A lively, readable story that nicely complicates the view of racial and ethnic relations in the South of old.



Journalist and novelist Shaik blows the dust off the ancient records of an African American society, revealing a forgotten past.

The Société d’Economie et d’Assistance Mutuelle, born in 19th-century New Orleans, was dedicated to benevolent causes of tremendous political implication, including the right of education and the franchise. Its members—all men—“rejected racism and colorism,” a natural outcome of the fact that so many of them were of mixed African and European heritage, the vaunted “Creoles” of the city’s storied past. The “Economistes” who are revealed through contemporary journals kept by official recorders—and from which Shaik works—have mostly French and Spanish surnames, but it is telling that a later president of the organization bore the name Cohen; his father was Jewish and mother, Black. As one member said in the post-Reconstruction era, the Société “should be able to receive Jews and Chinese” who applied for membership. Its headquarters destroyed by hurricanes half a century ago, the Société performed many functions: It was a place for members to gather to read, smoke, drink, play billiards, and otherwise socialize, but it was also a center for a business and intellectual community that advanced the causes of “free men of color.” That advancement met with powerful resistance, particularly after the Civil War, when lynchings and other assaults on the Black community became common as a means of terrorizing it into accepting second-class status. One particularly terrible incident involved city police officers who shot African Americans who were carrying a Union flag. Soon thereafter, the organization was almost co-opted by Whites, who founded a rival organization called, misleadingly, the Economy Mutual Aid Association. In a richly detailed, fluent narrative, Shaik sadly observes that, Reconstruction having failed dismally, many of the members of the Société took their own lives. Even so, the organization carried on to make significant contributions, including giving a young musician named Louis Armstrong a start.

A lively, readable story that nicely complicates the view of racial and ethnic relations in the South of old.

Pub Date: Feb. 25, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-917860-80-5

Page Count: 504

Publisher: The Historic New Orleans Collection

Review Posted Online: Nov. 18, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2020

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This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

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The powerful story of a father’s past and a son’s future.

Atlantic senior writer Coates (The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, 2008) offers this eloquent memoir as a letter to his teenage son, bearing witness to his own experiences and conveying passionate hopes for his son’s life. “I am wounded,” he writes. “I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” Coates grew up in the tough neighborhood of West Baltimore, beaten into obedience by his father. “I was a capable boy, intelligent and well-liked,” he remembers, “but powerfully afraid.” His life changed dramatically at Howard University, where his father taught and from which several siblings graduated. Howard, he writes, “had always been one of the most critical gathering posts for black people.” He calls it The Mecca, and its faculty and his fellow students expanded his horizons, helping him to understand “that the black world was its own thing, more than a photo-negative of the people who believe they are white.” Coates refers repeatedly to whites’ insistence on their exclusive racial identity; he realizes now “that nothing so essentialist as race” divides people, but rather “the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named matters more than anything we could ever actually do.” After he married, the author’s world widened again in New York, and later in Paris, where he finally felt extricated from white America’s exploitative, consumerist dreams. He came to understand that “race” does not fully explain “the breach between the world and me,” yet race exerts a crucial force, and young blacks like his son are vulnerable and endangered by “majoritarian bandits.” Coates desperately wants his son to be able to live “apart from fear—even apart from me.”

This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

Pub Date: July 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9354-7

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2015

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For Howard Zinn, long-time civil rights and anti-war activist, history and ideology have a lot in common. Since he thinks that everything is in someone's interest, the historian—Zinn posits—has to figure out whose interests he or she is defining/defending/reconstructing (hence one of his previous books, The Politics of History). Zinn has no doubts about where he stands in this "people's history": "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." So what we get here, instead of the usual survey of wars, presidents, and institutions, is a survey of the usual rebellions, strikes, and protest movements. Zinn starts out by depicting the arrival of Columbus in North America from the standpoint of the Indians (which amounts to their standpoint as constructed from the observations of the Europeans); and, after easily establishing the cultural disharmony that ensued, he goes on to the importation of slaves into the colonies. Add the laborers and indentured servants that followed, plus women and later immigrants, and you have Zinn's amorphous constituency. To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption that virtually everything that came to pass was the work of ruling-class planning: this amounts to one great indictment for conspiracy. Despite surface similarities, this is not a social history, since we get no sense of the fabric of life. Instead of negating the one-sided histories he detests, Zinn has merely reversed the image; the distortion remains.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0061965588

Page Count: 772

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1979

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