Black History Books Track Slavery & Freedom

Black History Books Track Slavery & Freedom

In 1903 W.E.B. Du Bois decried the "two-ness" he experienced as an African-American. He was "an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder." "The problem of the Twentieth Century," he added, "is the problem of the color-line."

Though some critics today point to a "post-racial" America, where race matters less than ethnicity and multiculturalism, the problem of race runs through recent African-American historical nonfiction like a leitmotif. Black History Month provides an excellent opportunity to highlight several of the most significant of these books.

Poster For a Slave Auction, 1829




Poster For a Slave Auction, 1829


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The "Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade" (Yale, $50), compiled by David Eltis and David Richardson, is perhaps the most valuable cartographic work ever assembled on African-American history. Its 189 color maps illustrate the horrific kidnapping, coercion and forced movement of the estimated 12.5 million Africans ensnarled in the Atlantic slave trade between 1501 and 1867.

Eltis and Richardson draw on a database of almost 35,000 slave voyages to document their atlas. Maps portray which nations participated in the gruesome trade, where the slave ships were outfitted, where the Africans boarded ship and where they disembarked. Illustrations, excerpts from letters, diaries, and poems contextualize the maps. Eltis and Richardson's atlas underscores the criminality and inhumanity of the enslavers and the heartrending suffering and survival of the enslaved.

As slaves and later freedmen and women in Atlantic communities, African-Americans forced whites to treat them as people, not chattel. In "Cry Liberty: The Great Stono Slave Rebellion of 1739" (Oxford, $19.95), Peter Charles Hoffer offers a new interpretation of the largest slave uprising in British North America, the bloody revolt along South Carolina's Stono River in September 1739 that left as many as 100 slave rebels dead.

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