Here are some of the favorite books of our staff and contributors from 2020:
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson’s epic account of the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns, was the deeply reported history of people who came north during the Jim Crow era. Her second book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (Penguin Random House), is more of an extended personal essay where she weaves together personal anecdote and history to create a profound analysis of the fundamental injustice upon which our country is built.
Slavery, she writes, is not a stain that has been wiped away but a critical component of Americanness, creating uniquely dehumanizing and rigid categories of people that have lasted to this day.
Upending America’s good-guy self-image, Wilkerson spends significant time on the Nazis’ fascination with segregation, documenting the Germans’ careful study of the way America kept the races separate. She quotes historian George M. Fredrickson’s observation that, when German Jews were stripped of citizenship, “American laws were the main foreign precedents for such legislation.”
“As cataclysmic as the Nuremberg Laws were,” Wilkerson writes, they didn’t go as far as the American commitment to racial purity. The “one-drop rule,” by which members of the disfavored caste were denied the benefits of white citizenship if they had the tiniest amount of lower-caste ancestry, “was too harsh for the Nazis.”
Wilkerson develops a kinship with members of the lowest caste in India, the Dalits, who endure a familiar, casual disrespect designed to keep people in their place. And she brings her insights about caste to the demonization of America’s first Black President and the rise of Donald Trump.
Dismissing the familiar liberal lament that white, working-class voters who support Trump are “voting against their own interests,” she diagnoses white people’s attachment to an upper-caste status so precious to them that they are willing to endure personal hardship in the short term to sustain their long-term domination of others.
Despite the heaviness of the history Caste covers, and some truly enraging anecdotes, Wilkerson is optimistic about the expansive potential of the human heart.
Near the end of her book she describes a visit from a plumber in a MAGA hat who arrives at her house and treats her contemptuously. Wilkerson makes a connection with him over their shared losses, and the two develop an unlikely bond.
This sort of extraordinary generosity is clear-eyed, not sentimental. Wilkerson dismisses saccharine white fantasies about all-forgiving, noble Black people that merely reinforce caste roles. She approvingly quotes a nine-year-old boy who, after being wrongly accused of assault by a middle-aged white woman, is asked by local reporters if he forgives her. No, says the boy, he certainly does not, adding “That lady needs to get help.”
So do all of us. Wilkerson is offering it.
Ruth Conniff is editor-at-large for The Progressive and editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner.
Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the Twenty-First Century (Vintage) offers an eclectic and authentic view of disability culture. It’s edited by Alice Wong, a wheelchair user and founder of the Disability Visibility Project, which, according to its website, is “an online community dedicated to creating, sharing, and amplifying disability media and culture.”
The Disability Visibility Project has helped 140 disabled people record oral histories for StoryCorps, which collects, preserves, and shares people’s stories. It also hosts a podcast, Twitter chats, and more. The group, Wong writes in the book’s introduction, “has always been a one-woman operation, but this doesn’t mean I do everything alone. Collaborating and partnering with disabled people is something that brings me epic, Marie Kondo–level joy.”
One standout essay is “For Ki’tay D. Davidson, Who Loves Us,” a eulogy written by Talila A. Lewis for the Black, disabled trans man who, Lewis says, “is my life partner, my mentee, my mentor, my dearest friend, and the one who showed me precisely what the meaning of love is.” There’s also “If You Can’t Fast, Give,” by Maysoon Zayid, a comedian who has cerebral palsy. She writes, “One of my symptoms is that I shake all the time, just like Shakira’s hips.” This essay relates how difficult her disability makes it for her to fast during Ramadan.
There is also an essay by Sky Cubacub, creator of Rebirth Garments, a line of “gender non-conforming wearables and accessories for people on the full spectrum of gender, size, and ability.” “Cultural norms don’t encourage trans and disabled people to dress stylishly or loudly,” Cubacub writes. “Society wants us to ‘blend in’ and not draw attention to ourselves. But what if we were to resist society’s desire to render us invisible? What if, through a dress reform, we collectively refuse to assimilate?”
Disability Visibility includes a transcript of Wong’s podcast interview with activist Lateef McLeod, about how disabled people can use communication technology such as apps to speak up for ourselves.
“These stories do not seek to explain the meaning of disability or to inspire or elicit empathy,” Wong writes. “Rather, they show disabled people simply being in our own words, by our own accounts.” Reading this book deepened my pride to be a part of the vibrant, dynamic, and wonderfully defiant disability community.
Mike Ervin is a columnist for The Progresssive.
The most salient book I read this year was Claudia Rankine’s Just Us: An American Conversation (Graywolf Press), the third in a trilogy that follows her critically acclaimed volume of poems, Citizen: An American Lyric. Just Us (hear: “justice”) is comprised of poems and essays that document, parse, and grapple with Rankine’s racially charged encounters with white people, including everyone from close friends to teachers to her husband to strangers on an airplane.
I found these scenes gripping and familiar, as though I were eavesdropping on my own whiteness, but with the benefit of knowing what Rankine thinks of the way I construct and participate in white privilege, and how that does real harm to people of color. Just Us puts white liberal guilt and denial of racism into sharp focus. Even if you consider yourself “woke” to racial injustice, Rankine points to our persistent and often willful refusal to face certain truths.
As I read one riveting scene after another, I found myself recalling past conversations that I would now very much like to revise.
But rather than wallowing in our own wrongness, Rankine gives us, not a pass—if anything, she holds white people more responsible than we would like to believe—but a way through.
In some cases, she sends a draft of her essay to the people she’s writing about, and then invites and includes their responses. These encounters plumb volatile and unresolved territory, and yet there’s something curative in reading what happens when people enter faithfully into these conversations. From her poem, “liminal spaces ii”:
To converse is to risk the unraveling of the said and the unsaid.
To converse is to risk the performance of what’s held by silence.
The risk is considerably greater for one party of these conversations than the other, and perhaps none of it solves anything. But by holding a space for moments from which most of us recoil, Rankine extends conversations about race past their usual terminus, past anger and hurt and silence, past white fragility and defensiveness. As Whitman once said, she puts a second brain to the brain, second eyes to the eyes, and second ears to the ears. The result is a work of perfect attentiveness, rendered with dedication to an expansive truth that might just be within our reach.
Jules Gibbs, a poet and professor of creative writing at Syracuse University, is poetry editor for The Progressive.
I used to consider myself an avid reader but, as with so many other things, 2020 changed that. Now it’s difficult for me to focus on anything longer than an Instagram post.
In fact, the one book I did manage to finish with no great effort, I found on Instagram. The cover of The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio (One World), with its gothic font, provocative title, and deep red flowers, caught my attention, and the book easily held it.
It’s part memoir, part reportage, and part fiction. Cornejo Villavicencio is bossily upfront about this blend of writing, insisting it allows more truth to be revealed; she had me convinced within a few pages.
Our hero’s quest begins when Donald Trump is first installed in the White House, and she realizes she needs to document and understand her own life and the lives of other “undocumented Americans”—meaning those who lack legal immigration status.
Before getting status through her marriage to a U.S. citizen, Cornejo Villavicencio was one of these “undocumented Americans.” She sets out to connect with people still in this situation, now that the threat against them is greater than ever.
Her journey takes her to botanicas and bars in Miami, Florida, to see the lengths people go to to stay healthy and dignified, and to Flint, Michigan, to witness the underreported issue of needing a state ID (an impossibility for undocumented people) to get clean water. In New York City, she meets 9/11 first responders struggling to get what they are due, and in Connecticut she meets two girls whose father has taken sanctuary in a church.
This is a book that contains lots of contradictions. It’s funny and raw at the same time as being angry and sophisticated. Cornejo Villavicencio brings her whole self to the page and fights to do the same for the people she writes about. She embraces complexities and does not try to make something pretty out of humanness.
I will always want to know what Cornejo Villavicencio has got to say; her voice and her intellect are consistently enlightening and often quite thrilling to experience. The skill and spirit of her writing propelled me from scene to scene and person to person in this book, through landscapes and relationships that felt at times unreal and other times all too real.
Maeve Higgins is a columnist for The Progressive.
On October 25, following months of protests, Chileans voted overwhelmingly to rewrite the country’s constitution, enacted in 1980 by U.S.-backed dictator General Augusto Pinochet to bind the country to a free-market economic model. Chile’s initiative raises an important question: Is our own Constitution, written in 1787 largely by slave-holding elites, worth preserving?
Of course, ditching the U.S. Constitution isn’t a mainstream political demand. But for Richard Kreitner, a journalist at The Nation and author of Break It Up: Secession, Division, and the Secret History of America’s Imperfect Union (Little, Brown), it’s the Constitution that’s fueling the deep political rifts that have erupted in recent years. At multiple points in U.S. history, Kreitner argues, the systemic flaws of the founding document have driven the country to the verge of collapse—and may do so again.
The Constitution established a system of minority rule, whereby states, regardless of their population, are given equal weight in the Senate, while the Electoral College allows for a handful of electors to decide presidential elections. These provisions, intended to limit the popular will and placate a Southern aristocracy intent on preserving chattel slavery, serve to remind “how odious the compromises to hold [the Union] together were and still are,” Kreitner writes.
From the nation’s founding to the Civil War, the inherent contradiction between the Constitution’s proclamations of freedom for all and its endorsement of Black enslavement was never directly addressed, but instead, repressed through compromise. And while most historical accounts trace the war to Confederate secessionists, Kreitner argues that Northern abolitionists also played a key role.
Seen as “the real disunionists” by Southerners, figures including Sojourner Truth, John Brown, and William Lloyd Garrison viewed breaking up the Union as necessary to be “free of the old one’s original sins.” Underscoring his belief in the Constitution’s fundamental corruption, Garrison burned a copy of it during an 1854 abolitionist rally protesting the Fugitive Slave Act.
Today, these flaws in the Constitution continue to undermine democratic ideals. Wyoming, the country’s least populated state, has three times the voting power of twenty-two other states, including California. And the fifty-two Republican Senators who confirmed Justice Amy Coney Barrett collectively represent more than thirteen million fewer people than the forty-seven in the Democratic caucus (and Republican Susan Collins of Maine) who voted against her confirmation.
Perhaps, like Chile, it’s time to embrace a massive Constitutional overhaul. As Kreitner concludes, “Nineteenth century abolititionists predicted, correctly, that either slavery or the Union might endure, but not both; the same might be said today of the Union and minority rule.”
Emilio Leanza is the associate editor for The Progressive.
Each year, hundreds of books arrive at The Progressive. Some are from major publishing houses, some from the writers themselves. Some we review, some we excerpt, some I just read. Here are some finds from that last category.
Shelter from the Machine: Homesteaders in the Age of Capitalism, by Jason G. Strange (University of Illinois Press). This well-written book offers a judgment-free assessment of the core reasons for our nation’s cultural divide, along lines created by disparate access to education and opportunity. Strange, an assistant professor at Berea College in Kentucky, meets people in Walmart stores and owner-built shacks, shedding light on their lives. “To fight ugly, fake stories,” he writes, “we have to tell stories that are beautiful, and true.” And that’s what he does.
Waking Up on the Appalachian Trail: A Story of War, Brotherhood, and the Pursuit of Truth, by N.B. Hankes (self-published). This is a crunchy, authentic account of one young man’s effort to process his experiences as a soldier in Iraq as he confronts the daunting physical challenge of through-hiking the Appalachian Trail. It’s a journey of not just self-discovery, but political awakening, as Hankes is forced to acknowledge the tawdry motivations for militarism and war. May his life’s journey continue to make him an agent of positive change.
The Fragile Earth: Writing from The New Yorker on Climate Change, edited by David Remnick and Henry Finder (Ecco). It was The New Yorker, arguably, that broke the story of global warming in publishing Bill McKibben’s shattering 1989 article, “Reflections: The End of Nature,” later a book. The collection includes two more McKibben articles, as well as riveting pieces by Elizabeth Kolbert, Michael Specter, and Christine Kenneally. McKibben quotes a GOP consultant who urged fossil fuel companies to “continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue.” The weight of this hefty book comes down on the other side.
Is Wildness Over?, by Paul Wapner (Polity Press). This slim volume convincingly argues that humankind has made a devastating error in pushing wildness out of our ordinary lives, and that we must “open ourselves to wildness . . . and invite more of it into our lives.” Wapner, a professor at American University, explains how this would be better than thinking we can engineer our way out of the problems we’ve caused: “Engaging wildness with a conquering spirit is precisely what created unstoppable extinction, accelerating climate change, and other disassembling threats.” No, wildness is not over. It just needs to be rediscovered.
Nature Underfoot: Living with Beetles, Crabgrass, Fruit Flies, and Other Tiny Life Around Us, by John Hainze (Yale University Press). This wonderful book, part of which began as an article on The Progressive’s website, champions living things often seen as invaders and pests. Did you know silverfish—those nasty little bugs you find in attics—are smart enough to learn complex mazes? “These plants and animals,” writes Hainze, an entomologist, “bring a richness to our daily lives that is readily accessible in our living rooms and lawns.” Lucky us.
Bill Lueders is editor of The Progressive.
2020 was a year of urgent and often overwhelming news. So much came at us so fast that it was easy to lose perspective. But, as she has done so often over many years, Rebecca Solnit provided us with a touchstone text.
The finest essayist of our era produced a brilliant memoir, Recollections of My Nonexistence (Viking), that is at once both of the moment and timeless. This is an honest, elegant exploration of Solnit’s development as a writer and activist. It is also a deeply considered examination of the feminist sensibility that gave us the eponymous 2008 essay, “Men Explain Things to Me.”
In a key passage of her book, Solnit refers to “a Buddhist phrase about the work of bodhisattvas: ‘the liberation of all things.’ I see feminism as a subset of that work.” Recollections of My Nonexistence is all about liberation. And it invites us to think more broadly about what is possible in challenging times.
So, too, does Jonathan Bate’s Radical Wordsworth: The Poet Who Changed the World (Yale University Press), an engaging new examination of the poet who figured so powerfully in Solnit’s groundbreaking 2000 work, Wanderlust: A History of Walking. There are plenty of biographies of romantic poets, but Bate has given us something else altogether.
Radical Wordsworth is about a writer and his places, particularly the natural places where he invited each of us to consider the “glimpses that would make me less forlorn.” The radicalism that Bate explores is literary and political, and this book reminds us that the greatest literature often inspires the greatest activism. That inspiration, Bate explains, created a space for social and environmental liberation.
Another 2020 book that spoke of liberation was Ernest Freeberg’s A Traitor to His Species: Henry Bergh and the Birth of the Animal Rights Movement (Basic Books). Bergh, a diplomat who was appointed by Abraham Lincoln to serve as secretary of the U.S. legation to Russia, was moved by European initiatives to end animal cruelty. He returned to the United States and in 1866 incorporated and provided the initial funding for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Today, the ASPCA is seen as a necessary and vital organization. It was not so in Bergh’s time. Freeberg, a distinguished professor of humanities and head of the history department at the University of Tennessee, impresses upon readers the scope and character of Bergh’s accomplishments as a builder of movements inspired by a deep and abiding compassion.
John Nichols, a frequent contributor to The Progressive, writes about politics for The Nation and is associate editor of The Capital Times newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin.
Multiple Oscar winner Oliver Stone’s Chasing the Light: Writing, Directing, and Surviving Platoon, Midnight Express, Scarface, Salvador, and the Movie Game (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) is thrilling, thoughtful, visceral, compassionate, and action-packed. In other words, reading this autobiographical 352-pager is like watching an Oliver Stone film. And man, can Stone—who won a screenwriting Academy Award for 1978’s Midnight Express and was nominated for five more scripts—write.
For the first time ever in nonfiction, the Purple Heart–awarded Stone shares his heart-thumping Vietnam combat experiences, which fed fuel to the fire that ignited in 1986. That’s when Stone’s anti-war classics Platoon, the bombshell Best Picture–winner, and Salvador both hit the screen. This behind-the-scenes movie memoir vividly captures the exhilaration of one of Tinseltown’s all-time bravest, brightest, most blazing bursts of radical cinema.
I saw Salvador the year it came out on the island of Java in Indonesia, back when that nation’s pro-Washington tyrant General Suharto was still in power. I invited my becak driver to join me in watching Stone’s Central American thriller, depicting massacres by U.S.-backed death squads. Afterward, looking around to make sure he wasn’t overheard, the Javanese driver whispered, “It was like Indonesia in 1965.” That’s when nationalist President Sukarno was overthrown in a CIA-backed coup, and up to a million people were slaughtered.
That atrocity is the centerpiece of Vincent Bevins’s The Jakarta Method: Washington’s Anticommunist Crusade and the Mass Murder Program That Shaped Our World (PublicAffairs). The former correspondent for The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times traces these genocidal coups beyond Indonesia to other hotspots, such as Brazil and Chile, exposing that, for Third World nations, “Pax Americana” was more of a “Pox Americana.” Bevins’s bone-chiller reminds us that the United States needs not just a racial reckoning but an imperial one, to radically alter a reactionary, coercive, and meddlesome foreign policy.
During the Watergate scandal, Senator Howard Baker, Republican of Tennessee, famously asked: “What did the President know and when did he know it?” Rage (Simon & Schuster), the new insider account by Bob Woodward—whose Watergate reportage with Carl Bernstein helped oust Nixon—attained instantaneous notoriety for posing a similar question, when Woodward revealed that Trump had talked about how “deadly” the coronavirus was, contrary to his public pronouncements.
But there’s much more in this 480-page book on Trump’s presidency. Woodward, the chronicler of Presidents and two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, has sweeping access to high-level sources and hard-to-get info, including a treasure trove of “love letters” between Trump and Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un.
Once again, the journalist who helped topple Tricky Dick has written the first draft of presidential history about another “wrong man for the job.”
Ed Rampell is a Los Angeles-based film historian and critic, and a frequent contributor to The Progressive.
Sarah Blaskey cut her journalistic teeth in Madison, Wisconsin, working at The Clarion student newspaper at Madison College and volunteering at WORT Community Radio, where I previously worked for more than twenty years. She even wrote a couple of articles for The Progressive.
Blaskey went on to land a job as a reporter at the Miami Herald, where she joined with three colleagues—Nicholas Nehamas, Caitlin Ostroff, and Jay Weaver—to crack the nut that is Mar-a-Lago, the Florida resort that owner Donald Trump has called “The Southern White House.” Based on a year of interviews with current and former staff, The Grifter’s Club: Trump, Mar-a-Lago, and the Selling of the Presidency (PublicAffairs) tells the inside story of policy and protocol gone awry. This includes the strange case of Yujing Zhang, the Chinese woman caught trying to enter the club in March 2019 with a laptop and a thumb drive containing malware, as well as the story of a woman who was entertaining Trump and then-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe when they received news of a North Korean missile test.
“ ‘Mister President, I shouldn’t know this,’ someone heard the performer say. Trump shrugged. ‘It’s just nukes,’ he said. ‘Sing us a song.’ ”
Scott Anderson, a journalist, novelist, and a veteran war correspondent, provides another tour-de-force history based on four years of research into dusty archives, along with interviews with participants and family members who remember the details of the CIA’s early failed efforts to “keep the world safe for democracy.” The Quiet Americans: Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War—a Tragedy in Three Acts (Doubleday), whose title is an homage to Graham Greene’s novel of early CIA actions in Vietnam, tells the story of numerous incidents when, through stubbornness and ideological blindness, the CIA often, as Anderson puts it, “managed to snatch moral defeat from the jaws of sure victory, and be forever tarnished.”
Dissidents of the International Left (New Internationalist), by Andy Heintz, is based on seventy-seven interviews conducted over several years with such prominent leftwing figures as Noam Chomsky, Meredith Tax, Amartya Sen, and Progressive contributor Stephen Zunes. The author’s goal, he says, is to “play a minor role in bringing the world we wish to live in closer to becoming a reality.”
Finally, I’m Gonna Say It Now: The Writings of Phil Ochs (Backbeat), edited by David Cohen, brings together two decades of writings by the late political folk singer, some drawn from previously printed sources, others from handwritten notes and journals. The book, with a title taken from one of Ochs’s early songs, provides a much deeper insight into the man who turned his keen observations into pointed barbs and passionate anthems during the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements. It concludes with a pearl of Ochs’s wisdom, “Ah, but in such an ugly time, the true protest is beauty.”
Norman Stockwell is publisher of The Progressive.
I was working in a newsroom in St. Paul, Minnesota, on election day in 2018. Though we were primarily covering local and state elections, I had my eye on two particular gubernatorial elections: Wisconsin and Georgia.
As a Wisconsin voter, I was glad to see my vote play a small role in removing Republican Governor Scott Walker from office and electing Democrat Tony Evers.
The other race I was watching played out in Georgia. There the gubernatorial race was between former Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams, former minority leader of Georgia’s House of Representatives who went on to found Fair Fight. In an election rife with active voter suppression efforts, Kemp was declared the winner. Abrams demanded a recount, which also resulted in a slim victory by Kemp. In Abrams’s newest book, Our Time Is Now: Power, Purpose, and the Fight for a Fair America (Henry Holt), released June 2020, she details the Republicans’ voter suppression tactics from complicating voter registration to restricting access to polling places.
“The fight to defend the right to vote begins with understanding where we’ve been and knowing where we are now,” Abrams says. “Only then can we demand a fair fight and make it so.”
Our Time Is Now doesn’t focus just on the act of voting, but on representation as a whole. Abrams discusses why the electoral college should be abolished, and the unfair census counts leading to underrepresentation, specifically in communities of color.
As a Black woman, Abrams also addresses how her identity has largely determined her political views, as it does for almost everybody. But, as Abrams notes, “ ‘identity politics’ has become a hostile phrase for some and a rallying cry for others, though the concept is as old as our nation, just like voter suppression.”
“I believe we must embrace identity politics if we are to save our democracy and thrive,” Abrams writes.
In Our Time Is Now, Abrams clearly spells out how voter suppression has been used throughout our history, how it is implemented today, whom it harms and benefits. But the book isn’t just meant to be an overview of everything wrong with our election system, it is also a call to action; Abrams is asking her readers to join the fight to make change happen. During an election year unlike any other, this is certainly a welcome message.
Kassidy Tarala is the web editor and audience engagement coordinator for The Progressive.
This has been a year of unprecedented athletic activism, from the August strike wave for Black lives that cascaded through almost every major sports league, to the jocks who have protested the police murder of George Floyd.
Two sports books published in 2020 captured this collision of sports and politics in different ways, even though they were both written months before any of this took place. Both gave me some much-needed perspective on what’s been going down.
The Spencer Haywood Rule: Battles, Basketball, and the Making of an American Iconoclast (Triumph Books). This incisive biography was written by Gary Washburn and Marc J. Spears, but Haywood’s voice is on every page. The hoops Hall of Famer, 1968 Olympic gold medalist, and one of a kind personality has led a remarkable life. Raised in abject poverty in Mississippi, he built his muscles in the cotton fields before embarking on a journey that took him around the world and into one of the most important sports labor struggles of the twentieth century.
It was Haywood who fought the NCAA all the way to the Supreme Court, winning the right for generations of basketball players to go straight to the pros without having to suit up for four years of unpaid exploitation at the collegiate level. His life then careened between NBA stardom, marriage to the model Iman, and a serious cocaine addiction that almost cost him everything.
The Spencer Haywood Rule is a hell of a story about the ways that greatness can be thrust upon unsuspecting athletes who then need to “answer the bell” in moments of heightened struggle.
The other book that aided my understanding of what’s been exploding around me was Loving Sports When They Don’t Love You Back: Dilemmas of the Modern Fan (University of Texas Press), by Jessica Luther and Kavitha A. Davidson. The book by two leading sports journalists explores sports’ great contradiction: It at times amplifies bigotry and avarice yet can also be the source of poetry and resistance.
In a year where athletes challenged the injustice that exists in the real world, Luther and Davidson remind us that sports can be not just a reflection of our society but a force that can help make our world a better place.
Dave Zirin is a sports columnist for The Nation and The Progressive.