by Charles & Patricia Smith & WGBH Series Research Team Johnson ‧ RELEASE DATE: Oct. 1, 1998
The companion to a forthcoming PBS series (to air in October) exploring how slavery shaped America combines revisionist history and historical fiction with mixed results. Like its predecessor, Eyes on the Prize, Africans in America documents an important chapter in the nation's history by focusing on personal stories. The sprawling account starts with the advent of the European slave trade and the arrival of the first African slaves a full year before the Mayflower; it ends with Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. The narrative approach of the text (written by award-winning but controversial former Boston Globe columnist Smith, and researched by WGBH television under the auspices of all-star scholars like Henry Louis Gates and Leon Litwack) has its strengths and drawbacks. Under-reported aspects of slavery--how tribal rivalries predisposed Africans toward profiting from the enslavement of fellow countrymen, for example--are brought into the light. So are lesser-known figures like Phillis Wheatley, the first black American to publish a book of poetry, and Anthony Johnson, a black indentured servant who became a prominent 17th-century landowner. It admirably credits individual contributions but glosses over huge events: the Civil War gets a page, the contribution of black soldiers a paragraph. Far better is the account of blacks' huge role on both sides in the Revolutionary War, when former slaves like Colonel Tye led raids to free slaves and provision the British. Most disappointing is the contribution of MacArthur-winning novelist Charles Johnson (Middle Passage, 1990). His slight fictional sketches interrupt Smith's narrative, elaborating (often redundantly) facts and situations raised by her ""to conjure a moment in time with feeling."" Johnson's narrative gimmicks include a letter, a newspaper article, and a first-person account by Martha Washington of her fear after the death of George, who gave his slaves compelling reason to kill Martha by tying their freedom to her death. Despite many fine parts, this is ultimately more a cheerleading revisionist textbook than a rigorous scholarly history.
Pub Date: Oct. 1, 1998
Page Count: 512
Publisher: Harcourt Brace
Review Posted Online: N/A
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1998
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