BLACK TRIALS by Mark S. Weiner


Citizenship from the Beginnings of Slavery to the End of Caste
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Thorough and provocative analyses of legal cases (criminal and otherwise) involving black Americans since the 17th century.

Weiner brings appropriate credentials to this daunting endeavor of writing social, legal, cultural, and racial history: a Ph.D. in American studies as well as a law degree and currently teaches at Rutgers Univ. School of Law. Beginning with a disquisition on his general topic (with a tone and texture very much like a law school lecture: one can almost see the accompanying PowerPoint), Weiner then moves into a chronological examination of cases ranging from the 1721 murder trial of Joseph Hanno (convicted of killing his wife) to the still controversial and celebrity-infested death-row case of Abu-Jamal. In between are the expected (the Amistad, John Brown, Plessy v. Ferguson, the Scottsboro Boys, Brown v. Board of Education, Huey Newton, and the Clarence Thomas–Anita Hill confrontation) and some enlightening surprises, especially the 1830s case of Prudence Crandall, a young idealistic white woman who opened in Canterbury, Conn., a school for black girls. Despite warnings (from officials and others), despite threats of heinous harm to her and her girls (including public whippings), Crandall persisted until she was arrested, tried (hung jury), re-tried, convicted, then released by an appeals court. But a mob trashed her school, driving her from the state. Other interesting treatments include an 1847 case involving runaway slaves and an 1871 case that sought to punish some KKK members. The author begins each chapter with a passage that one might find in a historical novel—e.g., this sentence about the hanging of John Brown: “Beneath the feet of an old man, the scaffold door opens, and he falls through space.” Weiner then proceeds with a narrative of the events and ends with some commentary on their significance. Assigned to minor roles in this sweeping drama are Dred Scott and O.J. Simpson.

Well-researched and cogent discussions of how legal cases involving blacks tell us much about the evolving notion of American citizenship.

Pub Date: Oct. 15th, 2004
ISBN: 0-375-40981-5
Page count: 448pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 2004