3 books about African American history
Three outstanding new books celebrate Black History Month with offerings in genres as disparate as literature, military history, and social justice.
When President Ford announced the US government's official adoption of Black History Month, he encouraged the idea of honoring the accomplishments of black Americans “in every area of endeavor throughout our history” – the kind of bland and sweeping generalization politicians love to make, but in this case, as illustrated by the avalanche of books to pour from the presses every year, entirely justified. By way of illustration, three outstanding new books examine some of those endeavors in realms as disparate as literature, warfare, and social justice.
On the literary front, Harvard University Press has published the very first corrected and fully authoritative printed edition of an American literary classic most Americans have never heard of: Martin Delany's unfinished 1959 work Blake; or, The Huts of America, the story of a slave named Henry Blake, who escapes from a Southern plantation and embarks on a journey across America and Canada, encountering along the way every iteration of the slave's struggle, from conspiracies aimed at violent overthrow of the “peculiar institution” to the dreams of whole communities to found a separate state, far removed from oppression. Delany, a prominent Abolitionist whose father was a slave, originally began publishing "Blake" in serialized form, but the appearance of its installments was uneven, and this new edition is meant to replace the textually flawed book-version brought out by Boston's Beacon Press in 1970.
“No work of American fiction,” writes editor Jerome McGann, “proposed a more ambitious investigation of the history and vicious social conditions that characterized the emergent American Empire in the nineteenth century, wracked as it was by the original racist sin of slavery.” The actual novel itself is unapologetically didactic, its characters mainly acting as mouthpieces for the author's polemics – but those polemics possess a startling directness that makes a 21st-century reading of this fully-restored Blake as arresting as its original readers must have found it.
Under the military heading is The Lost Eleven, a harrowing and meticulously-researched account by Denise George and Robert Child of a World War II atrocity that, again, most Americans won't know at all: the massacre of 13 black American soldiers by German troops during the doomed Ardennes Offensive launched by the Germans late in the winter of 1944. These soldiers, members of the 333rd Field Artillery Battalion, were part of the Allied force that was caught entirely off-guard by a desperate Nazi push into Belgium that resulted in what's become known as the Battle of the Bulge.
A great number of Allied soldiers were taken prisoner in the early stage of the Ardennes Offensive, and when an SS division found “the lost eleven” members of the 333rd's Charley Battery hiding in a Belgium farmhouse, they savagely butchered and executed them. "The Lost Eleven" is the first book to tell that story in its entirety, and George and Child have made the stylistic decision to tell the story with novelistic flair: dialogue is reconstituted, personalities are paramount, and the action is dramatized as in a military thriller: “Ack! Ack! Ack! Ack! Ack! As the Germans hit the ground on their bellies, firing weapons at the deadly P-47, Kelsey shouts to his troops, “Run!” But as thrilling as this account is, the authors quite rightly warn readers that the story will ultimately break their hearts.
In the realm of social justice, Timothy Tyson, author of the critically acclaimed "Blood Done Sign My Name," conducts a searching investigation of the 1955 murder of black teenager Emmett Till by a group of white men in the Mississippi Delta, a murder generally considered to be the spark of the modern civil rights movement in America. Fourteen-year-old Chicago native Till, visiting his great-uncle in Money, Mississippi, had spoken with a white shop girl in a way she claimed was suggestive, and her brother-in-law and a small group of other men later turned up at the great-uncle's house, took Till away with them in the night, tortured him, killed him, and weighted his body in the Tallahatchie River. The body was discovered (back in Chicago, Till's mother decided to have an open-casket funeral for the boy, so the watching world could see what had been done to her boy), the killers were tried and acquitted, and a social movement began to take shape.
Tyson re-examines every aspect of the case, giving his forensic evaluation the pacing and readability of a crime thriller as he pours over court records and witness statements, including the only interview ever given by the woman whose encounter with Till triggered the whole tragedy. This is an urgent, compelling, often angry book in which no compromises are made with the hard realities of American race relations. “Emmett Till's death was an extreme example of the logic of America's national racial caste system,” Tyson concludes chillingly. “Ask yourself whether America's predicament is really so different now.”