The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin (1963)
We are living through something of a Baldwin renaissance, in large part thanks to Raoul Peck’s brilliant documentary I Am Not Your Negro. Any number of Baldwin’s books might earn a place on this list, but The Fire Next Time stands out. Consisting of two essays, one addressed to Baldwin’s nephew, it is a passionate and visceral plea to black and white America. It is the only document I know of that expresses the civil rights case as eloquently as the speeches of Martin Luther King.
Discourse on Colonialism by Aimé Césaire (1950)
Published in 1955, when most of Africa was still the colonial possession of one or other of the European powers, Césaire’s masterwork argues that the European empires were, like all empires, run for the profit of the colonising powers, rather than the benefit of the colonised peoples. More controversially, Césaire hypothesised that the roots of Nazism could be found in the toxic soil of imperialism.
The Black Atlantic by Paul Gilroy (1993)
Gilroy here lays out his concept of “double consciousness”, the idea that black culture is essentially a hybrid, a product of centuries of exchange, slavery and movement across the Atlantic. Exploring everything from the lives and work of African American philosophers to black popular music, Gilroy demonstrates that black culture is both local and global, and cannot be constrained within any single national culture.
Roots by Alex Haley (1976)
What turns a great book into a great political book is its impact, as much as its content. Both on the page and later on the television screen, Alex Haley’s masterpiece was a phenomenon. For African-Americans, whose familial links to Africa had been severed by slavery and racism, it was a revelation. Although Haley’s methodology has been criticised, the cultural impact of Roots remains undeniable.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander (2010)
Lists of great books tend to focus on works that are old enough to have become firmly established as classics. Michelle Alexander’s book, published just seven years ago, earns its place and already seems prescient. Controversially and passionately, it exposes the crisis that is the mass incarceration of African-American men in post-civil rights America.
The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter (2010)
I’m sometimes nervous of books that use the phrase “white people”, as if all “white people” or all “black people” can be categorised as being a single group. But Painter’s book is a clever history of the idea of “whiteness”. It demonstrates that a number of ethnic groups, whom we today automatically regard as being “white”, were once regarded as being outside of the white race.
Race Matters by Cornel West (1993)
Race Matters is to be re-issued later this year to mark its forthcoming 25th anniversary. The timing is grimly pertinent. Across a series of interweaving essays, West argues that racism is so much a part of American history and culture that it can only be addressed and confronted if that reality is confronted – and by Americans of all races.
Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain by Peter Fryer (1984)
In June 1948, Peter Fryer, then a young reporter, was dispatched to Tilbury docks to report on the arrival of the Empire Windrush and the 492 West Indian migrants on board. That led, 36 years later, to the publication of Staying Power. At a time when little on the subject was written, Fryer created an encyclopaedic panorama of the black presence in Britain.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley (1976)
Co-authored by Alex Haley and based on a series of interviews with Malcolm X, this is one of the greatest biographies of the last century. Through his own life story, and that of the key figures of his troubled years in the underworld of New York, Malcolm bore witness to the racism of 1930s and 40s. It’s impossible to believe he would occupy the cultural position he holds today had the book never been written.
Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela (1994)
I was in Tanzania when the news of Mandela’s death was announced. I rushed out and bought the only copy of Mandela’s 1994 biography I could find in the book shops of Dar es Salaam – others had evidently felt the same urge to re-read the book. If apartheid was the most perfected and methodically applied system of racial oppression ever devised then Long Walk to Freedom is the ultimate denouncement of it. It is a statement of the obvious that Mandela was one of the great figures of our age. To fully understand how great you have to read his account of the infamous Rivonia trial.
This is part of the Observer’s 100 political classics that shaped the modern era. Please leave suggestions below of books that inspired and shaped your political consciousness and we’ll round up the best in next week’s Observer