Book Review: Africans in America

I began this season of my Social Passion reading (which would be civil rights/BLM) with some history. I began this way for a few reasons. I enjoy reading history. This book was already on my shelves. And I wanted to begin somewhere in a less disputed territory, on a less of-the-moment and less inflamed book. I will eventually read some of the more urgent titles (like The Next Jim Crow, Black Skin White Masks, How to Be an Antiracist, etc.) but I also want to read a little wider in this area, from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings to The Invisible Man to Making Sense of Human Rights.

But Africans in America: America’s Journey Through Slavery, a 1998 book by Charles Johnson, Patricia Smith, and the WGBH Series Research Team in cooperation with a PBS TV miniseries, just felt right. With two lauded authors, a Peabody Award, and something like ten years of research and work, not to mention the shining reviews, I thought perhaps I could trust this ushering into the history of black slavery in America. Beginning for a moment on the shores of Africa, the hefty, almost 500 page book walks the reader through many years, events, and characters in American history—all with a focus on the African American population—up until slavery was officially illegal across the whole country. No further. Interspersed with quotes and even slightly creative narration (movie-like stories having to do with an historical event or person), I was on the edge of my seat. What an incredible, thorough job! Seriously. I was riveted.

I would love to see all students, either in high school or college, read this book. They would absorb a ton of American history along the way, but their understanding of American slavery, it’s nuances, its complications, its context, its faces, its moments of horror and its moments of celebration, would be deepened way beyond what the average student sucks up from a typical textbook. At least for me, so much of history was oversimplified and shined up for my education. Only through movies like Amistad and books like Roots did I get a little broader picture. Africans in America, on the other hand, gave me a much better understanding but also put things in their place chronologically, historically, and culturally so that there were lots of “Aha!” moments. There were also many moments when I said, “I didn’t know that!” or “I didn’t realize that!” While many of our current stories of slavery derive from either the Middle Passage or the Civil War era, there were so many other stages of slavery and so much breadth and context.

I felt a little like I was whirling around in loops while I read this book, but in a good way. Written in a voice that is both clear and informational and also engaging and authoritative (and even at times poetic), I could see what was happening like I was there and at the same time was hit by all these relevant bits of stories and history and facts that really made sense of the whole thing. There’s no dumbing down here, but there’s also a real accessibility. It’s the kind of book that makes you want to read more history and to tell everyone you meet about what you have learned. You feel richer. Richer in intelligence, in understanding, and maybe even in empathy.

I will admit that the book does end abruptly. At the beginning, we start with slavery in Africa and the interior of the country, and then move quickly to the Slave Coast and the Middle Passage. After centuries of history, we come to Abraham Lincoln. While we spent some time leading up to the Civil War, the entire Lincoln and Civil War is covered in a couple-page synopsis. I wonder if this is done because there is so much available on this time period? Even the aftermath of the war is covered in another couple pages, mostly quotes from now-ex-slaves as they ponder their new freedom. The real ending for this book is not the Emancipation Proclamation, as we anticipate, but a drawn-out scene slightly before the Civil War, where a famous, wealthy white man gets into debt and sells 429 slaves—slaves who have built a family and community over generations—in one day. It is truly heartbreaking to read and it is an interesting choice for a last, big scene.

I hate to sing too high a praise for any book, because I don’t like to set people up for disappointment. But I loved this book. It’s well-written. It’s timely. It’s important and well-done and interesting and intriguing and eye-opening and just great. If you’re the kind of person who will tolerate reading history, then you should read this book, for sure. If you’re not, then I suggest finding a copy of the PBS TV miniseries, though it can’t match the thoroughness or gravity of this tome.

*I am sad to say that this book is not as widely available as I assumed. You can find it used, though, and I hope you will.

TV SERIES/MOVIES

AFRICANS IN AMERICA (PBS series)

This series is not easy to find. You can purchase the four videos from Amazon for more than $50, which I guess wouldn’t be that big of a deal if you were using it in a classroom year after year, but to watch it once? That’s a bit steep. You could do some looking around for streaming copies, but even PBS doesn’t have it on their subscription app (which is really weird to me). Anyhow, like I said above, if you’re not going to read this book, the least you could do is watch this series. Much of the narration, quotes, and even some images, are exactly the same as the book, but the book has so much more. If you’re looking for a teaching tool for American slavery history, then yes, this is a good one. But I really do recommend the book first and foremost, and the you don’t really need to follow it up with the series.

QUOTES

I underlined, circled, drew arrows all over this book (even though it is officially my husband’s. Whoops.) I am going to share with you some of the quotes that I either starred or put an exclamation point next to.

“’In this manner we spend the prime of youth among Negroes, scrapeing the world for money, the universal god of mankind, until death overtakes us’” (Nicholas Owens, p65).

“’I dayly perceive that many things are done here out of a Worldly and Interested principle, little for God’s sake’” (Francis Le Jau, p90).

“The travesty came to an end only with Mary Burton began accusing influential, moneyed New Yorkers” (p110).

“In Virginia, men who were not yet men could become slave owners. It was not uncommon for children to own other children” (p132).

“There was a bittersweet irony in giving birth to a child you could never really call your own” (p135).

“’Alas, what mockery it is for a slave mother to try to pray back her dying child to life! Death is better than slavery’” (Harriet Jacobs, p136).

“George escaped at nineteen and settled along the Savannah River, where he was captured by the Creek Indians and again placed in servitude” (p140).

“The colonists had become so incensed that they clearly saw themselves as slaves to the British” (p157).

“The Constitution held the respect for property at its center, and for Southerners in particular, human property was most important” (p201).

“’Deep-rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; the thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations, the real distinctions which nature had made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end…’” (Thomas Jefferson, p.203).

“The revolt was fueled by a heady mixture of anger, desperation, and voodoo mysticism” (p249).

“He believed they wouldn’t listen unless they were made to fear for their own lives” (p255).

“The Constitution had set 1808 as the first year that an end to the trade could be considered—but the lessons of St. Domingue had been well learned and the debate was greatly influenced by the specter of revolt” (p270).

“When he was sold, Charles Ball simply asked to see his family. He was told he would be able to ‘get another wife in Georgia’” (p272).

“Imagine a mother being forced to stand apart from her children, her heart straining forward, the child’s cries withering in the hot air. Imagine grown men struggling to stand motionless as they are matter-of-factly inspected—their teeth checked, their genitals poked and prodded…” (p272).

“She knew that some of her children would be taken from her, but they took all …. Before night, her children were all far away” (p273).

“Some ‘benevolent’ masters attempted to keep mothers and children together. But slave men were often regarded as having no connection whatsoever to family” (p274).

“Masters struggling with economic necessity, a smidgen of compassion, and a hefty dose of guilt still chose abuse as the most effective method of control” (p274).

“The South, in particular, was a virtual police state designed to keep blacks in their place” (p275).

“Their racism, as was not unusual, also had an economic base” (p278).

“In the eighteen years since the ban on African labor importation, hundreds of free blacks had been kidnapped into captivity. Many of them were children, considered easy to kidnap and conceal because a couple of years of wretched slave labor often rendered them unrecognizable” (p296).

“’I saw a mob dragging along… a respectable old colored minister. They had found a few parcels of shot in his house, which his wife had for years used to balance her scales. For this they were going to shoot him on Court House Green’” (Harriet Jacobs, p311).

“’The tribes which occupied the… eastern states were annihilated or have melted away to make room for the whites. The waves of population and civilization are rolling to the westward’” (Andrew Jackson, p349).

“There was hardly one of these women… who might not have been a candidate for a bed in a hospital, and they had come to me after working all day in the fields’” (Fanny Kemble, p360).

“’She said something about a swing, and in less than five minutes headman Frank had erected it for her, and a dozen young slaves were ready to swing little ‘missus.’ Think of learning to rule despotically over your fellow creatures before the first lesson of self-government is well spelled over. It makes me tremble’” (Fanny Kemble, p360).

“Lear Green shipped herself to freedom in a sailor’s chest …. Maria Wheems disguised herself as a boy …. Minty was barely seven when he ran away” (p365).

“But racism was written into the very documents that guided the country. There were jobs black people could not hold, places where they couldn’t live, schools where they were forbidden to learn” (p373).

“’You had far better all die—die immediately, than live slaves, and entail your wretchedness upon your posterity… there is not much hope of redemption without the shedding of blood’” (Henry Highland Garnet, p384).

“’Resolved, that in the language of inspired wisdom, there shall be no peace to the wicked, and that the guilty nation shall have no peace, and that we will do all we can to agitate! Agitate! AGITATE!!!” (Frederick Douglass, p385).

“Under this law, any person—black or white—could be deputized to help capture and return a runaway slave. Refusing to participate in the capture and return of the fugitive would result in imprisonment and fine. And the only testimony allowed was the testimony of the person who claimed to own the alleged fugitive” (p388).

“But for two weeks an escaped slave had been the focal point of a uniquely American drama, bringing growing regional tensions into stark relief” (p403).

“’We have come to the conclusion that the African race who came to this country, whether free or slave, were not intended to be included in the Constitution for the enjoyment of any personal rights of benefits…” (Roger B. Taney, p418).

“By a five-to-two majority, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that Scott, a slave, had never been a citizen” (p418).

“It was no longer a simple case of being free or enslaved—it was a man’s skin color, not his place in the social hierarchy, which determined his citizenship and share in the democracy” (p418).

“The decision confirmed the entire experience of black people since the founding of the nation. Only now the humiliation was official” (p419).

“’The Supreme Court of the United States is not the only power in this world…,’ he said. ‘Judge Taney can do many things, but he cannot perform impossibilities’” (p419).

“When President James Buchanan put a $250 bounty on [John Brown’s] head, Brown responded by placing a $2.50 bounty on James Buchanan” (p421).

“When Newby’s body was discovered, his wife Harriet’s love letters were nestled in his pocket. One of the townspeople had cut off his ears for a souvenir” (p428).

“Slave patriarchs sought out planters who seemed compassionate and begged them to bid for them and their families” (p436). “’Every time a bunch of No’thern sojers would come through they would tell us we was free and we’d begin celebratin’. Before we would get through somebody else would tell us to go back to work, and we would go’” (Ambrose Douglass, p440).

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