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A History of African-Americans

edited by Robin D.G. Kelley, Earl Lewis

Pub Date: May 1st, 2000
ISBN: 0-19-513945-3
Publisher: Oxford Univ.

From historians in the field, ten essays (a few of them pedestrian in style or leftist in perspective) chronologically detailing the history of African-Americans from their arrival in the New World to the present—a dark story, unfortunately, relieved by a few radiant moments of hope.

In the preface, Kelly and Lewis make some rather sweeping Afrocentric claims (that black labor, for example, helped give birth to capitalism), but—with the exception of the two last essays—the rest of their study offers nuanced commentary and perceptive insights. The first essay, “The First Passage 1502–1617,” details the origins of slavery and reads like a college textbook, but Peter Wood's “Strange New Land 1617–1776” is an elegant and vivid account of the years in which slavery was transformed from a potentially temporary condition to a race-based and increasingly permanent state. The essays offer brief vignettes of the famous—Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Martin Luther King—as well as portraits of ordinary men and women (`I had a kind master, but I didn't know but any time I might be sold away off, and when I found I could get my freedom, I was very glad,` one former slave observed). Well-chosen facts illustrate the relevant periods and the constantly evolving nature of the black struggle: in Georgia during the Revolutionary War, a third of the slaves took advantage of the British invasion to escape; in New Jersey, slaves were not freed until nearly 30 years after the Declaration of Independence; during the 1930s, Federal intervention caused black illiteracy to drop by ten percent. The last two essays, which cover the recent present, reflect the political bias of Kelly and Lewis and offer a benign take on the Black Panther's attempts at armed insurrection while scanting the achievements of General Colin Powell.

A comprehensive and vividly narrated history, enriched by well-chosen illustrations, that is as much an epic-in-progress as a scholarly record. (color and b&w illustrations)