Sweeping history of African-Americans’ experiences in America from Jamestown to the present.
In the introduction, Holt (American and African-American History/Univ. of Chicago; The Problem of Race in the Twenty-first Century, 2001, etc.) questions previous authors’ attempts at pigeonholing African-American history into “neat chronological boxes,” much preferring to recount it in “generational units” in order to reveal how lives transcend historically imposed time periods. The author offers a people-first approach to history, in which those who lived serve as representatives for their time. Beginning with the slave trade, Holt soon catapults the reader from Africa to America, comparing African-Americans' minor role in the American Revolution alongside their significant role in the Civil War nearly a century later. The author notes that 38,000 blacks perished while fighting for the Union, “a mortality rate 35 percent greater than their white comrades.” Yet the military pursuits of blacks in early America are only a single strand of a much greater story. Holt ably moves through several centuries, and in an attempt to hold on to all of these accounts, he employs pivotal moments as stepping stones to lead the reader through the complex web of history. The 1892 Chicago World’s Fair is one example, as is the death of Frederick Douglass in 1895. The author is at his best in the final chapters, when he shifts his focus to the Civil Rights era of the 1960s. Emmett Till, Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers and many others all find their rightful place in the history, allowing Holt to smoothly reveal the evolution from the initial slaves at Jamestown to the civil-rights heroes that continued struggling for freedom generations later.
A story many readers have heard before, but one rarely rendered with such eloquence.