THE MAKING OF AN AFRO-AMERICAN: Martin Robison Delany, 1812-1885 by Dorothy Sterling
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THE MAKING OF AN AFRO-AMERICAN: Martin Robison Delany, 1812-1885

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When Martin was born, his mother was free and his father ""had already made a down payment on himself""; Grandmother Graci, who remembered Africa, was still alive, and only gradually although repeatedly did Martin come to see that ""being free and black was not the same thing as being free and white."" This is an assiduously researched biography (the author pooled her efforts with those of other scholars faced with the problem of sifting through unwritten history and erroneous sources), and its pages unfold the life of 'the father of black nationalism' with uncommon fidelity to both the world as it was and the world as he saw it from before emancipation to after reconstruction. As a child in Charles Town, as a youth in Chambersburg, and on his own in Pittsburgh, he was always (in the words of a contemporary Essay -- one of the many excellent citations here) at best ""a quasi freeman -- only deriving his imperfect freedom from the will of the white community, and enjoying it under their government rather by toleration than right."" He traveled south ""with mixed feelings of sympathy and contempt for the slaves"" until he realized ""the wonder was not that so few rebelled, but that so many tried""; he edited The Mystery which few could read and fewer could afford, militating for black pride and a cynical view toward such organizations as the African Colonization Society, whose motives he attacked along with those of the paternalistic abolitionists. His own back-to-Africa movement came later, after he perceived the folly of promulgating a Central America homeland or a separate black state, but that like his other projects was beset by financial obstacles, internal factionalism, and external intrusion. . . not to mention the Civil War which fostered another turnabout in his thinking. Delany didn't sell out when he accepted government posts and tried to play the political game in South Carolina: as a Major in the role of ombudsman, he found a new disposition of his trust personally congenial and perhaps rationalized facts to fit hopes; in his ""Twilight Years,"" however, Delany was again to espouse Africanism -- but now in a voice that could hardly be heard. The issue of his ouster from Harvard Medical School is resolved with Dorothy Sterling's characteristic attention not only to documented evidence but also to implication and context; her book becomes more complicated as Delany's path becomes more convoluted -- it's not easy going all the way but it will be invaluable precisely because it goes all the way. . . toward marshalling the forces behind the making of the man. A fine, fair, and probing piece of work.

Pub Date: April 16th, 1971
ISBN: 0306807211
Publisher: Doubleday