BLACK RADICAL by Kerri K. Greenidge


The Life and Times of William Monroe Trotter
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A prominent newsman helped shape decades of civil rights activism.

Greenidge (Consortium of Studies in Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora/Tufts Univ.) makes her literary debut with an impressively researched biography of African American newspaperman and activist William Monroe Trotter (1872-1934), whose uncompromising views made him an influential—and controversial—figure. Born in Boston, raised among educated blacks dubbed “negrowumps,” the precocious Trotter “was reading and writing entire Bible passages by four” and later participated, at his parents’ dinner parties, in “passionate, often raucous debate over racial representation, political radicalism, and the continued deterioration of black civil rights.” He enjoyed a comfortable middle-class childhood, taking piano lessons, playing tennis, and attending desegregated schools. After graduating at the top of his high school class, he went on to Harvard, where he was both popular and respected, a leader among his classmates. “Confident in the principles under which he’d been raised,” Greenidge writes, “Monroe had no reason to believe that he and his colored fellows could not ‘plan a new world’ in which all could contend for racial equality.” That vision was undermined, as he saw it, by Booker T. Washington’s insistence on “conservative racial uplift.” Black citizens, Trotter believed, were being “duped into their own enslavement” by Washington’s refusal to support black dissent and radical efforts to claim civil rights. In 1901, to counter those ideas, Trotter started his own newspaper, the Boston Guardian, aimed at working-class blacks. Within a short time, it became “the greatest race paper” in America, opening its readers’ eyes to radical black politics in Boston and, as the years went on, throughout the country. Greenidge presents Trotter’s growing prominence as a spokesman and gadfly in the context of economic, political, and often violent social upheaval in the first decades of the 20th century. A “prickly” and “inflammatory” personality, Trotter nevertheless attracted loyal followers, buoyed by his “populist demand for racial pride and political respect.” He was, writes the author, “an icon of New Negro idealism, an unapologetic ‘race man’ ready and willing to present his blackness before the world.”

An absorbing biography that offers a fresh perspective on African American history.

Pub Date: Nov. 19th, 2019
ISBN: 978-1-63149-534-2
Page count: 400pp
Publisher: Liveright/Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 2019