An undeveloped premise and an overbearing narrator obscure a promising idea.



Rambling, first-person account of Newsweek International correspondent Butler’s decade of intermittent interviews with the children of former slaves.

Prompted in part by proposed 1997 legislation calling for Congress to issue a formal government apology for slavery and in part by the discovery that her family was descended from slaves, the author’s sprawling debut attempts to tease out truths about modern racial constructs, debunk stereotypes and reframe the notion of family. Interviews are sandwiched piecemeal between the minutiae of the author’s research process, updates on her father’s deteriorating health and detailed descriptions of her travel arrangements. (She crossed the nation in a fleet of rental cars, maxing out her credit cards.) The problematic nature of Butler’s approach is evident from the opening profile of well-respected Southern California lawyer Crispus Attucks Wright, whose father was a child when slavery ended. Cobbling together interviews, journal entries and newspaper clippings, the author sketches a preliminary outline of the nonagenarian’s family history and his colorful life as a major force in Los Angeles politics, early civil-rights crusader and activist for affirmative action. But his recollections, and those that follow, are swamped by Butler’s compulsion to insert herself into the story. She opines freely on each topic and veers off into unrelated tangents, such as the menu at the posh Belvedere restaurant or the quality of her accommodations. These jarring asides disrupt the narrative flow and distract from her important subject. It could have been an interesting project, fusing memoir and history to show a modern African-American woman grappling with her personal family legacy while attempting to document slavery’s impact on the first generation of freedmen and women. But Butler’s meddlesome narration and patchwork construction present nearly insuperable obstacles to readers hoping for fresh illumination on this dark aspect of American history.

An undeveloped premise and an overbearing narrator obscure a promising idea.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 2009

ISBN: 978-1-59921-375-0

Page Count: 236

Publisher: Lyons Press

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2009

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A Churchill-ian view of native history—Ward, that is, not Winston—its facts filtered through a dense screen of ideology.


Custer died for your sins. And so, this book would seem to suggest, did every other native victim of colonialism.

Inducing guilt in non-native readers would seem to be the guiding idea behind Dunbar-Ortiz’s (Emerita, Ethnic Studies/California State Univ., Hayward; Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra War, 2005, etc.) survey, which is hardly a new strategy. Indeed, the author says little that hasn’t been said before, but she packs a trove of ideological assumptions into nearly every page. For one thing, while “Indian” isn’t bad, since “[i]ndigenous individuals and peoples in North America on the whole do not consider ‘Indian’ a slur,” “American” is due to the fact that it’s “blatantly imperialistic.” Just so, indigenous peoples were overwhelmed by a “colonialist settler-state” (the very language broadly applied to Israelis vis-à-vis the Palestinians today) and then “displaced to fragmented reservations and economically decimated”—after, that is, having been forced to live in “concentration camps.” Were he around today, Vine Deloria Jr., the always-indignant champion of bias-puncturing in defense of native history, would disavow such tidily packaged, ready-made, reflexive language. As it is, the readers who are likely to come to this book—undergraduates, mostly, in survey courses—probably won’t question Dunbar-Ortiz’s inaccurate assertion that the military phrase “in country” derives from the military phrase “Indian country” or her insistence that all Spanish people in the New World were “gold-obsessed.” Furthermore, most readers won’t likely know that some Ancestral Pueblo (for whom Dunbar-Ortiz uses the long-abandoned term “Anasazi”) sites show evidence of cannibalism and torture, which in turn points to the inconvenient fact that North America wasn’t entirely an Eden before the arrival of Europe.

A Churchill-ian view of native history—Ward, that is, not Winston—its facts filtered through a dense screen of ideology.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-8070-0040-3

Page Count: 296

Publisher: Beacon Press

Review Posted Online: Aug. 18, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2014

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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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