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All Black History Coverage

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World War II is remembered as a conflict between democratic and fascist countries. But during the 1940s, nearly 10% of the residents of the world’s largest democracy were considered second-class citizens because of their race. Half American: The Epic Story of African Americans Fighting World War II at Home and Abroad by Matthew F. Delmont, a professor of history at Dartmouth College, chronicles how Black Americans had to fight for the right to combat racism abroad because of the racism at home.

The irony of this was not lost on African Americans, who were acutely aware of how segregation kept them from full citizenship. Adopting a “Double Victory” strategy, Black Americans treated the war as a means of defeating foreign fascism and domestic racism. Half American recounts the history of this struggle, from Langston Hughes’ newspaper coverage of the Spanish Civil War to the mistreatment—even murder—of returning African American veterans. Furthermore, Delmont demonstrates that this story is not frozen in the past but is key to understanding—and changing—our present.

This book would have been a significant contribution to our knowledge of World War II history even if Delmont had only focused on the performance of African American combat troops. The Tuskegee Airmen are famous, but fewer people are aware of the Black Panthers, a Black tank battalion that served in Italy, or the Montford Point Marines, who were the first African American marines and fought valiantly at the battles of Saipan and Iwo Jima. But Half American is more than an excellent introduction to this underappreciated chapter of military history. It is also a groundbreaking illumination of African American civilians’ complex involvement in World War II.

In addition to official records, Delmont used archives, oral histories and contemporary coverage from the Black press to document his work. As a result, Half American gives voice not only to prominent African American leaders such as Hughes, W.E.B. Du Bois and Thurgood Marshall, but also to Black soldiers, factory workers and other everyday people who contributed to the war effort—people who are rarely mentioned in history books, even though they created history.

During World War II, Black Americans had to fight for the right to combat racism abroad because of the racism at home. In Half American, Matthew F. Delmont chronicles that fight.
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Angelina Grimke and her sister Sarah were the white daughters of South Carolina slaveholder John Faucheraud Grimke and his cruel wife, Polly. When the sisters fled the South and, as Quakers, sought redemption for their family’s racist ways, they became celebrated 19th-century abolitionists and women’s rights activists, blazing a trail through the turbulent antebellum Northeast with speeches, writings and protests against America’s “original sin” of slavery. This story looms large in the popular American imagination, but in The Grimkes: The Legacy of Slavery in an American Family, Tufts University historian Kerri K. Greenidge reveals a counternarrative—one of a complex, conflicted Black and white Grimke family that was often at odds with their country, their own progeny and themselves.

Following the Civil War, white mobs in Charleston, Philadelphia and New York City torched Black homes and churches, lynching people with impunity as they fought to keep the institution of slavery alive. Greenidge unflinchingly relays the horrors that Black Americans endured before the Civil War and during the days of Reconstruction. She also reveals that, during this latter period, the Grimke sisters overlooked their own Black nephews until the boys’ mother, Nancy, who was enslaved by the Grimkes’ brother, begged for help.

The stories of Nancy’s sons—Archie, Frank and John—and their entanglements with their famous white aunts in the postbellum North are rich with ironies. The aunts’ often ambivalent support helped Archie through Harvard Law School and Frank at Princeton Theological Seminary, but there were odd strings attached. For example, the young men had to abstain from flashy clothes and avoid any familiarity with the “negro masses” struggling beneath them. Later, as part of the “colored elite” of the Gilded Age, ​​Archie mingled with Black leaders such as Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. But these relationships did little to influence Archie’s work as consul to the Dominican Republic and his racist treatment of Black workers there.

Greenidge bookends this history with moments from the life of another Angelina Grimke in the 20th century: Archie’s daughter, Angelina Weld Grimke, who was abandoned by her white mother. Family members despaired over her immodest dress and, later, her impassioned voice as a celebrated playwright and poet. Her stories, as well as her ancestors’, belong in the wider Grimke history. Now, thanks to Greenidge’s provocative and well-written account, they are.

Kerri K. Greenidge complicates the accepted history of the abolitionist Grimke sisters with the full, complex story of their Black and white relatives.
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American Sirens: The Incredible Story of the Black Men Who Became America’s First Paramedics reveals a hidden slice of history about the emergency services that we all depend on but largely take for granted. Kevin Hazzard (A Thousand Naked Strangers), a print and television writer who worked as a paramedic in Atlanta for nearly a decade, does an excellent job of transforming his exhaustive research into a compelling narrative suitable to its gripping subject.

While the book is replete with white-knuckle medical emergencies, the real story here is the inspiring saga of how the paramedic profession was born. Before the 1970s, emergency services were “slapdash and chaotic,” with ambulance runs “treated like a Frankenstein limb rather than a full-fledged arm of public safety.” Hospital transportation might have been provided by the police, firefighters or a funeral home, with little regulation involved and a shocking absence of training. As Hazzard writes, “On any given day, the patient in an ambulance may have been better qualified to handle their own emergency than the person paid to save them.”

In 1966, medical pioneer Peter Safar, known as the father of CPR, lost his 11-year-old daughter to an asthma-induced coma while he and his wife were away at a medical conference. He channeled his grief into designing and implementing an entirely new model of ambulance care, partnering with Freedom House, a grassroots organization in the Black, immigrant neighborhood of Hill District in Pittsburgh, to train ordinary people to administer lifesaving techniques. After intensive training, a group of Black paramedics took their first call on July 15, 1968, and went on to respond to nearly 6,000 calls in the Hill District that year, saving more than 200 lives. Their response abilities got better and better under the direction of Safar and medical director Nancy Caroline, and their curriculum was eventually chosen by the Department of Transportation to serve as the model for standardized EMS training.

Astoundingly, Freedom House’s achievements were met with “the city’s unyielding resistance,” and their groundbreaking program was eventually turned over to Pittsburgh’s local government. A crew of lesser trained white men took over in 1975. Meanwhile, the longtime Freedom House paramedics who knew how to intubate in the field were asked to carry the bags.

American Sirens is a stirring, ultimately heartbreaking story in which jaw-dropping medical innovation meets racial prejudice. After finishing Hazzard’s memorable account, readers will never hear an ambulance siren the same way again.

After finishing Kevin Hazzard’s memorable account of America’s first paramedics, readers will never hear an ambulance siren the same way again.
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Linda Villarosa grew up in a high-achieving Black family in a mostly white suburb of Denver. When she began writing about Black women’s health for Essence in the mid-1980s, her articles were all about self-help and self-improvement, based on the assumption that poverty and poor education were the reasons for detrimental health conditions among Black people.

But then she discovered that well-educated, upper-middle-class Black women were also having underweight babies and higher rates of maternal death than white women. She found herself wondering, “Why is the current Black-white disparity in both maternal and infant mortality widest at the upper levels of education? And what was it about our health-care system that exacerbated this problem?”

Under the Skin: The Hidden Toll of Racism on American Lives and the Health of Our Nation answers these questions and many more. In one of the most interesting chapters, Villarosa writes about “weathering,” a concept developed by Dr. Arline Geronimus, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. Weathering is the idea that “high-effort coping from fighting against racism leads to chronic stress that can trigger premature aging and poor health outcomes.” It draws the throughline from systemic failure to a harmful bodily response.

Under the Skin audiobook image
Read our starred review of the audiobook for ‘Under the Skin.’

Villarosa, who now writes for The New York Times Magazine, explores many more aspects of American prejudice and health in this book. In a chapter recounting a visit to Appalachia to write about the addiction crisis among poor white people, she suggests that many of these people suffer from the debilitating effects of class discrimination, with similarly negative health repercussions. She examines myths about Black genetics—that Black people are less sensitive to pain than whites, for example—that persist within the medical community to the detriment of Black Americans. She looks at how racism in housing forces many Black families into environmentally hostile neighborhoods. And, based on her reporting, she offers several ideas for improving community health that she believes will change American health care for the better.

Under the Skin is wonderfully written. It’s not an inaccessible academic work or a polemic. Rather, its points are made amid moving narratives of real people’s experiences. The book also serves as a stake in the ground for Villarosa as she powerfully discloses what years of reporting have led her to understand: “The something that is making Black Americans sicker is not race per se, or the lack of money, education, information, and access to health services that can be tied to being Black in America. It is also not genes or something inherently wrong or inferior about the Black body. The something is racism.”

Linda Villarosa’s wonderfully written book makes stunning points about the health risks of racism amid moving narratives of real people’s experiences.
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When Ethan Allen Hitchcock, a white U.S. military officer who in 1842 was sent on a mission to what is now Oklahoma, wrote in his diary about a smart, skilled Black man who was serving as a language interpreter for a Native Creek chief, he assumed “Negro Tom” was enslaved by the chief.

That Black man’s descendants would beg to differ. According to their family lore, the man more widely known as Cow Tom (because of his livestock holdings) was not enslaved. He later became a Creek Nation chief, honored for negotiating a landmark treaty after the Civil War that established Black Creeks as full tribal citizens. But they lost their status in 1979 because of the same racist perspective that skewed Hitchcock’s vision. Journalist Caleb Gayle’s absorbing We Refuse to Forget: A True Story of Black Creeks, American Identity, and Power explores how this happened, and what contemporary Black Creeks are doing to reclaim their legacy.

Gayle, a Black American of Jamaican descent who was raised in Oklahoma, traces the history of Black Creeks from the early days, when some but not all were enslaved by Native Creeks, through the considerable prosperity of many Black Creeks in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Cow Tom’s descendants, such as the Perryman and Simmons families, became wealthy pillars of the Oklahoma civic establishment, largely because their Creek status gave them access to capital that other Black Americans did not have.

Gayle blends that story with his own encounters with racism and his personal identity: Is he Jamaican or Black? The Black Creeks’ ongoing legal fight to reclaim Creek heritage has inspired him to reexamine his own perspective, he writes. He is Black and Jamaican and American, just as the Black Creeks are “fully Black and fully Creek.” The United States, he argues passionately, would be a richer, more beautiful society if we recognized and honored those complexities.

In We Refuse to Forget, Caleb Gayle chronicles the history of Black members of the Creek Nation and their descendants’ ongoing fight to reclaim their legacy.
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Chasing King’s Killer: The Hunt for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Assassin, can trace its origins back to my childhood. When I was a boy, my mother—an artist—led me to what she called her “morgue”: a tall, floor-to-ceiling closet with a sliding door that concealed several shelves piled high with vintage source material, including newspapers, magazines and picture books documenting the tumultuous events of the 1960s, including the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. Mesmerized, I paged through old Life magazines from the spring of 1968. I opened long-folded newspapers, their pages browned and brittle, and read their frightening headlines. I wanted—needed—to learn more. For years, I have collected the books, documents, artifacts and original sources that allowed me to write Chasing King’s Killer.

My book is about more than the assassination. The story opens before the tragedy, in 1950s America, when a 29-year-old minister survived a shocking, near-fatal stabbing in New York City and went on to become the greatest civil rights leader in American history. I want young readers to know Martin Luther King, Jr. in life—first as a boy, then as a young man and finally as a leader on the world stage. Readers accompany King on his amazing 10-year journey to greatness. And then they travel to April 1968, and to King’s fateful trip to Memphis, Tennessee. They also meet a mysterious, lifelong criminal whose 1967 escape from prison sent him on a bizarre, year-long odyssey that climaxed with the murder of Dr. King, a dramatic escape and the biggest manhunt in American history. I set the whole story against the backdrop of the tumultuous 1960s that had mesmerized me in my youth: the civil rights movement, the FBI’s harassment of King, the Vietnam War, the counterculture and the race to the moon.

To research Chasing King’s Killer, I immersed myself in the documents, photographs, music and popular culture of the 1960s. I studied biographies, memoirs and histories, but also newspapers and magazines to capture the mood of the era. I combed through thousands of images that tell the story of the turbulent time of civil rights marches and anti-Vietnam War protests. I discovered a shocking and surprising new letter written by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, illustrating his hatred for King and his desire to ruin him. (Published for the first time in this book, the letter has already made the news!) And I located original examples of the four different types of FBI wanted posters for James Earl Ray. Each one tells a story. All of these sources put me into the mindset of what it was like to live through the tragic events of 1968. My research was every bit as intense as the work I do in the books I write for an adult audience. I researched everything from slavery and the Civil War to the history of the civil rights movement and the pop culture of 1960s America. All told, I used several hundred sources and several thousand photographs. Some photographs will be familiar, others are seldom seen. All are incredibly moving. I think we achieved seamless matching of text and images.

It is exciting to write a book set in the 20th century. One of the frustrations of writing about Abraham Lincoln is that he lived long before the age of film or sound recording. Everyone who once knew him was long dead. In contrast, while researching this book, I was able to meet some of those who actually knew Dr. Martin Luther King. It was a privilege to meet people like Julian Bond, Dorothy Nash and Congressman John Lewis, who wrote the foreword to the book. And unlike Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr. can speak to us through films and recordings. We can watch him in action striding across America’s stage, and hear his magnificent and stirring voice.

The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968, haunts us to this day. We miss him still. But the tragedy of 50 years ago can also inspire us. King was a great man who loved America. He was an optimist about the country’s future who believed that one day “we as a people will get to the promised land.” He was also one of the bravest men in American history who lived for years under the near-constant threat of violence and death, even more so than Abraham Lincoln or John F. Kennedy. On the last night of his life, in the most moving speech he ever gave, King said, “Tonight I am not fearing any man,” and that “I want to live a long life.” It was not to be. Half a century later, the all too brief life of Martin Luther King, Jr.—he was only 39 years old when he died—continues to inspire us.

I hope that sharing his story will inspire a new generation of young Americans.

 

Author photo by Lisa Nipp.

Chasing King’s Killer: The Hunt for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Assassin, can trace its origins back to my childhood. When I was a boy, my mother—an artist—led me to what she called her “morgue”: a tall, floor-to-ceiling closet with a sliding door that concealed several shelves piled high with vintage source material, including newspapers, magazines and picture books documenting the tumultuous events of the 1960s, including the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. Mesmerized, I paged through old Life magazines from the spring of 1968. I opened long-folded newspapers, their pages browned and brittle, and read their frightening headlines. I wanted—needed—to learn more. For years, I have collected the books, documents, artifacts and original sources that allowed me to write Chasing King’s Killer.

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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 […]
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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 […]
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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 […]
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It is an open question whether history as it comes down to us, with all its political and psychological overlays, has something useful to teach us about our own affairs. What is not in dispute about history, though, is its power to entertain and inspire us with its myths and stories. In this regard, the four annals considered here are all enormously satisfying and thought-provoking—maybe even instructive.

MAKING HISTORY BY HAND
As director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor had only to look around him to find the exemplary artifacts he discusses in A History of the World in 100 Objects. The oldest is a stone chopping tool discovered in the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania and estimated to be between 1.8 and 2 million years old, while the newest is a solar-powered light and charger made in China in 2010. Each object is illustrated in color and explained by MacGregor in essays that manage to be both scholarly and conversational in tone. Embedded within certain of these essays are additional wise commentaries from the likes of David Attenborough, Martin Amis, Yo Yo Ma, Karen Armstrong and Seamus Heaney.

Not surprisingly, most of the objects cited are from the large civilization centers of Europe, Africa and Asia. But there are also ones from less bustling locations: a Clovis spear point from Arizona, a pestle from New Guinea, a textile fragment from Peru, a bark shield from Australia. The choices here will no doubt spur arguments about significance (was the Hawaiian feather helmet really symbolic of human development?), omissions (where is the can of Spam? the Swiss pocket knife?) and political correctness (is the Suffragette-defaced penny anything more than an oddity?). But, then, isn’t raising issues the best part of reading histories?

WHEN IN ROME
The congenitally combative art critic Robert Hughes began his long love affair with Rome on his first visit there in 1959. In Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History, he undertakes the gargantuan task of chronicling more than 3,000 years of myths, battles, political intrigues, religious upheavals and, most dear to him, art in its infinite manifestations. He begins his account in the mists of prehistory and carries it forward to what he sees as Rome’s present condition—a pestilential tourist beehive in which art is viewed and checked off one’s list rather than savored.

No figure is too transient, no artifact too trivial and no political movement too bizarre to merit Hughes’ attention as he strides those city streets through the ages. His descriptions are sharp and vivid. Of the battle at Cannae between the Carthaginian Hannibal’s troops and Roman soldiers, he writes, “Roman losses in a single day at Cannae were almost as great as American combat losses (58,000) in the Vietnam War. And it all happened within about nine hours on a late-spring or early-summer day, blindingly hot, fogged with the clouds of dust kicked up by thousands of men in their relentless, terminal struggle.”

Although his prose often has a working man’s swagger to it, Hughes can become lyrical given the right stimulus. Recalling the Church of Santa Maria della Consolazione in nearby Umbria, he says, “There is no town around it; it simply emerges from the earth, flooded with light inside. No mosaics, no statuary, no gilt, no marble: only strong, ideal geometrical form. To have such an interior to oneself, in the light of a spring morning, is to grasp a fleeting sense of what Dante meant—‘luce, intellettual, piena d’amore’: the light of the mind, suffused with love.”

SEEING THE CIVIL WAR ANEW
Margaret E. Wagner’s The Library of Congress Illustrated Timeline of the Civil War is a real factual and pictorial treasure. Illustrated by more than 350 photographs, drawings, editorial cartoons, maps, handbills and manuscript reproductions (many in color), the book begins on February 4, 1861, when representatives from six secessionist states meet in Montgomery, Alabama, to form a Confederate government, and ends on May 29, 1865, when newly elevated President Andrew Johnson grants amnesties or pardons to most of those who rebelled against the Union.

All the entries are brief, so the accounts of skirmishes and battles are necessarily summaries. But the length is perfect for anecdotes that reveal the human side of the war, such as this one from October 15, 1863: “Inventor H. L. Hunley is among eight men who die when the Confederate submarine H. L. Hunley sinks (for the second time; see August 29, 1863) during a practice dive in Charleston Harbor.” Or take this missive for February 10, 1864: “When flames are spotted at the president’s stables near the White House, Abraham Lincoln dashes outside, leaping over an intervening boxwood hedge ‘like a deer’ . . . and ‘with his own hands burst open the stable door.’ ” Lincoln was restrained from entering the building, and the fire killed six horses, including one that had belonged to his deceased son.

The book’s illustrations are large, fully captioned and powerfully narrative in their own right. Among the curiosities depicted are a drawing from a surgery manual showing how to amputate a leg; a printed envelope bearing the likeness of Lincoln’s reluctant general, George B. McClellan, and identifying him as “The Bag of Wind”; and a letter written by Jefferson Davis’ secretary with lines running both across and up and down the page to save precious paper. It is hard to imagine a more accessible survey of the Civil War than this one.

500 YEARS OF BLACK HISTORY
Strange as it may seem now, as recently as 50 years ago, textbooks on American history barely touched on the contributions of African Americans. Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s stirring collection, Life Upon These Shores, is a chronicle of important figures and events that were long overlooked, forgotten or ignored. He begins in 1513, when Vasco Núñez de Balboa first sighted the Pacific Ocean at the Isthmus of Panama, with 30 Africans among his party. Just over 100 years later, in 1619, the first shipment of slaves to America arrived in Jamestown, Virginia. The terminus of Gates’ survey, naturally enough, is the election of America’s first black president.

Illustrated with more than 750 drawings, paintings and photographs, the book offers little historical vignettes much like those in an encyclopedia, except that these entries are in chronological rather than alphabetical order. The recurring themes—as Gates presents them in his measured, conversational tone—are resistance, persistence, imagination, self-help and thwarted attempts at assimilation.

Perhaps because it has been so minutely anatomized elsewhere, Gates devotes only a few pages to the Civil War proper, concentrating instead on events leading up to the war and the devastating Reconstruction period that followed. In the modern era, he pays much attention to the influence of African Americans on the arts and popular culture—from Duke Ellington and Richard Wright to Muhammad Ali, Spike Lee and Oprah Winfrey. He also illuminates political conflicts within the African-American community via snapshots of such volatile figures as Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King Jr., Louis Farrakhan and Clarence Thomas, and summarizes the achievements of African Americans in municipal, state and national politics. One may quibble with his omissions, but Gates’ task here is truly Herculean, and he has handled it superbly.

It is an open question whether history as it comes down to us, with all its political and psychological overlays, has something useful to teach us about our own affairs. What is not in dispute about history, though, is its power to entertain and inspire us with its myths and stories. In this regard, the […]
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Although they examine three separate, significant times in the span of African-American history, these books share common themes: the struggle for freedom, the quest for equality and the achievement of these goals with the help of a great leader. Spanning more than a century, from the Civil War to the Civil Rights movement, these new volumes provide important perspective as we celebrate Black History Month.

THE GREAT EMANCIPATOR

Much has been written about Abraham Lincoln’s evolution from a president who simply sought to preserve the union to one who ultimately realized he must free the slaves. But James Oakes makes the case in Freedom National that even before the Civil War, Lincoln held a firm anti-slavery view and pursued that goal until his death. While January 1, 2013, marked the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, Oakes writes that long before that historic order was issued, Lincoln and the Republican Party were orchestrating political and military maneuvers to free the slaves.

Oakes, a noted professor of history, provocatively sets the starting date of the emancipation at less than four months after the first cannon shot of the Civil War. It was on August 6, 1861, that Lincoln signed the First Confiscation Act, instructing the Union Army to seize any property and free any slaves owned by Southerners disloyal to the union. “[F]irmly convinced that slavery was the source of the rebellion, Republicans began attacking it almost as soon as the war began,” Oakes writes.

While experiencing some success with military action, Lincoln realized he needed a broader decree—the Emancipation Proclamation—to achieve full freedom for slaves. Thus, Oakes writes, the Emancipation Proclamation wasn’t the beginning or end of Lincoln’s mission, but a more aggressive phase of his anti-slavery campaign. The final steps were victory over the South in the war, and then passage of the Thirteenth Amendment outlawing slavery, which Lincoln shepherded through Congress. He was assassinated before the amendment was ratified by the states.

Freedom National is a refreshing new look at Lincoln because it refutes a growing body of work arguing that it was only after exhausting every other political and military tactic that he adopted an anti-slavery stance. Oakes’ conclusion: “[Lincoln] was neither the Great Emancipator who bestrode his times and brought his people out of the darkness, nor was he in any way a reluctant emancipator held back by some visceral commitment to white supremacy.”

GIVE 'EM HELL

It is altogether fitting that this Black History Month trilogy moves from one great military conflict—the Civil War—to another: World War II. In fact, the theme of Rawn James Jr.’s The Double V is how the nation’s military conflicts, and their use of African-American soldiers, reflect our attitudes toward racism and equality. “From exclusion and segregation, to integration and diversity, the armed forces, for better or worse, have always reflected our country at large,” James writes.

The Double V refers to the attempt by black soldiers to achieve two victories in World War II: on the battlefield and at home, where they sought to be treated as equals. James, an accomplished historian, writes that the Double V campaign was best described by prominent civil rights activist Roy Wilkins, who said that blacks should “fight on for the full freedom of 100 percent democracy at home while we are fighting a war for democracy abroad.” Providing critical historical context, James details how African Americans were mustered into the U.S. military beginning in the late stages of the Civil War. Yet it wasn’t true integration, he writes, since black soldiers often performed menial tasks in segregated units.

Two factors led to the complete integration of the military, according to James: the loyalty and heroics displayed by black soldiers in World War II, and the presidency of Harry S. Truman. As a U.S. senator, Truman headed a committee to investigate misappropriation of military defense contracts. Inspecting dozens of military bases and field operations, Truman grew to understand not only the nation’s vast military apparatus, but also its soldiers, including the bravery of its black soldiers. Once the war was over and the foreign enemies dispatched, Truman turned to combating the internal enemy of segregation.

On July 26, 1948, African Americans finally enjoyed the “Double V” when Truman issued Executive Order 9981, desegregating the armed forces. Of course, the order did not end racism in the military, James points out. But this bold decision by a conservative, white Missourian did establish a doctrine to bring equality to the military. While the struggle for equality continues, James concludes that evidence of progress can be seen six decades later with the election of Barack Obama, who, as president, is commander in chief of the armed forces.

TRIUMPH AND TRAGEDY

Not all wars involve the military. This is a lesson from Taylor Branch’s The King Years, which chronicles Martin Luther King Jr.’s fight for equality during the Civil Rights era. Here, the clash is between white supremacists—who refuse to allow blacks to eat at the same lunch counters, drink from the same water fountains or use the same bathrooms—and African Americans asking for the rights granted to all citizens by the U.S. Constitution. The offensive is conducted in a peaceful fashion by King, but frequently met with bloody violence.

The King Years is a distillation of Branch’s acclaimed trilogy, America in the King Years. The series totaled more than 2,000 pages, offering a comprehensive and exhaustively researched exploration of the Civil Rights movement. Branch was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for History for the first installment, Parting the Waters, and received praise for two subsequent volumes, Pillar of Fire and At Canaan’s Edge. Here, Branch selects 18 passages from the trilogy in an attempt to capture the essential moments of the Civil Rights era. Branch’s hope in publishing a condensed edition is to make history accessible to a new generation of readers. “Our goal in this edition,” Branch writes, “is to convey both the spirit and sweep of an extraordinary movement.”

Moving chronologically, The King Years begins with the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, moves through the Selma March in 1965, and finishes with King’s assassination in Memphis in 1968. These condensed passages allow readers to grasp the significance of these and other key moments in King’s life and offer an invitation to Branch’s more complete writings.

In an interview with his publisher, Branch revealed the inspiration for publishing The King Years: “For all readers, I believe, lessons from the Civil Rights Era apply not to bygone forms of racial segregation but most urgently to a troubled future. . . . They show how ordinary people can work miracles against intractable burdens to advance both freedom and the common good.”

The war against racism is not over. But The King Years shows how King and others advanced the cause of equality in the same noble fashion as the great leaders who preceded them. It is Branch’s hope that a new generation who learn about King’s crusade for civil rights may be inspired to continue the fight.

Although they examine three separate, significant times in the span of African-American history, these books share common themes: the struggle for freedom, the quest for equality and the achievement of these goals with the help of a great leader. Spanning more than a century, from the Civil War to the Civil Rights movement, these new […]

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