A deft handling of overlooked history and a useful close study of data, documents and real lives.



A searching history of the efforts by African-Americans before and after the Civil War to liberate their people and to stake a claim as equals in the land they helped build.

Until the Thirteenth Amendment was enacted in 1865, writes Kantrowitz (History/Univ. of Wisconsin), “nearly 90 percent of African-Americans lived in slavery, and blackness was intimately intertwined with lifetime hereditary bondage.” So intimately was slavery equated with being black, in fact, that even well-meaning whites had trouble putting African Americans on equal footing—e.g., African-American lecturers on the abolitionist circuit were paired with white lecturers but were paid less for the same work of rallying the audience to the cause of freedom. “Displays of autonomy,” writes the author, “or requests for more pay by black speakers could bring chilly refusals and sharp rebukes.” It was perhaps small comfort to the spurned speakers that they were at least free, for there were escaped slaves and ex-slaves among the freemen, among them Frederick Douglass, Henry Bibb and William Wells Brown. Such men—rarely women—became well known in the 1840s and ’50s as the abolitionist movement grew, and inarguably they grew it. Still, when Douglass relocated to New York, his Bostonian patrons acted as if it were a personal rejection, setting off a decade of ugly back and forth that threatened to split the movement apart. Many of the figures in Kantrowitz’s narrative have long been forgotten; many are oddly prescient, including those who refused to drop the notion that African-Americans might actually bear arms in well-regulated militias to serve the cause of freedom. That changed with the Civil War, the aftermath of which, writes the author, promised much but did not deliver all that it should have.

A deft handling of overlooked history and a useful close study of data, documents and real lives.

Pub Date: Aug. 20, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-59420-342-8

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: July 7, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2012

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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

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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