, 217). This original argument gave me the feeling of being slapped upside the head—it’s so damn obvious once it’s been said, how could I not have already thought it?
  6. “The entanglements of social science with the global South make problematic comparative histories of race and free labor because these so often rely on concepts that both emerged from, and helped to create, the capitalist world system they seek to describe” (236). Boom. Mic drop.

 

© 2018 Stuart Schrader