I’d like to use the library I curated for this site as a jumping-off point for me to go into detail on various subjects that apply to activism in the modern age. The books are primers on very labyrinthine, complex issues, and I will use them to give the most condensed overview of a topic that I can using the literature and resources that I have. I am not an expert, and can only share what I have learned, which means I won’t always be able to know everything or be as completely representative as I’d prefer.
No. 6 // March 2019 // Resistance Literature
This list is a revolution contained in a bookshelf. In an age of increasing political volatility and citizen engagement, I want to introduce the history of American resistance in order to give context to our contemporary socio-political climate while also providing the tools necessary to pursue activism and resistance on the individual and community level. Some books are more opaque than others; a strict interpretation of the idea of “resistance” isn’t always helpful, and several pieces will widen the scope of what resistance as a term actually means. With a mix of popular and obscure texts, the strategy of presenting the familiar and unfamiliar is meant to prod the intellect and make us think about how to situate known and unknown works into the larger body of the resistance literature canon. Hopefully, the art and substance of opposition will become clear, and will allow people to form their own opinions and pursue change in their lives. Education is the first step in any resistance movement.
One of the most famous journalists in American history, Ida B. Wells is known for her soaring rhetoric and maintenance of journalistic standards and practices in the face of shocking lynch violence in the South after the Civil War. Her prose can be as high and elegant as Shakespeare or the writers of the Book of Revelation and as colloquial as a barfly in Shrevesport. Her words have a terrifying authority and presence today because they speak to a past that never really passed. The hauntings of extreme race violence continue to live on, and her commentary and preservation of Jim Crow vigilante justice helps us understand what is going on in America now. She presents many themes in her oeuvre, such as the failure of Christianity in the U.S. to condemn postbellum lynch law, and the inability of the judiciary to give fair trials to people of color. She has a superb knack for contextualization and painting history with blunt fact. She is relevant because her reality is still in existence today. For example, in Childish Gambino’s “This Is America,” we see two sides of the same coin, and looking at them as a unit allows us to consider how resistance in Wells’s day plays out in the present.
This mixed-media opus that delves into contemporary issues, while weaving in references to history and its foreshadowings that have brought us to this moment. With no overarching narrative, Citizen is able to tell many different stories and relate everyday instances of racism without having to weave together plot and character. This makes it a powerful tool that shows us how pervasive and toxic race relations are in America; without being bound by a single story, Rankine can present a kaleidoscopic treatise to the audience that captures the widespread nature of prejudice and violence against people of color. By introducing poetry and art into the book, we can get a more well-rounded picture of what it means to be black in America, and spot patterns that connect past to present. (You might be familiar with Citizen from the role it played during the 2016 Presidential election: at a Trump campaign rally, a young black woman conspicuously read from the book instead of paying attention to Trump, an act of resistance that was widely visible throughout the event in the background. It was both praised and condemned in equal measure, and caused Citizen to sell out on Amazon immediately after the rally aired on television.)
This is a great introduction to the subject of resistance in North American Indigenous history (which, really, should be considered the origins of American history itself). While the approach to the topic isn’t as breezy as the illustrations make it seem, this super concise overview of Native American opposition to outside colonizers is blunt; it’s realistic and doesn’t use many literary tactics to get its points across. There are subtleties in some of the panels, with subtext lurking in the corners if you look hard enough. The book has a good balance of older history and contemporary events, and is a user-friendly guide that gets your feet wet if you aren’t the type of person to dive in head first. It also covers some Indigenous issues in Canada and Latin America, so it’s got a good range, as well. I argue that the story of Indigenous resistance displayed should be treated as a fundamental part of white America’s idea of itself as a nation founded on resistance.
Transcendent and philosophical, this essential work proposes a “…spiritual insurrection…targeting the mental environment, the collective imagination…in order to achieve socio-political change” (241). Arguing that traditional, physical forms of resistance (such as marching or boycotting) are no longer capable of overturning institutions, White puts forth a vision of a global, cerebral collaboration where the human mind is where resistance occurs. If it sounds lofty and esoteric, that’s because it is – but he does provide practical advice and breaks down sophisticated topics handily to balance it out. This perspective is forward-thinking, controversial, and experimental – all of which are words that could be used to describe resistance itself. Disregarding traditional methods of resistance, White encourages us to abandon tactics of the past and reinvent resistance while executing it simultaneously (which is no easy task).
If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably in some way familiar with Atwood’s seminal novel. The television adaptation is a masterpiece, and the fiction is just as ferocious, visceral, and (mostly) empowering. There is no better time than 2018 to be reading (any) work by Margaret Atwood. It is a surprisingly dense work with serious metaphors and visual language, its prose drenched in symbolic meaning. The Handmaid’s Tale is worth exploring because its sublime craftsmanship and uncomfortable parallels to our modern world make it an essential guidebook for navigating our troubling times and connecting with characters that are actively involved in resisting oppression. Like Black Mirror, catharsis plays a weighty role in our enjoyment of the piece, but it also makes us think about where we are, where we came from, and where we are going. The book is also about finding light in desperation, and grabbing on to what is left of broken societies to carve a life out of hopelessness. It is not so much about discovering hope as it is finding a way to cope in impossible circumstances. These are hard lessons that need to be taught (and learned). In a world that feels increasingly demoralizing, The Handmaid’s Tale reminds us that there are ways to live, even if it doesn’t always feel like living.
These texts amplify and support each other, providing similar stories of marginalization and oppression of two groups that face near-eternal persecution in the U.S.: queers and black Americans. The main theses are straightforward: minority groups in the United States have long been the target of coordinated, bigoted legislation meant to hinder their rights and keep them from entering the mainstream or being successful members of society. We can also see the legislation as a subconscious punishment for deviance or for having the wrong skin color. The chokehold on power by white heterosexual men has allowed the courts to legislate based on that framework, so that law becomes another tool for those in charge to subjugate and humiliate. Each book delineates the history of how minority groups have been treated by lawmakers and police. While Queer (In)justice is more of a survey of the criminalization of queer people throughout U.S. history, The New Jim Crow hones in on a specific timeframe, breaking down the events that led to the War on Drugs in the 1980s and the resulting system of mass incarceration that mirrors the Jim Crow laws of the South after the Civil War. Importantly, both cover the resistance movements and fighters that rose up against this maltreatment. Queer (In)Justice concludes with an annotated list of organizations that speak truth to power, and The New Jim Crow highlights community leaders that work to reshape public policy – and minds.
On an Earth that has become nearly uninhabitable, the characters of Do Android Dream of Electric Sheep? must figure out how to exist in a society where repression affects both humans and machines. The book provides a shift towards expanding the definition of consciousness, where the reader must decide if resistance can – or should – apply to artificial intelligence. The androids of the title are often mistaken for humans, and the line between machine and person is intentionally ambiguous. While Dick invites us to empathize with these machines and the people that hunt them in the narrative, thematically we are meant to question the society that makes decisions about their welfare. Though the book has us superficially examining the traits that make humans mechanical and androids person-like, it is important to step back to see the framework of the novel: charting the ways the post-apocalyptic society keeps control, and the way others resist that control, is the key to understanding the universe of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. How those in power hang on to power, and at the expense of certain groups, forms the backbone of the story. Dick moves the conversation away from just the human condition; reading about the effect of oppressive actions on artificial entities can teach us about our own limits, and what we consider resistance to be when human lives aren’t necessarily at stake. It forces us to think critically about movements that don’t affect our immediate well-being, and we can extrapolate our feelings about the alien nature of androids to the alien nature of our own varied, disparate communities. Finding a stake in the game when it comes to AI is, in a way, about finding commonalities with people that are different from us.
You can’t go wrong with any Toni Morrison novel (as well as her non-fiction and literary criticism). She is an absolute gift and a goddess. I am choosing The Bluest Eye out of her entire canon – most if not all of her books in some way deal with women and race – because it details perhaps the most directly with girlhood/womanhood and the concept of race, the female body, and resistance. Like many of Morrison’s writings, it’s a painful read that exudes ache on every page, but it gets directly to the heart and soul of racism in America. The novel also examines the roles that black women are forced into (and the ways they subvert these assigned roles). There are no happy endings, but there are glimpses of small justices in the face of unbearable injustices. She gives us ways to resist, even if resistance makes survival difficult. Morrison’s stunning visual prose will take your breath away, and the horrors you read about in the history books come alive to brutal but necessary effect. (Also highly recommended: Sula, Playing in the Dark, Birth of a Nation’hood, and Beloved.)
Resistance is a fundamental part of America’s origin story, and learning how groups have historically dealt with oppression is an essential aspect of understanding Americans themselves. Manufacturing Consent presents in excruciating detail the ways in which news journalism in the U.S. has been hijacked and used by Presidential administrations and political operatives of both parties to sway public opinion and cover up serious human rights abuses. This is an important topic because it reveals two things: the corruption of the media by larger forces is not a new phenomenon, and this mishandling of information can, truly, be thought of as “fake news.” The crucial component is understanding what “fake news” means today; to a powerful autocratic figure, the term is a way of dismissing any and all critics. To Chomsky and many freethinkers, the term refers to stories that are overwhelmingly and purposefully untruthful. Manufacturing Consent is essential to understanding how governments churn out propaganda, as well as what works and what doesn’t. Decades before “fake news” became a national catchphrase, Chomsky and Herman wrote with clarity about the subject, presaging what would become one of America’s greatest tests of democracy. The book will feel dangerously relevant to a modern reader, which is one of the reasons why it was chosen. It is also incredibly authoritative and eye-opening, with descriptions of a mass media that willfully obscured atrocities and American-sponsored violence in armed conflict and proxy wars. Powerfully distressing, it is likely that some will lose sleep over what they read, but learning these truths is how we can escape them.
This book is a foundational text that addresses what on-the-ground protest and resistance looked and felt like for black women during the Civil Rights Movement. It is a visceral and hard book, but it is necessary. From black women using their bodies to confront abuses of power (the physical corporeality of sit-ins, the jailed body, and the body as a “disruptive” presence on a bus) to the behind-the-scenes negotiations made by civil rights leaders (including many women), McGuire gives an endlessly comprehensive view of black female sexuality and how it was abused and ultimately harnessed by the resistance. The tome sheds light on lesser-known figures whose names must re-emerge in our collective social consciousness. Pushing against a pervasive view that the civil rights movement was led by men, McGuire argues that women played almost a greater role in organization than has been widely accepted, and confronts how sexual violence was a catalyst that pushed many females to advocate for their rights as women of color. She lifts their voices up out of obscurity, and identifies all of the ways in which resistance was handled by black women – some of which may be surprising.
Photo: Ceramic plates on display at the Blooming Hill Lavender Farm in Philomont, Virginia