Of all the negatives 2020 bestowed upon us, one opportunity it happened to give me was plenty more time to read. In taking advantage of this, I was able to read a few dozen books, almost all of which I enjoyed quite a bit. Here are eight of them that I especially enjoyed, and my reasons for recommending them to you, presented in no particular order.
The Wretched of the Earth – Frantz Fanon, originally published in 1961
The Wretched of the Earth officially gets my 2020 Award for Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon of the year. Since finally picking up this massively influential work, I haven’t gone more than a couple days without seeing it cited elsewhere, whether in print, interview, or even just as a relation to a social phenomena I observe in the news. The importance of this book can’t be overstated.
Author Frantz Fanon (1925-1961) was a psychiatrist and political philosopher from Martinique, a Caribbean island colonized by France. Influenced heavily by Marx, Pan-Africanism, and a seething hatred for colonialism, Fanon’s major works tend to cover the psychology of colonized peoples. Wretched is his most well-known and influential work on this topic.
Listening to a recent podcast interview with a Palestinian activist, Wretched was brought up by the interviewee as having been an invaluable resource in analyzing the Palestinian struggle. It will come as no surprise to the reader that this work has been highly influential in Black and Indigenous struggles here in the United States..
How Europe Underdeveloped Africa – Walter Rodney, originally published in 1971
Walter Rodney was one of my most gratifying discoveries of the year. I had heard of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa for many years, though I always relegated it to the backburner, preferring instead to read more modern books on the (very general) topic of capitalistic exploitation on the African continent, such as The Looting Machine (Burgis), Dancing in the Glory of Monsters (Stearns), or, as fate would have it, Extracting Profit: Imperialism, Neoliberalism, and the New Scramble for Africa. In this last piece (which is excellent), author Lee Wengraf sings Rodney’s praises so loudly that I could no longer put it off – I set out to finally read How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.
The book’s premise is deceptively simple: Africa is in fact an astonishingly rich continent. The problem is, its people are poor. But they are not poor for lack of resources, or work ethic, or trying. They are poor because Western capital has, for hundreds of years, plundered their livelihoods, and in fact continue to do so to the modern day. From slavery to resource extraction to underpaid labor, the continent is relegated as a backwards place in the mind of the placated Westerner, when in fact it is Western capital itself that reaps all of the riches that Africa produces, leaving the local people destitute.
What struck me perhaps even more than the story was Rodney’s passion. I set out shortly after opening the book to learn more about the man himself, and what I found was one of the most inspirational people in anti-capitalist discourse. Starting with this episode of Rev Left Radio, I spent much of the late summer of 2020 absorbing all I could about Rodney’s life, work, and legacy. Born in Guyana in 1942 into a working-class family, Rodney earned a PhD in African History in 1966. He bounced around from Guyana to Julius Nyerere’s Tanzania to IMF-controlled Jamaica, where he invented the concept of groundings, his Paulo Freire-inspired pedagogy. Unfortunately, his activism would lead to his assassination via bomb, widely believed to be ordered by Guyanese president Forbes Burnham.
The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck, 1939
John Steinbeck’s 1939 classic is the bane of most every high school sophomore’s summer reading list. Nobody that age wants to read a boring (and long!) book about some dusty farmers setting out across the western United States in search of food and work. Luckily for me, this one escaped me completely back in high school. But in summer of 2020, after reading a long string of depressing non-fiction books, I was due for a nice, relaxing work of classic Americana fiction.
Not only was Grapes a sleeper hit that I only even started reading to “scratch off the list” of classics but which turned out to be incredible, it had every theme I could ask for: unionization, beating up cops, beating up scab workers, the labor struggle, and much more!
Washington Bullets – Vijay Prashad, 2020
Vijay Prashad was first brought to my attention via The Michael Brooks Show, where his guest appearances were always evocative and impassioned. Early in the year I picked up Prashad’s work The Darker Nations, which is a brief history of the Non-Aligned Movement; crucial reading on the topic that provides a primer for much of the history of US empire and CIA covert ops that would ensue as the Cold War began.
Washington Bullets came to my attention via the inaugural episode of the podcast Guerrilla History, on which Prashad flaunted his trademark heartfelt anti-imperialist message in his promotion of this new work. This work is a short & sweet primer on US/CIA covert ops around the world. Though it covers a wide berth of ground without going into the gritty details of each story, it offers glimpses into each example valuable enough to inspire one to jump down the rabbit hole of one’s own desire. Didn’t know about what happened in Indonesia in the 1950s before reading Washington Bullets? Maybe next you’ll check out The Jakarta Method (Bevins); just learning about Reagan’s interference campaign in Nicaragua? Next up is Blood of Brothers (Kinzer); looking to expand your knowledge of the Vietnam War based on Prashad’s mentions? Perhaps Kill Anything That Moves (Turse) is next on your reading list.
Who Killed Berta Cáceres?: Dams, Death Squads, and an Indigenous Defender’s Battle for the Planet – Nina Lakhani, 2020
Environmental Justice reporter Nina Lakhani’s brand-new work Who Killed Berta Cáceres? is exactly the kind of book one might pick up after reading Washington Bullets, as it chronicles the life and death of Honduran Indigenous environmental activist Berta Cáceres. Honduras, to summarize all too briefly, is a small Central American nation, the prototypical “banana republic”, that is all but in name a colony of the United States, subject politically and economically to US pressure, and punished at any and every turn it takes to act in the name of its own sovereignty. Cáceres was a popular and influential activist from La Esperanza, a small municipality in southwest Honduras.
Cáceres spent the bulk of her life fighting for Indigenous rights, which for the most part saw her standing up against capitalist enterprise seeking profit by way of destroying the nature of her region, much of which considered sacred by her community. Honduras has been used as a staging ground for US capitalist interests for 100 years, for everything from utilizing cheap labor in the banana fields to training the infamous Contra forces of the 1980s. All this is to say, Berta had her work cut out for her from its inception.
The Torture Machine: Racism and Police Violence in Chicago – Flint Taylor, 2019
As the summer rebellions were ongoing, as an act of catharsis, I picked up the 435-page tome that had been sitting on my shelf for nearly a year, The Torture Machine, and got to work learning about police culture in my own city. Author Flint Taylor is a leading civil rights attorney here in Chicago, and this book chronicles his lifelong struggle to put abusive cops behind bars.
The book mostly covers the notorious Jon Burge. Burge was an infamous serial torturer that was the root cause of the grief and trauma of untold numbers of innocent Chicagoans. An open secret among the Chicago Police Department, Burge’s modus operandi was to abduct suspects of petty crimes, relegate them to a dungeon-like back-room at one of a couple CPD-owned sites, and torture false confessions out of them.
The book itself reads like a compelling courtroom-drama television show or movie. Taylor’s writing keeps the reader engaged throughout not only in terms of content but in masterful storytelling. Though being a longer-than-average book, it never once felt like a chore to pick it up. Along with The End of Policing (Vitale) and Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect? (Schenwar, et al), The Torture Machine should rank high on anyone’s list of books to read to inspire a rallying cry for defunding and abolition.
Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic – David Quammen, 2012
I first picked up Spillover back in April, when the reality was sinking in that COVID-19 wasn’t just going to be a few weeks of quarantine and then back to normal (note: this is not an endorsement for normal!). The book is science writer David Quammen’s work outlining several zoonotic – that is, animal-originated – viruses’ histories.
It may be a bit out of vogue to plug this book in 2021, but for those who may still be interested in learning the science behind zoonotic diseases explained in a way that is easy enough for the lay reader to understand, this book is a great resource. Ebola, SARS, AIDS, and several other diseases are analyzed. In a bit of prophetic foretelling, Quammen even muses at one point that if SARS-CoV-1 were to ever mutate so that victims were contagious before falling ill with its symptoms, we’d have quite the issue on our hands.
Intentionally or not, Spillover reads as a call for an eco-socialist politics. As the book explains, zoonotic diseases are made all the more likely by humanity’s encroachment into the natural world. The fact is that deep in the remaining forests and jungles of the world, there exists any number of viruses as deadly or deadlier than COVID-19, but they live a lonesome life jumping between hosts that typically interact very rarely, and these viruses come and go without any human on earth noticing. Unfortunately, however, as people continue to log and pillage, especially in the tropics, wild animals are left with less space, increasing their likelihood of interacting, which of course increases the likelihood of the zoonotic jump from animal to human. You can see how the solution to this problem quickly boils down to an anti-capitalist and eco-socialist politics that values the conservation of nature.
A combination I would highly recommend is to immediately follow this one up with Swedish geographer Andreas Malm’s new Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency, which is a rallying cry for an ecological Leninism, utilizing lessons learned during the pandemic and applying them to the massive issue of climate change.
Long Shot: The Triumphs and Struggles of an NBA Freedom Fighter – Craig Hodges, 2017
For those who grew up an obsessed Bulls fan in the early and mid-90s like I did, you may remember three-point superstar Craig Hodges and the major part he played in the first couple championships in threepeat #1. But did you ever wonder what happened to him after he left the Bulls?
Hodges was something like the original Colin Kaepernick. Socially conscious from an early age, Hodges utilized his time in the NBA to advocate for racial justice in US political discourse. He would often sit down various teammates and explain to them nuanced social issues, lobbying them to utilize their fame and money to advocate for various causes. Infamously included in this list is Michael Jordan, who turned down his pleas in the interest of remaining apolitical in order to sell more shoes.
Sporting a dashiki, Hodges attended the team’s invitation to George HW Bush’s White House after winning the 1992 Finals, and took advantage of the moment by giving Bush a letter demanding that he do more to improve the lives of the Black community in the United States. It was because of this act that Hodges was subsequently frozen out of the NBA. Hodges was relegated to a lesson for other NBA players to keep their mouths shut. Hodges lost out on tens of millions of dollars in wages he would have earned over the next few years as a player.
After reading Long Shot, I was inspired enough to have a custom sweatshirt made at a local screenprinting shop. On the sweatshirt is a photo of Craig Hodges, wearing a dashiki and shooting a 3-pointer as George HW Bush looks on. I posted it on social media and tagged Hodges. Much to my surprise, a couple days later I received a private message from Jibril Hodges, Craig’s son. He sent me a note saying how much he appreciated my post, and sent me an autographed copy of Long Shot!