Frederick Douglass after his escape from slavery wrote three terrific autobiographies, including My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), which since 2010 has been reprinted at least eight times by various publishers. Far less known is the escape from Georgia to Boston of enslaved Ellen and William Craft in 1848: She could pass for white and disguised herself as a wealthy disabled man traveling with “his” slave. Ilyon Woo brings the story to life in Master Slave Husband Wife (Simon and Schuster, 2023).
Douglass was the paramount Black leader from the 1850s through the 1880s, as Martin Luther King Jr. was in the 1950s and 1960s. Jonathan Eig’s King: A Life (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023) tells well the story of “the complicated King, the flawed King, the human King, the radical King.” Eig takes into account recently released FBI documents, audiotapes recorded by Coretta King, White House telephone recordings, and other materials unavailable to King’s earlier biographers.
King was the valedictorian at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, where he received A’s in philosophy but a C in public speaking. A lecture on Gandhi and an excellent book by Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society, helped him understand how an oppressed minority group could make progress through nonviolence. Jackie Robinson’s courage in integrating major league baseball impressed King: Eig writes, “If any Black public figure in America embodied the principles of Gandhi, it was the Dodgers’ second baseman, a proud, hypercompetitive athlete who had vowed to endure the racial insults of white fans and opposing ballplayers.”
Some on the right grumbled that King was a Marxist, but King rightly said his Southern Christian Leadership Conference was “a Christian nonviolent movement” opposed to an “ethical relativism, a metaphysical materialism, a crippling totalitarianism, and a denial of human freedom that we can never accept.” Eig notes King’s plagiarism in his doctoral dissertation and in a later book, but he also shows the process by which King wrote his brilliant “Letter From Birmingham Jail” and prepared to deliver what became his most famous speech, at the March on Washington in August 1963.
That “I have a dream” speech had its roots in earlier talks in North Carolina and Michigan. In Washington, singer Mahalia Jackson shouted from behind King, “Tell ‘em about the dream.” King did, quitting his prepared text and preaching that he had a dream of white children and black children holding hands. But others had other dreams, and King during his last several years was hammered by the left that wanted more militancy and by the right that blasted King for his opposition to US efforts in Vietnam.
George Yancey’s Beyond Racial Division: A Unifying Alternative to Colorblindness and Antiracism (IVP, 2022) is an excellent look at the post-MLK half-century. Yancey, a Black professor at Baylor, recognizes that claims of “colorblindness” and hectoring about racism both provoke resistance rather than understanding. Yancey shows how to listen more and demand less, since “compromise” in this setting is not a bad word.
Kenan Malik’s Not So Black and White: A History of Race From White Supremacy to Identity Politics (Hurst, 2023) also undercuts conventional understandings. One example: “What has risen dramatically since the 1970s is the incarceration rate among high school dropouts, while the rate among college graduates (black and white) has declined…. This is a story about class, and the policing of the poor, as much as it is about race.”
Land of Tears: The Exploration and Exploitation of Equatorial Africa by Robert Harms (Basic Books, 2019) describes the killing, displacement, malnutrition, and disease that resulted from the system of forced rubber-gathering that Belgium imposed in the Congo during the late 19th century. Harms includes excellent testimony from Africans such as “Moyo,” who said he and his neighbors “had to go farther and farther into the forest to find the rubber vines.” Moyo noted that when they could not find enough, “the soldiers came to our towns and killed us.”
Briefly noted: Damon Root’s A Glorious Liberty (University of Nebraska Press, 2020) celebrates the fight by Frederick Douglass and others to interpret the Constitution in an anti-slavery way. Christopher Ehret’s Ancient Africa (Princeton University Press, 2023) shows that Africans did not wait around for Europeans to teach them ways to improve agriculture, make ceramics, weave cotton, and smelt iron. Ehret shows that two major groups of African cultures—Niger-Congo and Nilo-Saharan—were monotheistic seven thousand years ago.
Marvin Olasky’s new American history book, Moral Vision, has chapters on two other Black leaders, Booker T. Washington and Ida B. Wells.