An engaging and sensitive exploration of America's detour from the promise of equal protection.

SEPARATE

THE STORY OF PLESSY V. FERGUSON, AND AMERICA'S JOURNEY FROM SLAVERY TO SEGREGATION

A triple biography illuminates the birth of the Jim Crow era.

On June 7, 1892, Homer Plessy was arrested for refusing to leave a whites-only railway car in New Orleans. Plessy could and often did pass for white; his arrest had been arranged to create a perfect Supreme Court test case of Louisiana's segregationist Separate Car Act. The result was catastrophe. Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) held in sweeping terms that "separate but equal" services were acceptable under the federal Constitution, cementing segregation in public and private facilities across the South for another 60 years. The appeal was directed by Albion Tourgée, a famous New York lawyer and civil rights crusader. The court's opinion was written by Henry Billings Brown of Michigan; the sole dissenter was John Marshall Harlan of Kentucky. Longtime Washington Post senior editor Luxenberg (Annie's Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret, 2009) investigates the multiplicity of American racial attitudes in the latter half of the 19th century through biographies of these three men, and he carries it off in style. Throughout this period, Americans in all regions grappled with questions involving relations between the races, including distinctions between social and political equality and the difficulties of determining a person's race. The author's subjects well encapsulate his theme. Tourgée was a northern firebrand who lived for years in Reconstruction-era North Carolina, facing down the Ku Klux Klan. Harlan's views evolved from his slave-state origins to a vision of limited racial equality. Brown remained subject to the pervasive casual racism that informed the nation's progress from slavery to apartheid in the service of the comfort of the white majority. Luxenberg brilliantly tackles a difficult task, presenting his solidly researched work clearly and with a restrained objectivity. The racial conflicts and conundrums emerge organically from the colorful stories of each of the principals, with the tragic ending always in view.

An engaging and sensitive exploration of America's detour from the promise of equal protection.

Pub Date: Feb. 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-393-23937-9

Page Count: 600

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Nov. 13, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2018

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

The value of this book is the context it provides, in a style aimed at a concerned citizenry rather than fellow academics,...

HOW DEMOCRACIES DIE

A provocative analysis of the parallels between Donald Trump’s ascent and the fall of other democracies.

Following the last presidential election, Levitsky (Transforming Labor-Based Parties in Latin America, 2003, etc.) and Ziblatt (Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy, 2017, etc.), both professors of government at Harvard, wrote an op-ed column titled, “Is Donald Trump a Threat to Democracy?” The answer here is a resounding yes, though, as in that column, the authors underscore their belief that the crisis extends well beyond the power won by an outsider whom they consider a demagogue and a liar. “Donald Trump may have accelerated the process, but he didn’t cause it,” they write of the politics-as-warfare mentality. “The weakening of our democratic norms is rooted in extreme partisan polarization—one that extends beyond policy differences into an existential conflict over race and culture.” The authors fault the Republican establishment for failing to stand up to Trump, even if that meant electing his opponent, and they seem almost wistfully nostalgic for the days when power brokers in smoke-filled rooms kept candidacies restricted to a club whose members knew how to play by the rules. Those supporting the candidacy of Bernie Sanders might take as much issue with their prescriptions as Trump followers will. However, the comparisons they draw to how democratic populism paved the way toward tyranny in Peru, Venezuela, Chile, and elsewhere are chilling. Among the warning signs they highlight are the Republican Senate’s refusal to consider Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee as well as Trump’s demonization of political opponents, minorities, and the media. As disturbing as they find the dismantling of Democratic safeguards, Levitsky and Ziblatt suggest that “a broad opposition coalition would have important benefits,” though such a coalition would strike some as a move to the center, a return to politics as usual, and even a pragmatic betrayal of principles.

The value of this book is the context it provides, in a style aimed at a concerned citizenry rather than fellow academics, rather than in the consensus it is not likely to build.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5247-6293-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 13, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2017

Did you like this book?

This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

  • Kirkus Reviews'
    Best Books Of 2015

  • Kirkus Prize
  • Kirkus Prize
    winner

  • New York Times Bestseller

  • IndieBound Bestseller

  • National Book Award Winner

  • Pulitzer Prize Finalist

BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME

NOTES ON THE FIRST 150 YEARS IN AMERICA

The powerful story of a father’s past and a son’s future.

Atlantic senior writer Coates (The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, 2008) offers this eloquent memoir as a letter to his teenage son, bearing witness to his own experiences and conveying passionate hopes for his son’s life. “I am wounded,” he writes. “I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” Coates grew up in the tough neighborhood of West Baltimore, beaten into obedience by his father. “I was a capable boy, intelligent and well-liked,” he remembers, “but powerfully afraid.” His life changed dramatically at Howard University, where his father taught and from which several siblings graduated. Howard, he writes, “had always been one of the most critical gathering posts for black people.” He calls it The Mecca, and its faculty and his fellow students expanded his horizons, helping him to understand “that the black world was its own thing, more than a photo-negative of the people who believe they are white.” Coates refers repeatedly to whites’ insistence on their exclusive racial identity; he realizes now “that nothing so essentialist as race” divides people, but rather “the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named matters more than anything we could ever actually do.” After he married, the author’s world widened again in New York, and later in Paris, where he finally felt extricated from white America’s exploitative, consumerist dreams. He came to understand that “race” does not fully explain “the breach between the world and me,” yet race exerts a crucial force, and young blacks like his son are vulnerable and endangered by “majoritarian bandits.” Coates desperately wants his son to be able to live “apart from fear—even apart from me.”

This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

Pub Date: July 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9354-7

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2015

Did you like this book?

more