A sweepingly ambitious debut book from Watkins sets out to “present an overall view of the black race from the time when slaves were brought to the shores of this country until 1992.”
Watkins’ topics include the slave trade, the antebellum North and South, the Civil War and Reconstruction, the impacts of WWI and WWII on race relations, the plights of Northern city ghettos, and the strategies, triumphs, and disappointments of the civil rights movement. Though the author provides ample historical analysis, many pages reproduce primary sources. The entirety of African-American history would be difficult to capture in 1,000 pages, let alone this volume’s 240, meaning that many topics within the book’s scope get scant coverage, such as the Harlem Renaissance or the Underground Railroad. Readers not expecting a comprehensive tome, however, can enjoy a stimulating collection of primary-source documents reflecting the hopes and fears of individuals who lived through turbulent times. The book devotes substantially higher page counts to the (likely better-documented) political activities of the late 19th and 20th centuries. Documents present include speeches by Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, John Brown, and Thurgood Marshall, antebellum writings observing slave life, court decisions on voting restrictions, and testimonials from sharecroppers and protesters. Watkins repeatedly argues for the importance of unionized labor in advancing African-American interests, and one of his final documents is his own 1992 analysis of black power in a changing capitalist society. A major stumbling block is formatting, which makes attribution of different documents somewhat difficult without constant reference to the endnotes. For example, Watkins’ description of sociologist Horace Cayton witnessing an anti-eviction protest in Depression-era Chicago is placed in the same paragraph as direct quotes from Cayton’s eyewitness account, but no marks or formatting indicate where Watkins’ sentences end and Cayton’s begins. About 20 pages are devoted to excerpts from the 1968 Civil Rights Act; the most important takeaways of the law, however, are lost in the sheer volume of quoted text.
A flawed and necessarily incomplete, but nevertheless dynamic, account of black American history.