A history book that wants to be Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of American Empire but comes off more like Larry Gonick’s...

A MOST IMPERFECT UNION

A CONTRARIAN HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES

Prolific intellectual Stavans and collaborative artist Alcaraz follow up and expand their first exploration of American culture (Latino USA: A Cartoon History, 2000, etc.) to examine the secret history of the United States of America.

Stavans and Alcaraz offer an opposing view to the sanitized history most of us were taught in elementary school classrooms. As a Mexican-born Jewish immigrant who moved to the United States in the 1980s, Stavans has a passionate response to the erroneousness of American history. “The past is elastic,” he writes. “Its parts shrink and expand depending on who is looking at them and when. Because of this, it’s important to take a contrarian’s viewpoint, to be wary of what the French call idées fixes—lazy unquestioned truths.” From this ambitious beginning, Stavans and Alcaraz track the arc of history, from Christopher Columbus’ unlikely enterprise to find the new world (he didn’t) to the acrimonious relationship between the pilgrims and Native peoples all the way through to our messy, dangerous post-9/11 world. Stavans and Alcaraz examine social movements, pop culture, politics, crime, war and economics, with pithy side comments from the aforementioned peanut gallery. Since it casts its net so wide, it can feel very out of tune from time to time, although Alcaraz’s amusing pen-and-ink style ably captures most of the book’s famous subjects. Stavans and Alcaraz also aren’t afraid to poke a little fun at themselves: “You interject too much out-of-place information! The readers are all confused now,” cracks Alcaraz. Nonetheless, well-read students are unlikely to find too many surprises here. While it makes for an entertaining afternoon, it’s still mostly a surface-level history lesson with a few iconoclastic opinions added in for spice.

A history book that wants to be Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of American Empire but comes off more like Larry Gonick’s The Cartoon History of the United States with more savvy jokes.

Pub Date: June 6, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-465-03669-1

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Basic

Review Posted Online: May 7, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2014

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

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BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME

NOTES ON THE FIRST 150 YEARS IN AMERICA

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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A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES

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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