STYLIN'

AFRICAN AMERICAN EXPRESSIVE CULTURE FROM ITS BEGINNINGS TO THE ZOOT SUIT

Two Australian historians (brothers, incidentally) from the University of Sydney examine the ways in which black style has been interpreted and the political and social implications it has carried from slavery to WW II. African-American history has been written on the black body in a variety of ways, many of them cruel and inhuman. Slaves were branded, had their ears cropped, were whipped mercilessly. A slave's body was not his/her own property in the most literal sense, but as the Whites observe in this engrossing volume, there were many ways in which they could assert some small measure of independence. Focusing on such variegated indicators of black style as dress, hair, body language, and dance, the authors reveal an evolving semiotics of black self-creation that has been designed from its very outset to impose a degree of individuality on the numbing uniformity bred of slavery, poverty, Jim Crow laws, and white racism. In the first half of the book, which is concerned with the period before emancipation, the authors draw creatively on a multitude of sources—ranging from the memoirs and diaries of travelers in the South to handbills advertising rewards for the capture of runaway slaves—to recreate a largely forgotten aspect of black daily life. This volume represents an excellent example of how to use the most unlikely materials, such as newspaper-sponsored beauty pageants from the '20s, to examine how a people's culture defines its values in the face of oppression. Although the book is occasionally a bit repetitive in the early going, as its authors seek to build a case with somewhat slender evidence, it is well written and intelligently argued. It even has that rarity of rarities in a university press book: a preface that is delightfully funny. A highly useful contribution to black history from an unexpected direction, in every sense of that phrase. (19 drawings, 37 b&w photos, not seen)

Pub Date: March 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-8014-3179-4

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Cornell Univ.

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1998

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Not an easy read but an essential one.

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HOW TO BE AN ANTIRACIST

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 PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES

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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