Laurence Ralph is the author of The Torture Letters: Reckoning with Police Violence, out now on the University of Chicago Press.
Growing up as an African American boy in the suburbs of Baltimore and Atlanta, I got a first-hand introduction to the politics of race and quickly learned that I should be afraid of the police. The insights and fear remain with me, decades later, as a professor of anthropology at Princeton University. All of my research and writing centers on drawing attention to the young Black lives our society neglects and leaves behind. In this round-up, I reflect on some of the titles that have helped me grapple with the disturbing realization that right now, somewhere in the United States, similar episodes of police violence are playing out in real time.
Reading Rodney King/Reading Urban Uprisings
Edited by Robin Gooding-Williams
Gooding-Williams’ edited volume is an overlooked gem. It has helped me immensely over the years as I’ve tried to better understand race and the history of uprisings in the United States. Generally speaking, the book is a reflection and contextualization of the Los Angeles Uprisings of 1992. With contributions of from some of my idols such as Kimberlé Crenshaw, Patricia Williams, Henry Louis Gates, Cornel West, and Judith Butler, the luminaries in this volume unpack the significance of police violence at a crucial moment in American history—the moment when Rodney King’s beating went viral before the dawn of the Internet age. The insights are timeless and remain essential to the present moment.
Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionist and the Politics of Violence
By Kellie Carter Jackson
University of Pennsylvania Press
Carter Jackson’s book examines how the Black Political tradition has always been tethered to violence because of the historical complicity of white vigilantism with state violence. This book explores the tactical use of violence among antebellum Black activists. Through her protagonists, Carter Jackson shows how Black abolitionist leaders gravitated towards violence as a means to gain the confidence of white allies as they instigated an antislavery war. This book is indispensable for those of us thinking through the idea of abolition in the contemporary moment.
Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California
By Ruth Wilson Gilmore
University of California Press
Gilmore’s book is nothing less than a classic historical study of mass incarceration. She shows that what looks like disinvestment in Black urban communities, after the hundreds of riots that took place in American cities in the 1960s and 1970s, is really a different kind of investment based on extracting human resources out of Black communities and placing people in prisons. The result, she argues, is a 450% increase in the prison population between the 1980s and the early 2000s. I find this book to be so much more than a study of the prison boom in the US: It is a brilliant exegesis on speculative capital, labor, land, and the capacity of our states to quickly interweave spaces of confinement into the fabric of America.
Breathe: A Letter to My Sons
By Imani Perry
Perry’s work is an intimate portrayal of how Black families cope with the generational impact of social inequality and racism in the United States. As a parent, her letters to her sons resonate with me on a deep level. The books speaks to the human vulnerabilities of adults and parents need to equip the children that they love and care for with the tools they need to survive in a troubling world. At the same time, the books so eloquently speaks to the hope we all need to make the world different.
Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination
By Robin Kelley
Throughout my time as a student and now a professor, I’ve frequently returned to Kelley’s classic book about the traditions of Black Radical Thought. For me, it always serves as a reminder of how I might imagine new possibilities. It also instills in me a sense of hope that my scholarship can be part of a larger movement that helps to forge a broad alliance to unite all people, regardless of color or creed, in the service of human dignity.
Laurence Ralph is a professor of anthropology at Princeton University. He is the author of The Torture Letters: Reckoning with Police Violence and Renegade Dreams: Living with Injury in Gangland Chicago, both published by the University of Chicago Press.