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Thinking While Black

A reading list by Daniel McNeil, author of Thinking While Black.


Book Cover Thinking While Black

Thinking While Black is a book about the work and ideas of two celebrated and controversial writers who have invited and challenged their readers to do some deeper and fresher thinking about politics and popular culture. It pays particular attention to the prominent British intellectual Paul Gilroy, the notorious American journalist Armond White, and a political and cultural generation that came of age in the 1960s and ‘70s consuming rebel music, revolutionary film, and other forms of expressive culture created by world citizens and the descendants of enslaved individuals.  

To accompany a book about intellectually promiscuous writers, this reading list features ten books from multiple disciplines, periods and cultures. To supplement a dual biography or duography that places two critics in conversation with each other, it also acts as a matchmaker and forms the books into pairs. 

The Wretched of the Earth, by Frantz Fanon

The Black Jacobins, by C.L.R. James

book cover the wretched of the earth

Paul Gilroy owes an incalculable debt to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, C.L.R. James’s The Black Jacobins, and Donald Wood, the historian of the Caribbean who recommended the two books to him when he was on the verge of dropping out of the University of Sussex as an undergraduate student. 

Book Cover The Black Jacobins

In the preface to The Black Atlantic—an extraordinarily influential book that stimulated the study of a network of cultures spanning Africa, North and South America, the Caribbean and Europe—Gilroy asserts that Fanon and James are the two best-known Black Atlantic thinkers. Although The Black Atlantic does not go on to extensively cite The Wretched of the Earth or The Black Jacobins, every chapter of the book is indebted to the exciting and challenging arguments that Fanon and James developed in their explorations of Black Atlantic cultures. 


The Souls of Black Folk, by W.E.B. Du Bois

Affective Mapping: Melancholia and the Politics of Modernism, by Jonathan Flatley 

Book Cover The Souls of Black Folk

In his much-cited comment about double consciousness—the “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity”—W.E.B. Du Bois bequeathed White and other creative artists a powerful tool to address the personal and social identities of Black people in white supremacist countries. When writing about race, America and the movies for the South End—a student newspaper that was transformed into an imaginative vessel for the Black radical tradition after the Great Rebellion in Detroit in 1967—White would often cite Du Bois and other Black intellectuals to convey the beauty and necessity of learning from African American culture, history, and memory. 

Book Cover Affective Mapping

Amongst its many strengths, Jonathan Flatley’s Affective Mapping shares important concepts and keywords to help us think with and through the work and ideas of Du Bois as well as the revolutionary art and activism in Detroit during the 1960s and '70s. One of the most valuable is “structures of feeling”—those delicate, less tangible forms of activity and mediating structures that facilitate and shape our affective attachment to different objects in the social order. In many ways, Thinking While Black is about the structures of feeling that are brought into focus when we encounter people from a different political and cultural generation who never quite seem to share our language. 

Resistance Through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-War Britain, by Stuart Hall and Tony Jefferson (eds)

Without Guarantees: In Honor of Stuart Hall, by Paul Gilroy, Lawrence Grossberg and Angela McRobbie (eds)

Book Cover Resistance Through Rituals

In the spring of 1978, as he prepared to graduate from the University of Sussex, Paul Gilroy spent time puttering around a bookstore that carried Resistance through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-War Britain. Much like The Black Jacobins and The Wretched of the Earth influenced Gilroy’s decision to continue his undergraduate career, Resistance through Rituals would inform his decision to move to Birmingham and pursue a journey of intellectual discovery as a graduate student at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS). The CCCS, directed by Stuart Hall, cultivated space for students and faculty to receive ideas, debate them, re-think them and disseminate them across multiple media platforms.

Book Cover Without Guarantees

It inspired people who studied at the CCCS—such as Gilroy, Lawrence Grossberg, and Angela McRobbie—to smuggle moments of dissidence into cultural climates where the life of the mind is scorned. 

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang: Film Writings, 1965-1967, by Pauline Kael

The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968, by Andrew Sarris

Book Cover Kiss Kiss Bang Ba ng

In 2010, the British journal Sight and Sound invited critics to list the five most inspirational books ever written about film. Armond White described his first pick, Pauline Kael’s Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang as an original, “personal, inspiring history of cinema.” He hailed his second selection, Andrew Sarris’s American Cinema, as “a one man tour de force that cements the case for auteur theory.” 

Book Cover The American Cinema

In contrast to film critics who tend to defend the honour of Team Kael or Team Sarris, and claim that the two most prominent American film critics of the 1970s could never have found each other attractive, White considers them to be his “film critic mom and pop.” On the one hand, he credits Kael’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang as a book that helped him to imagine a life as a film critic when he was a “movie-struck kid” in Detroit. On the other, he esteems Sarris’s evaluative lists and concise summaries of directorial and non-directorial figures – and fondly recalls the time he spent as a graduate student in Sarris’s classes at Columbia University in the early 1980s – because they deepened his love of film as a “middle-aged maverick” writing for newspapers and magazines in New York.  

Beating Time: Riot 'n' Race 'n' Rock 'n' Roll, by David Widgery

As Serious as Your LifeBlack Music and the Free Jazz Revolution, 1957–1977, by Val Wilmer 

Book Cover Beating Time

In the 1970s, Gilroy submitted articles to Temporary Hoarding, the revolutionary fanzine that David Widgery helped to edit as part of a Rock Against Racism movement that was educational—without being sermonizing—about trade union movements, sexual and gender politics, and anti-racism. In the 1980s, Val Wilmer helped Gilroy to break into the somewhat insular world of British music journalism, and he describes her as a world figure in the history of African American musical culture and an ethical advocate of Black music who refused to separate her appetite for Black music from her respect for the people who created it. 

Book Cover As Serious as Your Liufe

Widgery and Wilmer understood that film and Black music were two of the most popular art forms of the twentieth century, and their writing sought to rescue the energy of Motown and the French New Wave from the galleries, the advertising agencies, and the record companies so that they could be used, again, to change reality. Put slightly differently, Beating Time and As Serious as Your Life are unsentimental accounts of Black and non-Black people getting together to make popular culture more political and political activism more fun.


Book Cover Thinking While Black

Learn more about Thinking While Black:

This uniquely interdisciplinary study of Black cultural critics Armond White and Paul Gilroy spans continents and decades of rebellion and revolution. 

Drawing on an eclectic mix of archival research, politics, film theory, and pop culture, Daniel McNeil examines two of the most celebrated and controversial Black thinkers working today. Thinking While Black takes us on a transatlantic journey through the radical movements that rocked against racism in 1970s Detroit and Birmingham, the rhythms of everyday life in 1980s London and New York, and the hype and hostility generated by Oscar-winning films like 12 Years a Slave

The lives and careers of White and Gilroy—along with creative contemporaries of the post–civil rights era such as Bob Marley, Toni Morrison, Stuart Hall, and Pauline Kael—should matter to anyone who craves deeper and fresher thinking about cultural industries, racism, nationalism, belonging, and identity.

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