A deep dive into the extraordinary risks faced by free blacks in the antebellum era.




A historian tells the harrowing story of five free black boys kidnapped in Philadelphia by a brutal gang who hoped to sell them into slavery.

After the United States outlawed the importing of slaves in 1808, black residents of free states like Pennsylvania lived in dread of kidnappers who hoped to sell them in the labor-deprived South. Bell (Early American History/Univ. of Maryland; We Shall Be No More: Suicide and Self-Government in the Newly United States, 2012) brings their terrors to life as he reconstructs this little-known episode in American history. The author focuses on five boys lured onto a ship on the Philadelphia waterfront in 1825 by a criminal gang led by Joseph Johnson, whose accomplices included his brother and sister-in-law, Ebenezer and Sally Johnson. Newlyweds Ebenezer and Sally took the boys on a horrific journey by foot and wagon toward the slave market in Natchez, Mississippi, that soon went awry. Ebenezer sold one boy in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, when cash ran low and beat another so savagely he died on the trip. The three remaining boys, desperate but alert, caught a break when one ran away and told his story to a sympathetic Mississippi cotton planter. That encounter set in motion near-miraculous events involving heroic acts by the planter and his lawyer and Joseph Watson, the mayor of Philadelphia, all determined to return the boys to the city and to freedom. Tapping rich archival sources, Bell overreaches only when he strains to portray criminals like the Johnson gang as a “Reverse Underground Railroad,” drawing oversimplified parallels between people like Harriet Tubman, a “conductor” on that storied network, and murderous thugs like Ebenezer, whom he casts as “a conductor” on its evil twin. His book—more comprehensive than Solomon Northup’s memoir of his own kidnapping, Twelve Years a Slave—needed no such distracting comparisons to deserve wide attention. Ultimately, Bell offers a well-told story of brave, abducted boys—and the equally brave adults who fought for them—slightly undercut by its aggressive casting of Underground Railroad workers and kidnappers of free blacks as mirror images of one another.

A deep dive into the extraordinary risks faced by free blacks in the antebellum era.

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6943-4

Page Count: 336

Publisher: 37 Ink/Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: July 15, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

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Not an easy read but an essential one.

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Title notwithstanding, this latest from the National Book Award–winning author is no guidebook to getting woke.

In fact, the word “woke” appears nowhere within its pages. Rather, it is a combination memoir and extension of Atlantic columnist Kendi’s towering Stamped From the Beginning (2016) that leads readers through a taxonomy of racist thought to anti-racist action. Never wavering from the thesis introduced in his previous book, that “racism is a powerful collection of racist policies that lead to racial inequity and are substantiated by racist ideas,” the author posits a seemingly simple binary: “Antiracism is a powerful collection of antiracist policies that lead to racial equity and are substantiated by antiracist ideas.” The author, founding director of American University’s Antiracist Research and Policy Center, chronicles how he grew from a childhood steeped in black liberation Christianity to his doctoral studies, identifying and dispelling the layers of racist thought under which he had operated. “Internalized racism,” he writes, “is the real Black on Black Crime.” Kendi methodically examines racism through numerous lenses: power, biology, ethnicity, body, culture, and so forth, all the way to the intersectional constructs of gender racism and queer racism (the only section of the book that feels rushed). Each chapter examines one facet of racism, the authorial camera alternately zooming in on an episode from Kendi’s life that exemplifies it—e.g., as a teen, he wore light-colored contact lenses, wanting “to be Black but…not…to look Black”—and then panning to the history that informs it (the antebellum hierarchy that valued light skin over dark). The author then reframes those received ideas with inexorable logic: “Either racist policy or Black inferiority explains why White people are wealthier, healthier, and more powerful than Black people today.” If Kendi is justifiably hard on America, he’s just as hard on himself. When he began college, “anti-Black racist ideas covered my freshman eyes like my orange contacts.” This unsparing honesty helps readers, both white and people of color, navigate this difficult intellectual territory.

Not an easy read but an essential one.

Pub Date: Aug. 13, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-50928-8

Page Count: 320

Publisher: One World/Random House

Review Posted Online: April 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2019

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A clear and candid contribution to an essential conversation.


Straight talk to blacks and whites about the realities of racism.

In her feisty debut book, Oluo, essayist, blogger, and editor at large at the Establishment magazine, writes from the perspective of a black, queer, middle-class, college-educated woman living in a “white supremacist country.” The daughter of a white single mother, brought up in largely white Seattle, she sees race as “one of the most defining forces” in her life. Throughout the book, Oluo responds to questions that she has often been asked, and others that she wishes were asked, about racism “in our workplace, our government, our homes, and ourselves.” “Is it really about race?” she is asked by whites who insist that class is a greater source of oppression. “Is police brutality really about race?” “What is cultural appropriation?” and “What is the model minority myth?” Her sharp, no-nonsense answers include talking points for both blacks and whites. She explains, for example, “when somebody asks you to ‘check your privilege’ they are asking you to pause and consider how the advantages you’ve had in life are contributing to your opinions and actions, and how the lack of disadvantages in certain areas is keeping you from fully understanding the struggles others are facing.” She unpacks the complicated term “intersectionality”: the idea that social justice must consider “a myriad of identities—our gender, class, race, sexuality, and so much more—that inform our experiences in life.” She asks whites to realize that when people of color talk about systemic racism, “they are opening up all of that pain and fear and anger to you” and are asking that they be heard. After devoting most of the book to talking, Oluo finishes with a chapter on action and its urgency. Action includes pressing for reform in schools, unions, and local governments; boycotting businesses that exploit people of color; contributing money to social justice organizations; and, most of all, voting for candidates who make “diversity, inclusion and racial justice a priority.”

A clear and candid contribution to an essential conversation.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-58005-677-9

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Seal Press

Review Posted Online: Oct. 9, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2017

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