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The history of slavery is central to understanding the history of the United States. Slavery and the Making of America offers a richly illustrated, vividly written history that illuminates the human side of this inhumane institution, presenting it largely through stories of the slaves themselves.
Readers will discover a wide ranging and sharply nuanced look at American slavery, from the first Africans brought to British colonies in the early seventeenth century to the end of Reconstruction. The authors document the horrors of slavery, particularly in the deep South, and describe the slaves' valiant struggles to free themselves from bondage. There are dramatic tales of escape by slaves such as William and Ellen Craft and Dred Scott's doomed attempt to win his freedom through the Supreme Court. We see how slavery engendered violence in our nation, from bloody confrontations that broke out in American cities over fugitive slaves, to the cataclysm of the Civil War. The book is also filled with stories of remarkable African Americans like Sergeant William H. Carney, who won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery at the crucial assault on Fort Wagner during the Civil War, and Benjamin "Pap" Singleton, a former slave who led freed African Americans to a new life on the American frontier. Filled with absorbing and inspirational accounts highlighted by more than one hundred pictures and illustrations, Slavery and the Making of America is a gripping account of the struggles of African Americans against the iniquity of slavery.
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From The Washington Post:
James Oliver Horton is the Benjamin Banneker Professor of American Studies & History at George Washington University, and Historian Emeritus at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. Lois E. Horton is a Professor of History at George Mason University. They are the authors of such classic studies as Black Bostonians: Family Life and Community Struggle in the Antebellum North, In Hope of Liberty: Culture, Community and Protest Among Northern Free Blacks, 1700-1860, and Hard Road to Freedom: The Story of African America.
"Facts," a late, lamented president once remarked, "are stupid things." He would get little argument from professional historians, for whom context, rather than mute data points, is everything. But consider this fact: In the 340 years after Columbus's voyage to the Americas, some 12 million people migrated from the old world to the new. Of those, about 2 million were Europeans, while the other 10 million were African slaves. No single datum speaks more bluntly to slavery's centrality in the history of the modern world.
A survey of American history textbooks suggests one source of the gulf separating the historical reality of slavery from popular understandings of the institution. Through the 1950s, slavery scarcely warranted a mention in textbooks; insofar as it did appear, it was typically rendered in sentimental, Southern terms, with slaves cast as the simple, sometimes exasperating charges of benign white masters. The bestselling U.S. history textbook in the 1950s devoted one paragraph to the experience of the enslaved, beginning with the words, "As for Sambo. . . ." Since then, a legion of historians has churned out a steady stream of monographs, illuminating every aspect of the institution. Yet textbook coverage remains grudging, thanks in part to the economics of the textbook publishing industry, which confers enormous influence on a handful of large-market states (notably Texas) where centralized agencies determine which textbooks can be used in classrooms.
In the last decade or so, the struggle to embed the history of slavery in the nation's classrooms and consciousness has passed to television, with PBS and, more recently, HBO producing provocative, multipart documentaries. Inevitably, such films tend to be screened in February, the designated "Black History Month," and they attract vastly fewer viewers than the latest network reality show or Hollywood blockbuster. Still, documentaries such as "Africans in America," "This Far by Faith" and "Unchained Memories" have helped nudge the nation toward a more inclusive, more accurate accounting of its past.
The latest entrant is "Slavery and the Making of America," a four-part PBS series to be aired (naturally) in February. Those wanting a preview will find it in James and Lois Horton's companion volume to the series. The Hortons have long been among the most distinguished scholars working on the history of slavery, and their newest book exhibits their signature qualities: wide research, interpretive balance and crisp, accessible prose and a wealth of visual material. If the book contains few revelations for specialists, it is apt to be eye-opening for the popular audiences.
While the authors discuss slavery as a problem in American politics and law, they choose chiefly to tell their story from "the vantage point of the enslaved." Slaves, in their rendering, are not mere victims but creative agents who conserved and created rich cultural traditions and who, in their relentless struggle to reshape the terms of their own bondage, fundamentally reshaped the culture and politics of their adopted home. Broad historical transformations -- the American Revolution, the rise of the cotton kingdom, the massive interstate slave trade (which could be just as agonizing as the better-known transatlantic traffic), the coming of the Civil War -- are rendered chiefly through the experiences of those who endured them.
At the heart of the book are some 20 individuals, whose sometimes almost unbelievable tales are unfolded across the book's six chapters. Most readers will have heard of Nat Turner and Frederick Douglass, and some will be familiar with figures such as Olaudah Equiano, author of the first celebrated slave narrative, and Sojourner Truth, the pioneering anti-slavery and women's rights advocate. But few, if any, will have heard of Anta Majigeen Njaay Kingsley, who opens the book and resurfaces throughout. Carried from Senegal to Cuba as a 13-year-old, Kingsley married her sea captain owner and eventually became the mistress of a series of plantations across Florida and the Caribbean. Whatever one chooses to call Kingsley -- survivor, quisling, entrepreneur -- she was no mere victim.
Given the subject matter, Slavery and the Making of America is a remarkably dispassionate book that never succumbs to pathos or preachiness. Only in the final paragraph do the Hortons allow themselves to comment on the contemporary relevance of their story. Slavery's legacy, they write, "remains in the history and heritage of the South that it shaped, in the culture of the North where its memory was long denied, in the national economy for which it provided much of the foundation, and in the political and social system it profoundly influenced." Many of the challenges Americans confront today "are all imperfectly understood without the historical context of American slavery and without an understanding of the means by which a freedom-loving people rationalized their tolerance" of an institution that directly contradicted all the values that they professed to cherish.
Whether Americans are finally ready, 140 years after abolition, to take an unstinting look at slavery is an open question. As our current president has noted, we are a people disinclined to "look in the rearview mirror." But for those willing to risk it, this book offers an admirable place to begin.
Reviewed by James T. Campbell
Copyright 2004, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved.
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