AFRICANS IN AMERICA

AMERICA'S JOURNEY THROUGH SLAVERY

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. (60 b&w photos, not seen) (Author tour)

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-15-100339-4

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Harcourt

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1998

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Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.

GOOD ECONOMICS FOR HARD TIMES

“Quality of life means more than just consumption”: Two MIT economists urge that a smarter, more politically aware economics be brought to bear on social issues.

It’s no secret, write Banerjee and Duflo (co-authors: Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way To Fight Global Poverty, 2011), that “we seem to have fallen on hard times.” Immigration, trade, inequality, and taxation problems present themselves daily, and they seem to be intractable. Economics can be put to use in figuring out these big-issue questions. Data can be adduced, for example, to answer the question of whether immigration tends to suppress wages. The answer: “There is no evidence low-skilled migration to rich countries drives wage and employment down for the natives.” In fact, it opens up opportunities for those natives by freeing them to look for better work. The problem becomes thornier when it comes to the matter of free trade; as the authors observe, “left-behind people live in left-behind places,” which explains why regional poverty descended on Appalachia when so many manufacturing jobs left for China in the age of globalism, leaving behind not just left-behind people but also people ripe for exploitation by nationalist politicians. The authors add, interestingly, that the same thing occurred in parts of Germany, Spain, and Norway that fell victim to the “China shock.” In what they call a “slightly technical aside,” they build a case for addressing trade issues not with trade wars but with consumption taxes: “It makes no sense to ask agricultural workers to lose their jobs just so steelworkers can keep theirs, which is what tariffs accomplish.” Policymakers might want to consider such counsel, especially when it is coupled with the observation that free trade benefits workers in poor countries but punishes workers in rich ones.

Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-61039-950-0

Page Count: 432

Publisher: PublicAffairs

Review Posted Online: Aug. 29, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

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A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular...

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WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR

A neurosurgeon with a passion for literature tragically finds his perfect subject after his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer.

Writing isn’t brain surgery, but it’s rare when someone adept at the latter is also so accomplished at the former. Searching for meaning and purpose in his life, Kalanithi pursued a doctorate in literature and had felt certain that he wouldn’t enter the field of medicine, in which his father and other members of his family excelled. “But I couldn’t let go of the question,” he writes, after realizing that his goals “didn’t quite fit in an English department.” “Where did biology, morality, literature and philosophy intersect?” So he decided to set aside his doctoral dissertation and belatedly prepare for medical school, which “would allow me a chance to find answers that are not in books, to find a different sort of sublime, to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.” The author’s empathy undoubtedly made him an exceptional doctor, and the precision of his prose—as well as the moral purpose underscoring it—suggests that he could have written a good book on any subject he chose. Part of what makes this book so essential is the fact that it was written under a death sentence following the diagnosis that upended his life, just as he was preparing to end his residency and attract offers at the top of his profession. Kalanithi learned he might have 10 years to live or perhaps five. Should he return to neurosurgery (he could and did), or should he write (he also did)? Should he and his wife have a baby? They did, eight months before he died, which was less than two years after the original diagnosis. “The fact of death is unsettling,” he understates. “Yet there is no other way to live.”

A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular clarity.

Pub Date: Jan. 19, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-8129-8840-6

Page Count: 248

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2015

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