Racism. Oppression. Violence. Faith. Hopefulness. These themes have defined the black experience in America from the moment slaves touched shore. As African Americans continue their struggle, three new books cast fresh light on the journey from slavery to freedom.
A LOST MEMOIR FINALLY FOUND
Austin Reed’s birth certificate states that he was born a free man in New York, unique for a person of color in the 1820s. But Reed’s struggles in the pre-Civil War era made him far from free. Never before published, his remarkable 150-year-old autobiography, The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict, shows that even in the North, hatred and prejudice made life intolerable for African Americans.
Reed’s handwritten account chronicles years spent as an indentured servant and petty thief whose crimes led to turns in a juvenile reformatory and later, prison. Following the death of his father, Reed was made an indentured servant to pay off his family’s debts. When he burned down his master’s house, he was sent to a reformatory, where he was subjected to hard labor. But he also learned to read and write, allowing him to create this fascinating account of his experiences. As an adult, crimes of theft and larceny would return him to prison, where he was beaten and left in solitary confinement.
The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict is believed to be the earliest account of prison life written by an African American. Authenticated by a team of scholars, it helps broaden the historical context of the black experience in America.
Author Karen Branan is forced by two events to confront her prejudices: the present-day birth of her granddaughter and a century-old lynching in a small Southern town. The birth involves a baby girl born to Branan’s white son and his African-American girlfriend. Brenan’s first instinct is to recoil, a reaction that can, in part, be traced to her upbringing in Georgia. It is there, in the town of Hamilton, that four African Americans were lynched in 1912 for their suspected role in the murder of a white man. The sheriff at the time was Branan’s great-grandfather.
Branan, a veteran journalist, decides to confront her family’s past, and her own beliefs, by researching the lynching. It forms the basis for her cathartic memoir, The Family Tree. The book reveals some dark truths. First, the murdered white man, Brenan’s distant cousin, had a history of assaulting black women. He was found shot dead after pursuing a 14-year-old black girl. As the case unfolded, Branan’s great-grandfather, the sheriff, arrested a woman and three men, all black. Then he offered no resistance when a white mob dragged the four suspects from jail and hanged them from a tree. Even more startling is that Branan discovers she is related to one of the lynching victims.
The Family Tree is a fascinating account of a white author’s struggle to examine lynching, racism and the violent crimes of her own family. She strives for healing the only way she can: by uncovering the truth.
AN INFLUENTIAL VOICE
When African Americans began the Great Migration from the South to Northern cities, many found opportunities in Chicago: employment in factories, steel mills and stockyards, a chance to own a home and greater social acceptance. The city’s South Side became a black metropolis teeming with shops, restaurants, nightclubs and churches. Providing news to this emerging group was the newly created Chicago Defender, a black-owned newspaper.
Ethan Michaeli traces the growth of this groundbreaking newspaper in The Defender, showing how the Chicago Defender grew to become a cultural and economic force in not only Chicago, but also the nation. Smuggled copies made their way to the Jim Crow South, providing blacks with much-needed news of the civil rights movement. A team of national correspondents from the Chicago Defender was there to cover the lynching of Emmett Till, the violence against the Freedom Riders and King’s crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. And the newspaper played an important role in supporting and promoting the emerging black middle class.
The Defender is a thorough and well-researched account of an important voice in black history.
This article was originally published in the February 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.