Ron Wynn

Feature by

Most of us who remember when state-imposed segregation was the norm rather than the exception (particularly in the South) remain amazed by the election of Barack Obama as our country’s president. Thus it’s quite appropriate that the question of racial identity and what it truly means is the dominant theme for this year’s survey of books for Black History Month.

There’s no better place to begin than the visually stunning, authoritative volume Freedom in My Heart: Voices From The United States National Slavery Museum, edited by Cynthia Jacobs Carter. With amazing, rare photographs underscoring and reaffirming tales of triumph and achievement chronicled in its 10 chapters, the book begins where the nightmare of enslavement started, in Africa. Rather than simply linger on that horror, however, the opening section has valuable information about that continent’s proud heritage and anthropological importance while also showing how the vicious African slave trade developed. The book continues with stories about rebellion and intimidation, tracing the emergence and evolution of a culture steeped in the African past and shaped by the American present. Freedom in My Heart covers familiar names and obscure figures, venerable institutions and little-known sites in various states while deftly examining slavery’s initial and lingering impact.

Finding a place in society
If any modern television or film producer conceived a story as elaborate and incredible as the one depicted by Martha A. Sandweiss in her remarkable book Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line, they would have a hard time finding any studio willing to back it. Sandweiss, a professor of history and American studies at Amherst College, has uncovered the true feats of pioneering scientist, author and brilliant public speaker Clarence King. This same man led a second life as black Pullman porter and steel worker James Todd. He managed for decades to keep these two existences separate, hiding in the process a loving wife and five biracial children. King/Todd darts back and forth between stardom and near poverty, privilege and deprivation, for reasons that still aren’t completely clear despite Sandweiss’ research and storytelling acumen. Not even the deceptive path taken by critic Anatole Broyard or the decision by Walter White to be a champion for legions who distrusted his light-skinned looks compares to this constant juggling and personality switching. The fact that King/Todd did all of this long before there was any hint of radical change coming in America (the late 19th and early 20th centuries) makes what he did even more astonishing and Sandweiss’ work in uncovering it more noteworthy.

By contrast, author and academic Jennifer Baszile’s challenges come in supposedly more enlightened times. The Black Girl Next Door spotlights Baszile’s struggles growing up in an integrated (actually largely upper-class white) California neighborhood and trying to understand who she was, how she felt and what she wanted to do with her life. Constantly pushed to excel by parents anxious not to be judged by stereotypes they fought to escape, Baszile deals with identity problems among the elite and educated. She also describes the turf wars and clashes she experienced as she became the first black female professor at Yale, and how switching surroundings from an affluent community to the Ivy League’s supposed ivory tower didn’t mean she would automatically find happiness, fulfillment or professional respect.

Voices lifted
Finally there’s the epic poem The Children of the Children Keep Coming: An Epic Griotsong from onetime pro football player, Harlem gallery owner and financial backer of Essence magazine Russell Goings. Goings’ piece offers praise, optimism tempered by an understanding of past horrors and upcoming challenges, and the upbeat, rousing vocabulary that’s helped instill in generations not only of black Americans, but oppressed people around the world, the self-esteem and pride necessary to persevere no matter the circumstances.

Ron Wynn writes for the Nashville City Paper and other publications.

Most of us who remember when state-imposed segregation was the norm rather than the exception (particularly in the South) remain amazed by the election of Barack Obama as our country’s president. Thus it’s quite appropriate that the question of racial identity and what it truly means is the dominant theme for this year’s survey of […]
Feature by

1969, when the Woodstock Music & Art Festival began. An event that brought more than half a million people to Max Yasgur’s farm in the Catskill Mountains of New York for three days of music and celebration, Woodstock signaled the popularity and potency of modern rock ’n’ roll in American society, and ultimately led to the creation of today’s popular music empire and celebrity culture. Three books, two new volumes and an updated reissue, provide exhaustive and often spirited accounts from insiders, historians and participants in the epic festival that paved the way for the convergence of commerce and culture that constitutes such contemporary spectacles as Bonnaroo.

Behind the scenes
The Road to Woodstock: From The Man Behind The Legendary Festival is famed promoter and artist manager Michael Lang’s account of the maneuvering, deal-making and deft planning that resulted in Woodstock. Only in his 20s, he’d already organized the Miami Pop Festival in 1968 and enjoyed producing other shows and concerts. He deemed himself part of a new generation rejecting the old social order and embracing fresh ideas about such issues as civil rights, sexuality and drugs. Lang envisioned Woodstock as much more than a series of concerts: it would also be a forum for alternative political and social philosophies, and a chance to debunk myths about long-haired kids, their music and their heroes.

The book documents the daily improvising on details like staging, security and contracts. Lang recruited the help of everyone from The Hog Farm, a commune whose assistance ranged from aiding victims of drug overdoses to providing food for hungry kids, to off-duty cops who took security gigs against the wishes of their superiors, and apprentice carpenters who helped design and build sets with minimal or no specifications.

It also contains several rare photographs and many great stories. These include Lang recruiting Peter Townshend of The Who by keeping him awake and plying him with alcohol, and getting a terrified Richie Havens to open the concert, then having him do so many encores he forgets the words to a number and starts wailing “Freedom.”

History of a phenom
If Lang’s book takes an ultra-personal approach, Brad Littleproud and Joanne Hague’s Woodstock: Peace, Music & Memories is the prototypical historical chronicle. Littleproud and Hague were too young to attend the festival, but they interviewed its co-creator and promoter Artie Kornfield, along with numerous Woodstock survivors. Their colorful chronicles add spice to what would otherwise be a dry factual summary of the concert and related episodes.

Kornfield’s anecdotes dovetail almost exactly with Lang’s, while the spicy rhetoric of such figures as peace activist Wavy Gravy shows that not everyone at Yasgur’s farm was in a joyous and giving mood. There are also 350 color and black-and-white pictures, many of them great candid shots of folks enjoying the music, being overcome by the spectacle and reveling in the atmosphere.

Picturing legends
Like Lang and Kornfield, photographer Elliott Landy considered himself part of the new order Woodstock was created to serve. But his involvement and connections came from the journalistic rather than musical end. He took pictures for various underground and alternative newspapers and magazines, and became friends with Bob Dylan, The Band, Van Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin before the festival. Landy was also a prolific contributor to record labels, providing spectacular shots that would become legendary album covers.

While Woodstock Vision: The Spirit of A Generation  was first released in 1994, this latest version includes a special 90-page photo commemorative of the Woodstock festival personally selected by Landy from his archive. Because of his relationships with artists, his photos were never posed or staged. Whether it’s classic album covers like Dylan’s Nashville Skyline or Janis Joplin and Richie Havens before and after gut-wrenching Woodstock performances, Landy’s Woodstock Vision gives incredible entry into the personalities of icons.

There will be many other Woodstock retrospective items coming in the days leading up to the anniversary date. Still, these books are a fine addition to the legacy of sources that evaluate the three-day journey that helped change a nation’s culture.

Ron Wynn writes for the Nashville CityPaper and other publications.

1969, when the Woodstock Music & Art Festival began. An event that brought more than half a million people to Max Yasgur’s farm in the Catskill Mountains of New York for three days of music and celebration, Woodstock signaled the popularity and potency of modern rock ’n’ roll in American society, and ultimately led to […]
Feature by

Music lovers have always welcomed the chance to read about their favorite musicians and the sounds they create. Though newspaper and magazine coverage of music has declined, those outlets are now augmented by a seemingly endless array of websites and blogs devoted to music reviews, critiques, commentary, gossip and profiles. For more in-depth appraisals, readers turn to books, and the six in this sampling represent various approaches to writing about music. Some lean toward technical appraisal, while others represent fond appreciations or reflective treatises, but they’re all informative, valuable and enjoyable treats for music lovers.

A fresh look at famous men
Current Wall Street Journal drama critic and former jazz musician Terry Teachout’s superb biography Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong mixes sociological observation, analytical examination and psychological portrait, while correcting inaccuracies and offering new, often stunning information about the man considered by many critics the greatest jazz soloist of all time. Teachout rejects that claim, instead labeling Armstrong the greatest “influence” in jazz history, citing him as the figure numerous other players, regardless of instrument, credited with championing the value of artistry, developing a personalized sound and being both innovative and entertaining.

Indeed, his showmanship frequently led to vicious criticism of Armstrong by more militant blacks, who felt his mugging and clowning on stage were a throwback to the Jim Crow and minstrel eras. Drawing on a wealth of previously unpublished material, including letters, private recordings and backstage conversations and accounts, Teachout shows that Armstrong was a driven, sophisticated performer with a quick-trigger temper and penchant for denouncing conduct by both blacks and whites as counterproductive.

Teachout also brings more perspective to events only briefly or incorrectly covered in previous biographies. These range from Armstrong’s longtime love of marijuana (something that got him arrested in 1930) to the simmering quarrel with President Dwight Eisenhower that encompassed more than just his anger at Eisenhower’s reluctance to protect the rights of black students trying to integrate Central High School in Arkansas. The book contains so many new bits of information—such as the revelation that his embouchure (the way he held his lips to the trumpet) was incorrect—that even the most ardent fan might be surprised. Teachout has crafted a definitive work that dissects the personality and motivations of a genius.

Journalist and filmmaker Antonino D’Ambrosio’s exhaustive A Heartbeat and a Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears is equally thorough, though it mainly sticks to one subject. Widely considered exclusively a country musician, Johnny Cash had a range, thematic impact and sound that were much broader. He was politically farther to the left than many industry comrades, and one subject close to his heart was the nation’s history and treatment of Native Americans. Cash joined forces with folk artist Peter LaFarge in 1964 to create the striking, unforgettable album Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian.

As D’Ambrosio’s work shows, the eight-song LP brought Cash some of the fiercest attacks and criticism he’d ever received. When the controversial album was released squarely in the middle of a turbulent era, Cash was called “unpatriotic” in some circles and the Ku Klux Klan even burned a cross on his lawn. But he stood resolute against the pressure, even as Columbia pulled its advertising for the album and retail stores quietly and quickly took it off their shelves. D’Ambrosio adds numerous interviews with Cash’s bandmates, associates and friends while telling a story of corporate cowardice and artistic integrity that remains remarkable 45 years later.

Bob Dylan Revisited isn’t nearly so encyclopedic or socially powerful, though it still proves compelling. A much shorter book than the others described here, it contains 13 graphic interpretations of vintage Bob Dylan tunes, among them “Blowin’ In The Wind,” “Positively 4th Street,” “Desolation Row” and “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.” Each song’s lyrics are matched with a graphic artist who creates a visually provocative viewpoint to embellish the text. Personal favorites include Thierry Murat’s interpretation of “Blowin’ In The Wind,” Benjamin Flo’s colorful treatment of “Blind Willie McTell” and Francois Avril’s dashing illustrations for “Girl Of The North Country,” but all are delightful. This is a book with special appeal for hardcore Dylan fans.

Capturing a moment
Sam Stephenson’s The Jazz Loft Project: Photographs and Tapes of W. Eugene Smith from 821 Sixth Avenue, 1957-1965 covers an art form whose greatest stars were unknown to most music fans. Even within the notoriously insular jazz universe, the style known as “loft jazz” never had a wide following. The music was made by instrumentalists coming to New York from many places, including the West Coast, as well as some city residents. They found artistic solace and living space in previously abandoned buildings like the one at 821 Sixth Avenue, which was the home of photojournalist W. Eugene Smith. Stephenson’s book focuses on the exhaustive materials Smith amassed between 1957 and 1965.
Musicians well-known (Thelonius Monk) and obscure (David X. Young, Hall Overton) recorded there, while Smith took their pictures in all manner of situations. Some accounts are funny, others sad or odd, but all are intriguing and memorable. Part of an ongoing research project conducted by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University (there’s also a radio series and photographic exhibition), the book spotlights a valuable collection of vignettes and snapshots that chronicle an underreported, vital part of jazz and cultural history.

There’s not exactly a wealth of unknown material or lack of familiar faces in our final pair of books. Indeed, top photographer Jim Marshall proclaims in the introduction to Gail Buckland’s Who Shot Rock and Roll: A Photographic History 1955-Present that “too much [expletive] is written about photographs and music.” While the accounts of great people manning the camera are often quite entertaining, it’s famous shots like Johnny Cash flipping the bird at San Quentin in 1969 (taken by Jim Marshall) or David Gahr’s picture of Janis Joplin leaning off to the side in 1968 that make Who Shot Rock and Roll far more than simply another photo book.

Rather than a collection of pictures by a multitude of photographers, Elvis 1956  is a showcase for the dazzling, frequently surprising photos of Alfred Wertheimer, whose majestic work is also featured in the Smithsonian Traveling Exhibition “Elvis at 21.” Rather than just gathering concert footage (though the book contains incredible on-stage shots of Presley, Scotty Moore and company doing acrobatics and charismatic maneuvers), Wertheimer sought places and situations that conveyed the attraction of Presley and his magnetism off the bandstand. These great scenes include one of an elderly black woman poised right behind Presley at a Southern restaurant at a time when segregation was a fact of life. Her presence, and Presley’s easy, nonchalant manner sitting a few feet away, speaks volumes about the simmering racial explosion on the horizon. Likewise, shots of him with Steve Allen or sequences showing waves of girls fighting to touch him at shows convey the enormous sex appeal of the youthful Elvis.

While no book will ever be a worthy substitute for the thrill of hearing great music or the sense of achievement felt by those who play it, these volumes effectively communicate the sense of community among music lovers and the importance it holds in our lives.

Ron Wynn writes for the Nashville City Paper and other publications.

Music lovers have always welcomed the chance to read about their favorite musicians and the sounds they create. Though newspaper and magazine coverage of music has declined, those outlets are now augmented by a seemingly endless array of websites and blogs devoted to music reviews, critiques, commentary, gossip and profiles. For more in-depth appraisals, readers […]
Feature by

Critics who decry Black History Month celebrations often claim they focus too much on well-known figures and personalities and don’t reaffirm the importance of recognizing African-American accomplishments on a regular basis. But a series of new books by noted scholars and authors refute those contentions. While they certainly cover familiar names and major events, they also demonstrate why these people and places have not only affected the lives of black people, but changed the course of history in a manner that affects all Americans.

The political passions of youth
Wesleyan University history professor Andrew B. Lewis’ The Shadows of Youth: The Remarkable Journey of the Civil Rights Generation spotlights the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), established in 1960, whose members were younger and more radical than their counterparts in the NAACP and other black organizations. Through interviews with key members Marion Barry, Julian Bond, Bob Moses, Diane Nash and Bob Zellner, he examines the sit-ins, voter registration drives and protest marches that led to the dismantling of state-sanctioned segregation throughout the South.

But the book also shows the split within SNCC between those who felt America could be changed politically (Bond, Barry and John Lewis) and others who were convinced that black America’s only hope was a philosophy of self-determination that ultimately became known as “Black Power” (Stokely Carmichael, H. “Rap” Brown). Unfortunately, this conflict splintered SNCC, as did the Democratic Party’s decision to withdraw federal support, largely due to fears about the group’s direction. Still, The Shadows of Youth shows that SNCC had a large, mostly positive impact on the Civil Rights movement, and that its major goals weren’t nearly as radical as many claimed.

Building a landmark case
Attorney and author Rawn James Jr.’s Root and Branch: Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall, and the Struggle To End Segregation examines the celebrated 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case by profiling the lives of its two principal architects. Charles Hamilton Houston, the first black man on the Harvard Law Review, was a brilliant lawyer and teacher, and Thurgood Marshall was one of his students at Howard University. This pair opened the NAACP’s legal office and spent years devising the legal campaign against educational disparity that culminated in the Brown case. Sadly, Hamilton died before the case was fully developed, but Marshall would victoriously argue it, and ultimately end up on the Supreme Court himself after breaking the back of the “separate but equal” philosophy of education.

Migration and culture
University of Maryland Distinguished Professor of History Ira Berlin’s The Making of African America: The Four Great Migrations studies four centuries of black relocation to and within America. Berlin begins with the first two migrations—the forced relocation of Africans to America in the 17th and 18th centuries and the movement of slaves to the interior of the South during the 19th century. Berlin also presents what he deems an updated approach to African-American culture, one that doesn’t just cover progress from slavery to civil rights, but also incorporates the struggles of more recent black immigrants to the U.S. He draws comparisons, for example, between the two most recent migrations—the movement of thousands of African Americans from the rural South to the industrial North and Midwest between 1915 and 1970 and the growth of the foreign-born black population in the U.S. that mushroomed during the last part of the 20th century. Berlin believes that the cultural and social contributions to both black life and America in general by recent immigrants from Africa, Europe, the Caribbean and other areas have been sizable and often overlooked. The Making of African America contains its share of controversial views about black culture, but it is thoroughly researched and well-documented.

Nina Simone: a life divided
Award-winning journalist Nadine Cohodas has previously penned definitive books on Dinah Washington and Chess Records, and her latest biography covers a beloved, misunderstood icon. Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone profiles a complex, immensely gifted performer whose frequently acerbic personality and willingness to openly confront injustice often obscured her instrumental and vocal brilliance.

Classically trained as a youngster, then denied a chance to attend the Curtis Institute of Music due to racism, Simone (born Eunice Waymon) divided her professional life between forging a brilliant sound that blended jazz, classical and pop influences and political activism. Cohodas illuminates Simone’s close friendships with playwright Lorraine Hansberry and author James Baldwin, her clashes with promoters, record labels, ex-husbands and audiences, and her remarkable musical achievements.

As with all the books mentioned here, Princess Noire has special meaning for black Americans, but tells a story that’s important for everyone to know.

Ron Wynn writes for the Nashville City Paper and other publications.

Critics who decry Black History Month celebrations often claim they focus too much on well-known figures and personalities and don’t reaffirm the importance of recognizing African-American accomplishments on a regular basis. But a series of new books by noted scholars and authors refute those contentions. While they certainly cover familiar names and major events, they […]
Feature by

Black History Month shines a light on lesser-known topics from our past and has the potential to open new conversations on historical events often taken for granted. The latest crop of books on black history achieves both goals.

LIVING HISTORY IN HARLEM
Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts’ enlightening Harlem Is Nowhere takes a new approach in her look at the venerable community. Rather than crafting a detached, straightforward account, Rhodes-Pitts makes it personal, showing Harlem’s impact on her during the time she lived there. Her trips include stops at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and Lenox Avenue’s famous funeral parlor, where many of the Harlem Renaissance’s key figures were laid to rest. She encounters knowledgeable, flamboyant types like longtime Harlem resident Julius Bobby Nelson, who seems to know everything that’s ever happened there, and neighbors Miss Minnie and Monroe, who quickly become surrogate parents and close confidants. They give her insider details and a scope available only from longtime residents.

Rhodes-Pitts includes tales about photographer James Vander Zee, authors Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison and Zora Neale Hurston, and activist Marcus Garvey, among many others. Still, Harlem Is Nowhere is more an inspirational memoir than a retrospective work, and should motivate others who’ve only heard about Harlem from a distance to inspect it more closely.

FIGHTING ON TWO FRONTS
Elizabeth D. Leonard’s Men of Color to Arms! looks at black soldiers who defended a nation that hadn’t yet fully recognized their humanity. In the period between 1863 and 1865, more than 180,000 African Americans joined the Union Army due to promises of freedom in exchange for service. Instead they often encountered vigorous anger and resentment from whites who saw them as inferior and even responsible for the deaths of their comrades, despite the bravery of soldiers such as Medal of Honor winners Sergeant Major Christian A. Fleetwood, John Lawson, Thomas Hawkins and Robert Pinn, who distinguished themselves in combat.

There was another enlistment surge later in the decade, when blacks joined the wars against the Sioux, Apache and other Native American nations. Once again, black soldiers found themselves fighting dual sets of enemies. They were isolated and often abandoned by their white counterparts after battles and regarded with contempt by the Native Americans, who wondered how blacks could fight alongside people who openly loathed them. Yet Men Of Color to Arms! reveals the triumphs and victories achieved by black soldiers as well as the efforts undertaken on their behalf by whites of good will against vicious and sustained opposition and hatred.

THE FUTURE OF HISTORY
Although Thomas C. Holt’s comprehensive new historical work, Children of Fire, revisits familiar territory, he does an excellent job of including newer subjects and areas of interest too. He traces the evolution of black Americans from the earliest arrivals to 21st-century figures, highlighting obscure figures alongside established giants like Frederick Douglass and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. For example, Anthony Johnson, a slave in Virginia during the late 1600s, not only bought his freedom but became one of Virginia’s most prosperous landowners. In describing how Johnson was eventually cheated out of his entire empire through a series of overtly bigoted (and now illegal) court rulings, Holt reveals how racism increasingly became part of the South’s judicial and agricultural systems.

Though Holt acknowledges the debt his book owes to other major scholars, Children of Fire includes plenty of his own assessments on topics from Reconstruction to the rise in interaction between black Americans and immigrants from Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. Holt’s work is both a significant addition to other vital histories of the African-American past and a suggestion of new directions for the future.

CROSSING THE LINE
Daniel J. Sharfstein’s The Invisible Line doesn’t offer apologies for the conduct of the three black families it highlights, all of whom passed for white, but seeks to put their actions into context. The Gibsons knew all the land they’d amassed in 18th-century South Carolina would be taken over in a flash if the populace knew that blacks were the real owners. The Spencers of the mid-19th century became part of a poor community in the eastern Kentucky hills where racial backgrounds were obscured by the common struggle to survive. And the Walls ultimately revealed their true identity and paid the price, forfeiting a sizable amount of fame and wealth in Washington, D.C., in the early 1900s.

By 21st-century standards, the ability of the Gibsons to fool people and the reluctance of the Spencers to even discuss the subject of their origin with their neighbors seems woefully naive, even timid and disgraceful. But as Sharfstein’s research shows, the restricted path for blacks in those eras was such that neither family was willing to give up what they saw as their rightful status. Both became skilled at mimicking the language, customs and actions of whites. When contrasted with the severe price the Walls paid for coming forward, their choices might seem easier to understand. The Invisible Line is a detailed and instructive look at America’s tortured history and still-evolving attitudes toward race.

A STRUGGLE REMEMBERED
Finally, journalist Wayne Greenhaw’s Fighting the Devil in Dixie is the first complete chronicle of the struggle against segregation in Alabama, a state second only to Mississippi in terms of hatred and viciousness against its black citizens. The 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four little girls got international coverage, but killings, lynchings and other attacks had been happening in Alabama long before. Greenhaw, who covered every major event in Alabama’s civil rights era, begins with the 1957 beating and drowning of Willie Edwards Jr., a truck driver attacked by a mob for allegedly assaulting a white woman. Edwards was married with a family and had just received a promotion.

Combining personal memories with a wealth of sources gleaned from that period, Greenhaw tracks many major developments, among them the “Bloody Selma” march, the Freedom Rides and the election of George Wallace and his rise to national fame as the face of segregation. He also documents the role of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which became one of the few organizations that publicly stood against the tide and helped ultimately defeat those who wanted to keep the Jim Crow era alive in Alabama. Fighting the Devil In Dixie shows the power of perseverance and chronicles one of the great victories in America’s ongoing struggle for social justice.

Black History Month shines a light on lesser-known topics from our past and has the potential to open new conversations on historical events often taken for granted. The latest crop of books on black history achieves both goals. LIVING HISTORY IN HARLEMSharifa Rhodes-Pitts’ enlightening Harlem Is Nowhere takes a new approach in her look at […]
Feature by

THE REVOLUTIONARY AND THE PRESIDENT
Though they only met in person three times, each encounter between former slave turned outspoken freedom fighter Frederick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln was monumental. Perhaps the biggest surprise in Douglass and Lincoln, the latest work of father-and-son team Paul and Stephen Kendrick, is how much influence Douglass is credited with having on Lincoln, whose major goal in the Civil War was always saving the Union. The authors document specific instances where Lincoln's responsiveness to abolitionist sentiments was altered after reading various Douglass letters and speeches. In turn, Douglass' views about Lincoln were equally affected by things he heard and saw coming from the president. Despite not agreeing on every issue, the two men eventually forged a common ground regarding the necessity for a Northern victory and the ultimate emancipation of the slaves. How they reached that point, as well as other intriguing insights and events that resulted from or were affected by their meetings, is illuminated and outlined in Douglass and Lincoln.

BEYOND SLAVERY
While even casual readers of American history are familiar with Frederick Douglass, very few people have heard of Sarah Johnson. Johnson was one of the many African Americans owned by the father of our country, George Washington, and her story is told in Scott E. Casper's riveting Sarah Johnson's Mount Vernon. Johnson spent more than five decades at Mount Vernon, choosing to remain after Washington's will freed her, and was an integral part of its daily operation. Casper gets to the root of some thorny issues, such as the daily routines of those who lived at Mount Vernon, how they were treated by George Washington and others, why an enslaved person would choose to remain after winning freedom, and what roles slaves played in shaping Mount Vernon into a historical shrine. Casper, a professor of history at the University of Nevada, Reno, approaches the subject with the care and scrutiny of a scholar, drawing from a number of sources. The result is an intimate and frequently surprising look at both an overlooked individual and one of the nation's foremost historical sites.

An industrious African-American couple living in the North, Lucy and Abijah Prince were far more materially successful than Sarah Johnson or indeed most people in 18th-century America. All that changed, however, when they decided to challenge convention and purchase land. In Mr. and Mrs. Prince: How an Extraordinary Eighteenth-Century Family Moved Out of Slavery and Into Legend, Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina, host of NPR's "The Book Show," crafts a tale that's got plenty of 21st-century intrigue and surprise. Gerzina depicts the Princes as visionary, highly determined figures who refused to let the taunts, actions or ignorance of bigots stop them. They also had enough faith in their fellow citizens to take their land battle to court in an era when the judicial system was, at best, stacked against blacks. Mr. and Mrs. Prince represents the kind of true-life story that's so amazing it should be much better known, something Gerzina's book may help accomplish.

WHERE HISTORY HAPPENED
Charles E. Cobb Jr.'s On the Road to Freedom: A Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail may cover the most familiar ground among these books, but that doesn't make it any less important. Cobb, a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during the '60s, enhances his coverage of 400 sites with poignant first-person interviews, classic speeches and more than 150 historic photos. He also includes maps and websites offering additional detail and information on the period. On the Road to Freedom should appeal both to those who grew up during this time and those who've come later.

HUNTER AND PREY
The people and places featured in James McBride's Song Yet Sung may be fictional, but they convey with authenticity and power the plight of those enslaved, while revealing the emotional damage done by those charged with maintaining this vicious and dehumanizing practice. McBride, author of the acclaimed memoir The Color of Water, considers the plight of young Liz Spocott, an escaped slave who is shot and captured by slave catcher Denwood Long. Long comes out of retirement to find Spocott; once he does, his life is turned upside down forever. While focusing mainly on the relationship between these two, McBride also ventures into the role of poverty in the formation of attitudes in the pre-war South, the family structure of slaves, African Americans in the abolitionist movement, and the way codes and news were disseminated within songs. McBride's facility with language and knowledge of the period bring his characters to life in vivid, unforgettable fashion. Spike Lee is already at work on the film adaptation of the book; that production should ultimately bring even more readers to this wonderful novel that is equally fascinating, disturbing and magnificent.

THE REVOLUTIONARY AND THE PRESIDENT Though they only met in person three times, each encounter between former slave turned outspoken freedom fighter Frederick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln was monumental. Perhaps the biggest surprise in Douglass and Lincoln, the latest work of father-and-son team Paul and Stephen Kendrick, is how much influence Douglass is credited […]
Review by

More than a decade ago, historian and law professor Annette Gordon-Reed triggered a firestorm in academic circles with her book Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. Gordon-Reed's work examined a contention that had long been rumored but never given this type of exhaustive examination: that America's third president and beloved Founding Father had a sexual relationship with the slave Sally Hemings, one that lasted long enough to produce seven children. Even after a separate DNA study came out a year later establishing a genetic link between Jefferson and the Hemings family, there were still skeptics who doubted the veracity of Gordon-Reed's findings.

Now she attempts to put any remaining doubts about the Hemings-Jefferson liaison to rest with The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. A behemoth of a book that offers more information about the relationship than anyone might have envisioned, it represents seven years of research and spells out links, connections, bloodlines and familial ties so completely that it shreds any questions of authenticity. Gordon-Reed also carefully follows the genetic trail of the Hemingses from their origins in Virginia during the 1700s on through their dispersal after the death of Jefferson in 1826.

Gordon-Reed's book unravels some of the intricate, often confusing details about exact links and specific relationships. For example, Sally Hemings was the daughter of slave Elizabeth Hemings and slave owner John Wayles. Wayles in turn was the father of Jefferson's wife Martha. Thus Sally Hemings was the half – sister of Jefferson's "legitimate" wife, something that no doubt triggered the flood of denials when the relationship issue was initially raised.

Gordon-Reed is just as meticulous in tracking the connections between brother and sister, parent and child, aunt and uncle, sometimes spending so much time ensuring genetic accuracy that her narrative can become a bit daunting, though still fascinating. She also describes events at Monticello and elsewhere, providing intriguing detail about Philadelphia's emergence as a major city in the late 18th century, the workings of plantation life and Jefferson's later adventures in travel and diplomacy. Simultaneously, the Hemingses are embroiled in their own dramas and intrigues, even sometimes accompanying Jefferson on his travels, as when Sally and James Hemings went to Paris with Jefferson.

It was an unorthodox (to say the least) situation, particularly in later years as Jefferson increasingly tried to dictate choices, manage affairs and generally run the Hemingses' lives in a manner that resembles that of an aging but concerned father, rather than that of a dispassionate merchant trying to maximize his assets. Gordon-Reed understands that she's in delicate emotional territory here, since some readers will resist any attempt to humanize or explain the Jefferson – Hemings situation as anything other than rank exploitation. As she demonstrates, it was much more complicated than that, even with the ugly and dehumanizing reality of slavery always at the core of things. The Hemingses of Monticello explores a thorny but important chapter in American history with distinction and clarity, offering a poignant, if also often ugly, chronicle of slavery, secrecy and family tension.

Ron Wynn writes for the Nashville City Paper and other publications.

More than a decade ago, historian and law professor Annette Gordon-Reed triggered a firestorm in academic circles with her book Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. Gordon-Reed's work examined a contention that had long been rumored but never given this type of exhaustive examination: that America's third president and beloved Founding Father had […]
Review by

Accuracy and fairness have been the major qualities of Michele Norris’ work as a print and broadcast journalist. Though she’s earned the bulk of her acclaim and awards for her contributions to National Public Radio, Norris also covered educational, cultural and social issues for the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times prior to joining NPR. Her interest in not only what people think but how they feel led to the creation of “The York Project: Race and the ‘08 Vote,” a superb series of frank and provocative conversations co-hosted by Norris and fellow NPR reporter/host Steve Inskeep.

It was the brutally honest, frequently painful recollections and opinions voiced throughout the series that led Norris to consider her own life and background and ultimately craft her poignant and insightful memoir, The Grace of Silence. She wanted to examine the complex, thorny reality of race and class through the prism of her family. But the quest to discover these truths proved her most difficult assignment. Not only did Norris become part of the story, she uncovered and had to discuss events and situations relatives wanted kept out of the public record. The process also made her address discomforting personal issues, most notably that her journalistic training was causing problems with people she’d loved and admired for decades.

Norris’ discoveries ranged from her grandmother’s employment as a regional “Aunt Jemima” selling pancake mix, to the police shooting of her father during a suspicious incident in Birmingham decades before the civil rights movement. Her exploration of these incidents, along with her probing of the reasons behind her parents’ divorce, took its emotional toll. Norris describes in simple, moving language the shattering impact of her findings, yet she remains certain that her quest was vital and the things she learned significant, both to her study of race and her overall personal growth and development.

The Grace of Silence combines powerful observations and reflections with equally poignant historical reportage and commentary. It’s a work both uniquely personal and universal, offering a story everyone regardless of background can embrace.

Accuracy and fairness have been the major qualities of Michele Norris’ work as a print and broadcast journalist. Though she’s earned the bulk of her acclaim and awards for her contributions to National Public Radio, Norris also covered educational, cultural and social issues for the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times prior to joining NPR. Her […]
Review by

America’s Great Migration, which saw over six million black Americans relocate from the South to either the North, Midwest or West over the period from 1915-1970, has certainly been the subject of numerous articles, essays, books and even television documentaries over the years. Yet Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist Isabel Wilkerson’s new volume The Warmth of Other Suns finds a way to make this worthy yet familiar topic fresh and exciting by moving the focus from the general to the specific. Her decision to examine this incredible event through the eyes of three individuals and their families allows her to make gripping personal observations while providing readers with the broader details and analysis necessary to put the event into its proper perspective.

She selects Ida Mae Brandon Gladney from Mississippi (1937), George Swanson Starling from Florida (1945) and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster from Louisiana (1953), following them on their journeys. They had no idea about where they were going beyond the feeling that it had to be better and offer more opportunity than their current conditions. They were more than willing to sit in cramped, segregated train cars and put their fears aside in search of a new land.

Through more than 1,200 interviews with principals and related individuals, Wilkerson shows how this migration helped change the nation’s political and cultural landscape. From the businesses and communities that were built to those that were abandoned, the music, food and customs that moved to new regions and helped forge a host of hybrid and innovative fresh creations, and the political impact the migrants had on their new cities (the first black mayors of each major Northern and Western city in the Great Migration were participants and family members of this movement), there’s no question this was an epic period in American history.

Yet Wilkerson’s book is also about triumph and failure; it is a study in how this move not only changed the course of a country, but affected those who weren’t always doctors, lawyers or academics. As both its main figures and their relatives recall their past with a mixture of joy, wonder, satisfaction and occasionally sadness or regret, The Warmth Of Other Suns shows that memorable and poignant tales often come from people and places no one expects.

America’s Great Migration, which saw over six million black Americans relocate from the South to either the North, Midwest or West over the period from 1915-1970, has certainly been the subject of numerous articles, essays, books and even television documentaries over the years. Yet Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist Isabel Wilkerson’s new volume The Warmth of […]
Review by

Tales of conflict, brutality and oppression have unfortunately become so commonplace in the 24/7 news cycle that many people are no longer shocked or horrified by these accounts. But even the most hardened cynic will be moved by the revelations in the stunning new book In The Shadow of Freedom by former child soldier Tchicaya Missamou, who wrote this remarkable narrative with Los Angeles playwright, author and screenwriter Travis Sentell.

From the age of seven, Missamou willingly participated for years in the horrific civil war that’s ravaged his native Democratic Republic of the Congo for decades. He acknowledges killing friends and neighbors. He watched others being turned into drug addicts as part of the military’s recruiting process while also becoming a killing machine himself.

Yet, even as he was doing this, Missamou instinctively knew these actions were wrong. He documents the psychological toll of his choices in a vivid, clear fashion, detailing how the deaths were affecting him. Finally, he put down his guns and reunited with his mother and siblings.

Eventually Missamou discovered he’d have to abandon his country if he truly wanted to live in peace, particularly when the military insisted he once more take up arms as a 19-year-old. The book’s middle section spotlights his escape, chronicling the sacrifices his family made to ensure his escape. These included his father’s arrest, beating and deliberate infection with HIV by angry army officials.

But Missamou’s determination to revamp and change his life perseveres, and he continues battling against all obstacles. The story takes him from Belgium to Paris to America and covers days spent in poverty, a stint working at a martial arts studio, subsequent enlistment in the U.S. Marines and his rise to a wartime leadership position in Afghanistan. Using skills from an earlier time, Missamou headed the squad that rescued Jessica Lynch. Later he became an American citizen and a business owner while earning a doctorate in education.

Despite its chronicle of survival and triumph, In the Shadow of Freedom contains many sobering aspects alongside the inspirational elements and aspects. Tchicaya Missamou’s resilience and will enabled him to keep seeking redemption and salvation where others might have given up, but he downplays having any special qualities. Instead he pays homage to those family members who paid the ultimate price to help him and others that encouraged, supported and assisted him. This book is a powerful and moving account of a heroic transformation that also shows readers the true meaning of such concepts as freedom and patriotism. 

Tales of conflict, brutality and oppression have unfortunately become so commonplace in the 24/7 news cycle that many people are no longer shocked or horrified by these accounts. But even the most hardened cynic will be moved by the revelations in the stunning new book In The Shadow of Freedom by former child soldier Tchicaya […]
Review by

Few epic celebrations have predated more dire events than the 1939 New York World’s Fair, nicknamed “The World of Tomorrow.” Its futuristic exhibits and architecture were designed to divert global attention from the Great Depression’s economic devastation and the sense of impending doom signaled by the rise of Nazi Germany. Instead, as James Mauro’s invigorating and enjoyable new volume Twilight at the World of Tomorrow reveals, the Fair proved a preamble to natural disasters and human failures on a grand scale.

Mauro uses four main figures to symbolize the era’s sensibility and events. Undoubtedly the most colorful was the remarkable genius Albert Einstein, who increasingly came to distrust government and ultimately question the development of a weapon he once championed, the atomic bomb. Einstein hated conflict and warfare, yet he mistakenly felt building this weapon would frighten the world into abandoning armed conflict as a solution to its problems. Instead, it simply became another tool in the military arsenal. While its use ended World War II, Einstein never forgave himself for endorsing its creation.

The book pays equal attention to World’s Fair President Grover Whalen, a master salesman who got egotistical dictators Mussolini and Stalin to contribute pavilions for the fair. Sadly, Hitler’s European conquests destroyed any sense of international cooperation and joy these exhibits conveyed, while shattering Whalen’s optimism and exposing his hypocrisy and pretension. Mauro also details the behind-the-scenes deals and machinations of New York politicians, particularly Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, whose actions were self-serving and often embarrassing.

Finally, he spotlights detectives Joe Lynch and Freddy Socha, who made the ultimate sacrifice while investigating a wave of bomb threats and explosions. Their lives are prime examples of underpaid, exhausted and overworked civil servants determined to discover the truth, even as others, including their superiors, are more interested in personal profit and status.

Twilight at the World of Tomorrow smartly mixes political, cultural, historical and mystery elements, giving readers a thorough, gripping account of a key period that changed the nation and the world forever.

Few epic celebrations have predated more dire events than the 1939 New York World’s Fair, nicknamed “The World of Tomorrow.” Its futuristic exhibits and architecture were designed to divert global attention from the Great Depression’s economic devastation and the sense of impending doom signaled by the rise of Nazi Germany. Instead, as James Mauro’s invigorating […]

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our enewsletters to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres every Tuesday.

Trending Features