The African-American struggle continues in every corner of the nation, from small towns like Ferguson, Missouri, to the boroughs of New York. Thus, Black History Month arrives at a critical time in America. The question is: Can we learn from history? These selections shed new light on the black experience and offer perspectives on the often painful evolution of race relations in America.
Journalist Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America chillingly reflects the violence and racial tension that exists in many urban areas. It’s principally the story of Bryant Tennelle, a Los Angeles teenager who was shot and killed in 2007. At first blush, this might simply be viewed as another black-on-black murder, and something the Los Angeles Police Department would typically ignore. But Tennelle’s father was a police officer. An unlikely hero, police detective John Skaggs, emerges to doggedly work the case and solve the crime.
But Ghettoside is more than just the story of one murdered teen. Leovy broadens her focus to examine the cycle of violence among black men in America—a country in which nearly 40 percent of all murder victims are black. She also offers insight into how the killings can be stopped.
“[W]here the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death,” she writes, “homicide becomes endemic.” Leovy bolsters her argument with extensive research, which included embedding herself within an LAPD detective squad.
Sometimes the conflict between law enforcement and African Americans doesn’t play out through violence. F.B. Eyes: How J. Edgar Hoover’s Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature reveals the covert side of oppression. Scholar William J. Maxwell conducted an exhaustive records search to uncover files showing that the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover spied on African-American writers and silenced some of their work. Maxwell gained access to 51 files demonstrating that over five decades, Hoover was obsessed with black authors, fearing their work might inspire political unrest and violence. He assigned a team of FBI agents to carry out a series of assignments, some as benign as reading advance copies of books, others as serious as persuading publishers to halt the release of books. Targets included Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, as well as the work of Richard Wright, whose poem “The FB Eye Blues” inspired the book’s title.
Among the most stunning examples of the Bureau’s activity was a hate letter written to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1964. In it, a white FBI agent posing as a black man tells King he is a “complete fraud and a great liability to all us Negroes.” F.B. Eyes is a startling look at how racism has influenced the highest levels of authority.
THE FUGITIVE TRAIL
In Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad, noted historian Eric Foner gives a detailed and often stirring account of the antebellum network that transported escaped slaves from the South to Northern free states and Canada. Foner, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who has written many fine books on the Civil War, slavery and Reconstruction, uncovers new evidence of just how extensive the secret path to freedom was for fugitive slaves.
His account centers on the Underground Railroad’s network in New York City, which had the North’s largest community of free blacks, as well as many ardent white abolitionists. Pre-eminent among them was newspaperman Sydney Howard Gay, who documented the activities of the Underground Railroad in a meticulous “Record of Fugitives,” which logged the arrival of fugitives in the city in 1855 and 1856 and related some of their horrifying personal stories. (In the book’s acknowledgements, Foner credits a former Columbia University student who found the document in the university archives.) Gay’s record details the step-by-step movements of escaped slaves through the city and the deeds of abolitionists who aided their flight. Among those recorded by Gay was Harriet Tubman, who reached New York in November 1856 with a group of runaway slaves from Maryland.
Gateway to Freedom is an important addition to the historical view of the Underground Railroad and a salute to the slaves who “faced daunting odds and demonstrated remarkable courage” in their journeys to freedom.
This article was originally published in the February 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.