Priscilla Kipp

The Nile’s mythic reputation as the longest river in Africa, and arguably the world, once inspired generations of European explorers to seek its source—and exploit Africa’s vast resources in the process. Now, thanks to this richly detailed story well told by historian Candice Millard, a colorful and controversial chapter in world history resurfaces. In River of the Gods: Genius, Courage, and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile, 19th-century explorers’ egos loom godlike over expeditions, their abused local guides save lives and prompt discoveries, and the second largest continent on Earth finally gets mapped.

Millard, the prize-winning author of Hero of the Empire, among others, introduces a cast of characters and succeeds in making each of them unforgettable. Richard Burton, “an army of savants in a single man,” was chosen by the Royal Geographical Society in 1856 to head the expedition to locate the source of the Nile—“one of the most complex and demanding expeditions ever attempted.” But he soon ran afoul of his quirky colleague, John Hanning Speke, and barely survived their quest. It was Speke who earned the discoverer’s fame and glory, though his character flaws (paranoia and narcissism among them) marred his reputation and may have cost him his life. Sidi Mubarak Bombay, the previously enslaved man who guided the expedition and repeatedly saved them from treachery, disease, injury and themselves, didn’t immediately receive recognition for being integral to their success. Burton’s wife, Isabel Arrundell, was a fervent Catholic who defied her mother to marry Burton, a proclaimed agnostic who proposed by dropping off a note on his way to Africa.

Millard excels at describing it all, balancing narrative flow with abundant details that give a vast landscape its weight and power, clarify complicated people and arduous journeys, and add those who have gone largely unseen to the historical stage. Take, for example, such memorable details as a beetle burrowing into Speke’s ear; the thieves, deserters and raiders thwarting these yearslong expeditions; diseases and infections leading to blindness, deafness and death; the hardships of Bombay, who was once traded for cloth; and two huge, breathtakingly beautiful lakes, one of which, it was finally proven, spawned the Nile.

In River of the Gods, a mythic and unforgettable history of the Nile, European explorers’ egos may loom godlike but East African guides save lives.

Consider all the universal mundanities of caregiving: the endless feedings, diaper changes, cleanups, sleepless nights and confining days, not to mention all the laundry. What if, with the help of journalist, activist and mother Angela Garbes, we could radically reconsider the incredible value of this work? In Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change, Garbes swoops from the universal to the personal to the downright intimate, offering an all-encompassing vision of a more socially and economically just way of caring for one another that, de facto, would improve our individual and collective lives.

The author of the hybrid memoir Like a Mother, a 2018 NPR best book of the year, Garbes serves up her own experiences as a first-generation Filipina, daughter, wife and mother in her second book. She calls Part I of Essential Labor “A Personal History of Mothering in America” and uses it to delineate her social relationship to motherhood, including her own family’s complicated origins in the U.S., beginning when her parents emigrated from the Philippines in 1970. Part II, “Exploring Mothering as Social Change,” expands into the kinds of activism that mothering can and should inspire to create a more equitable world.

Garbes wants so much more for her mixed-race children than the racialized, gendered immigrant experience that her parents endured—yet there is more to mothering than personal circumstances. The COVID-19 pandemic, Garbes says, changed how we care for each other, revealing that “mothering is some of the only truly essential work humans do.” She also identifies child care as a political issue—a kind of infrastructure for families that needs bipartisan government support.

At the same time that workplaces gave way to home “offices” during the pandemic, nursing homes became off-limits, schools and child care centers closed, and families were left with the work of finding other ways of caring for young people, elderly people and themselves. The myth of a self-sustaining family was no longer viable, Garbes observes; mothering needed the support of communities and multiple generations. The work of mothering, taking care of ourselves and others, became more essential than ever.

There is a great deal to digest here, and Garbes’ analyses will certainly resonate with people whose caregiving responsibilities increased during the pandemic. Yet by identifying the inherent power of mothering as a force for change, Garbes makes her message relevant to a broader audience. Indeed, as Essential Labor makes clear, all our fates are intertwined.

Angela Garbes swoops from the universal to the intimate as she offers a vision of mothering that would improve our individual and collective lives.

Getting to know a living, legendary author can be challenging, as their own reticence often prevents readers from venturing too far behind the curtain. Not so with Alice Walker. Her journals have been compiled and edited by the late writer and critic Valerie Boyd, and they fully reveal a complex and at times controversial life. Walker was the first Black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1983 for The Color Purple, and she remains a force at 78. Gathering Blossoms Under Fire: The Journals of Alice Walker, 1965–2000 offers an intimate portrait of the iconic writer, human rights activist, philanthropist and womanist—a term Walker herself coined to describe Black feminists.

The youngest of eight in a poor family from Georgia, Walker was 8 when a brother accidentally shot her in the eye with a BB gun. Her injury eventually led to a college scholarship, and after graduating from Sarah Lawrence College in New York, she returned to the South as a civil rights activist. In 1967, she proposed to fellow activist Melvyn Leventhal, who is Jewish. They became the first interracial married couple in Mississippi, where miscegenation was still illegal, though they divorced nine years later.

Motherhood was a fraught choice for a feminist in the 1970s, and after becoming a parent, Walker struggled with feeling distracted from her work as an artist. She applauded childless writers such as Zora Neale Hurston and wrote that her daughter, Rebecca, was “no more trouble to me the writer than Virginia Woolf’s madness was to her.” Such ambivalence shaded their relationship. Meanwhile, her friendships with feminist Gloria Steinem and movie and music producer Quincy Jones fared better. Her romantic relationships didn’t always end well, but through their ups and downs, Walker embraced “The Goddess” and prayed to the “Spirit of the Universe,” who enabled her to celebrate her bisexuality.

It was the success of The Color Purple that allowed Walker to help her troubled family, acquire properties she loved and support causes that were important to her. In the 1993 book and documentary Warrior Marks, Walker drew attention to the practice of female genital mutilation. She has also passionately protested South African apartheid, the Iraq War and the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

Walker says she keeps a journal “partly because my memory is notorious, among my friends, for not remembering much of what we’ve shared.” That concern vanishes with Gathering Blossoms Under Fire, which contains copious, intimate details about her life. And as with all of Walker’s writings, the stories found in these pages are beautifully told.

This compilation of Alice Walker’s journals offers an intimate portrait of the iconic writer, human rights activist and philanthropist.

Civil War scholar Carole Emberton titled this insightful study of “freedom’s charter generation,” the first group of enslaved people to be emancipated in 1865, after a soothing quote from the Bible (Psalm 119:45). But she is clear: There was nothing easy about this walk away from slavery for the Black Americans of the Jim Crow South. Their stories, gathered in interviews by the Federal Writers’ Project during the Great Depression, are carefully retold in To Walk About in Freedom: The Long Emancipation of Priscilla Joyner, a necessary, judicious correction to previously published accounts.

A project funded under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, the FWP sent mostly white interviewers across the South to record the stories of formerly enslaved people who were still living. But before publication, the interviews underwent heavy editing to make them align with a more nostalgic vision of the South’s past. It would take Sterling Brown, a Black poet and FWP leader, to insist on authenticity and restore the interviewees’ words. Almost a century later, here they are.

Emberton’s book especially focuses on one woman, Priscilla Joyner, who told her life story to the FWP. Born in 1858, Joyner was never formally enslaved, yet her struggle to be free lasted for her entire lifetime. After the Civil War, former slaveholders did their best to subvert and sabotage the new, fragile laws of Reconstruction. Shocked when the people they had enslaved walked away without looking back, and fearful of a new balance of power, they thwarted Black voting rights and menaced teachers at newly opened schools—or simply burned the schools down.

Joyner experienced much of this hostility firsthand. The white woman who called herself Joyner’s mother did little to nurture or protect her. Joyner’s darker skin enraged her white siblings, who tormented her until, as a teenager, she was abruptly given away to a Black family. Within that community, Joyner found her people, went to school for the first time, wore ribbons in her hair and dresses that fit, and fell in love. Yet she and her family continued to struggle against inequities in pay, health care, education and professional opportunities.

Emberton’s attention to detail, whether she’s describing an inept FWP interviewer, an intimidated storyteller or the heavy-handed project editor, succeeds in debunking any nostalgia attached to the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy.

Carole Emberton’s insightful study of the first group of enslaved people to be emancipated is a necessary, judicious correction to Confederate nostalgia.

When then-California Senator Kamala Harris accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for vice president of the United States, she spoke of a long history of inspiring women, including the impoverished Mississippi sharecropper-turned-human rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer. “We’re not often taught their stories, but as Americans, we all stand on their shoulders,” Harris said. Historian Keisha N. Blain’s extensively researched chronicle Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America ensures that Hamer’s story—and her lessons for activists—will live on.

The granddaughter of enslaved people and the youngest of 20 children growing up on a plantation in the Jim Crow South, Hamer’s formal education ended in the sixth grade. Her parents needed her to pick cotton in order to put food on the table. In 1962, at age 44, Hamer attended a meeting organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and learned for the first time that she had a constitutional right to vote.

After attempting to exercise that right got her thrown off the plantation, Hamer began organizing voter education workshops and registration drives. Her family became targets of violence, her husband and daughter were arrested and jailed, and their home was invaded. Eventually her work with SNCC activists almost cost Hamer her life: Jailed after a voter workshop in Winona, Mississippi, she took a beating that left her with kidney damage and a blood clot in one eye.

Undeterred, Hamer went on to challenge the all-white Mississippi delegates at the 1964 Democratic Party Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, arguing that the delegation couldn’t represent the state when Black Democrats had been excluded from the selection process. President Lyndon Johnson held an impromptu press conference to prevent television coverage of her graphic testimony, in which she detailed her beating, but it aired anyway and sparked outrage. Eventually the credentials committee offered the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which included white and Black people, two at-large seats with no voting power. Hamer’s response: “We didn’t come all this way for no two seats.” Four years later, she would become a member of Mississippi’s first integrated delegation.

With SNCC, Hamer helped organize the legendary Freedom Summer in 1964 and later launched the Freedom Farm Cooperative to tackle rural poverty. She fought for inclusion in the women’s movement, and until her death in 1977, she remained strident about the global need to liberate all marginalized groups seeking political and economic justice. As readers take in Hamer’s life story throughout this rallying cry of a book, they will find that her message still resounds today: “You are not free whether you are white or black, until I am free.”

Historian Keisha N. Blain’s extensively researched chronicle ensures that Fannie Lou Hamer’s story—and her lessons for activists—will live on.

For all we know, or think we know, about the long, dark history of the slave trade, it seems there is always more to learn. In The Black Joke: The True Story of One Ship’s Battle Against the Slave Trade, A.E. Rooks adds global and historical context to the travesties and tragedies that took place along the coast of West Africa in the 1800s. A versatile, accomplished scholar, and two-time “Jeopardy!” champion, Rooks introduces a cast of ambitious commanders, insensitive rulers and policymakers, heroic ship captains, beleaguered sailors and heartless enslavers.

Cuba, Jamaica, Africa, Brazil, Portugal, France, Spain and the United States were among the countries that played a role in the brutal enslavement of Africans. After England abolished slavery at the beginning of the 19th century, the British Royal Navy’s West African Squadron commissioned a ship called the Black Joke to pursue ships that continued to transport enslaved people illegally. Before that, the brig was itself a slaving ship, but in its reincarnation as “the scourge of traffickers,” it freed “at least three thousand people from bondage . . . a figure to compare with how many the ex-slaver had itself brought to that bondage.”

Rooks greatly enlarges the context of the Black Joke’s legendary four-year run, delving into the maritime, economic and political issues of the day. England and France spent years debating and occasionally trying to repudiate the barbarity of it all, but their policies were often carried out by far-off, corrupt enforcers. And with so much money on the line, justice became harder to secure. Countries like the United States required the free labor (and reproduction) of enslaved people to keep plantations prospering and to supply growing manufacturing industries. The vessels caught by the Black Joke were sold at auction, often to slave traders who sent them right back to West Africa. Pirates and pestilence added to the chaos. Many Africans whom the Black Joke intercepted were returned to Freetown in Sierra Leone only to be recaptured, sold and enslaved again. Meanwhile, governments watched, profited and looked away.

Rooks accumulates these daunting details with a wry but respectful touch. Her occasional wit, perhaps incongruous given the dire events she relates, may be her way of reminding us of our common humanity, still present even amid inhumane conditions.

An accomplished scholar and two-time "Jeopardy" champion reveals the true story of a British vessel that captured slave ships in the 1800s.

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