This entry was curated by Kanishka Chowdhury, professor of English and director of the American culture and difference minor.
Some notion of human rights can be traced as far back as the Hammurabi Code in ancient Mesopotamia (1750 B.C.), through early Buddhist, Judeo-Christian, Islamic and other religious traditions, Greco-Roman ideas of jus gentium, theories of natural laws in the Western tradition, and the documents of the French and American revolutions.
However, modern notions of human rights emerge with the drafting of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. More specifically, our contemporary understanding of human rights as a form of international humanitarianism, and a system of retribution and justice that addresses a catalog of crimes and a range of violations, has an even more recent provenance, gaining precedence, according to critic Samuel Moyn, only in the late 1970s.
Thus, while there are many pivotal texts that deal with human rights across the centuries, from Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (1791) and Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) to Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), I will limit myself in the following selection to Moyn’s periodization of rights, and merely list a selection of the most significant texts written in the last 45 years. Additionally, I will include only books that I have taught.
10. Aminatta Forna, The Memory of Love (2010)
In this gripping and evocative novel focusing on the 11-year civil war in Sierra Leone (1991-2002) and its aftermath, Forna addresses one of the crucial elements of post-conflict societies: how survivors confront the trauma and memories of war while considering the possibility, or impossibility, of a just reconciliation.
9. Mahmood Mamdani, Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror (2010)
Mamdani offers a refreshingly original and historically informed account of the Darfur crisis, placing it within the larger politics of the war on terror and removing it from the media glare that turned the conflict into a celebrity cause.
8. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness (2012)
Alexander’s book is a devastating account of the prison industrial complex in the present-day United States, highlighting the intricate connections between profit acquisition, structural racism and political expediency.
7. Óscar Martínez, The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging the Narcos on the Migrant Trail (2010, 2014)
Martínez chronicles the astounding courage of migrants from Central America as they ride the train, known as La Bestia, through Mexico, dodging gangs and kidnappers, in their attempts to reach the border of the United States.
6. Mourid Barghouti, I Saw Ramallah (1997, 2000)
A memoir that chronicles the Palestinian poet’s return to his homeland for the first time after the 1967 war. Barghouti combines poetic images with poignant meditations on the nature of home and exile to bring to light a complex struggle for nationhood.
5. Audre Lorde, Sister, Outsider (1984)
Lorde’s portrait of the intersectional lives of those on the margins, a razor-sharp critique of heterosexist, patriarchal systems of power, remains amazingly timely 30 years later in a society driven by racist violence and myriad forms of misogyny.
4. Indra Sinha, Animal’s People: A Novel (2007)
Told from the perspective of a victim of the 1984 gas leak in Bhopal, India, Sinha’s novel is funny, outrageous and relentlessly accurate in demonstrating how it is almost always the most vulnerable who pay the price for environmental disasters.
3. Rigoberta Menchú (author) and Elisabeth Burgos-Debray (editor), I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala (1984)
Menchú’s account of the military’s crackdown on the indigenous peoples of Guatemala is probably the best known text to emerge from that particular struggle. However, Menchú also shines a light on the struggle for the rights of Indian peasants, highlighting a resistance movement that has existed in some shape or form over centuries.
2. Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (2015)
Klein is ruthlessly incisive in her analysis of the contradictions of capitalism, a system that seemingly attempts to address the dangers of climate change even while adhering blindly to the goals of infinite expansion and exploitation of the planet’s resources.
1. Paolo Friere, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968)
This book predates my own timeline for inclusion, but I’m making an exception for it because it remains so influential and relevant. Friere critiques the “banking model” of education and offers a stirring account of the ways in which oppressed people take part in their own liberation through the collective growth of critical consciousness or conscientização. Although written within a Brazilian context, this text has become central to the struggles of colonized peoples across the world.