White supremacy is a problem for all of us, not just Black people. But Black people are best positioned to critique it—and to defend the need for academic responses to it. As Florida and other US states decry “critical race theory” i schools, Our History Has Always Been Contraband: In Defense of Black Studies is just that. Colin Kaepernick, Robin D.G. Kelley, and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor have selected a treasure trove of historic essays that explicate the need for strong academic programs that focus on studying Black literature, Black histories, Black cultures—both within the African American context and beyond. I received a copy of this book for free in exchange for a review.
As I often do with these kinds of books, I like to start off with a positionality disclaimer: I am, of course, a white woman. This book will hit differently for me than it will for Black readers. The book also acknowledges that it is very focused on the United States, and therefore on anti-Black racism through the lens of African American enslavement and oppression. The editors have done this on purpose to make sure the volume is slim and accessible. I understand that desire, and it was probably the right call—yet my biggest takeaway, having now read all these essays, is that I need more. I’m Canadian, so my familiarity with and relationship to the history of slavery and other, often ongoing anti-Black racism will be different from American readers. That being said, Canada desperately needs more Black studies here, at every level of the education system. So much of this book still applies north of the border!
Another strength of this book is how it focuses on historic writings over contemporary. The first two parts, the bulk, are taken up by these essays—or more often than not, excerpts from what are much longer pieces. At first I was annoyed by this strategy, but now I see the value in it: if I was moved enough by one of the excerpts, it is easy enough for me to locate the full-length version elsewhere. This way, Kaepernick and the others expose readers to a wider cross-section of discourse from Black thinkers and writers. I like it.
Some of the authors are famous names you have (hopefully) heard of, such as Frederick Douglass, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, etc. Others might be more niche but no less talented, no less important. I particularly want to highlight “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism” by Barbara Smith from 1977. Smith, cofounder of the Combahee River Collective, argues that Black women have too long been invisible in their contributions to literature and art. Black women writers and artists need spaces to share their experiences without being erased by white feminists or by Black men. Smith especially highlights the plight of Black lesbian writers, who face three axes of oppression. In this way I hear a lot of echoes of critiques from Audre Lorde or bell hooks. Indeed, the writing of Black women is so important to elevate and amplify for exactly the reasons that Smith gives in this short excerpt. A feminism built exclusively on the complaints and experiences of white, straight women will never liberate all women.
This collection goes hard, by the way—I hope that was obvious from what I said above. These essays don’t pull their punches; if you were looking for something to coddle white fragility, don’t expect anything here. This book makes it very clear that Black people in the US are fighting for survival, still, and that Black studies programs and Black literature are vital to that survival.
Part 3 caps the book with three essays written for the collection. They emphasize the need for resistance against the unjust laws and censorship occurring within the academy and the wider education system in the US. Again, as specific as this book is to that context, these ideas are taking root in other places around the world, so these essays are still relevant.
This book is an excellent collection of thoughts, arguments, and purposeful expressions of resistance and struggle. It epitomizes why racists are so terrified of allowing critical thinking and history to be taught in schools, of why they are working so hard to ban these books and ideas from classrooms and lecture theatres. Black scholars, Black writers, Black thinkers have always been at the forefront of anti-oppressive thought and action. Now they need our help. Our History Has Always Been Contraband reminds readers that it’s the same dance, just a different tune: the struggle has existed for centuries, and it’s time to fight again.