A brilliant, vital work about “a crime that is still unfolding.”

HOW THE WORD IS PASSED

A RECKONING WITH THE HISTORY OF SLAVERY ACROSS AMERICA

A Black journalist and poet calls for a reconsideration of the way America teaches its history of slavery.

“The story our country tells about the Civil War often flattens some of its otherwise complex realities,” writes New Orleans native Smith, a staff writer for the Atlantic. He notes the U.S. is “at an inflection point, in which there is a willingness to more fully grapple with the legacy of slavery and how it shaped the world we live in today.” However, while “some places have attempted to tell the truth about their proximity to slavery and its aftermath,” others have refused. For this book, the author traveled to nine sites, eight in the U.S. and one in Dakar, Senegal, “to understand how each reckons with its relationship to the history of American slavery.” The result is a devastating portrait with unforgettable details. At the Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana, historians have labored to help visitors close “the yawning gap on slavery” in their educations—“a hammer attempting to unbend four centuries of crooked nails.” By contrast, the Angola Museum at the Louisiana State Penitentiary has a gift shop with such souvenirs as “a white mug with the silhouette of a guard sitting in a watchtower surrounded by fencing.” When Smith asked his White tour guide to comment on Angola’s role in slavery, the guide replied, “I can’t change that.” At these places and other sites such as Monticello, Galveston Island, and New York City, the author conducted interviews with tour guides, visitors, and others to paint a vivid portrait of the extent to which venues have attempted to redress past wrongs. Smith concludes with a moving epilogue about taking his grandparents to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The trip elicited painful stories from their childhoods, such as his grandmother recalling walking home from school as White children in buses threw ice cream at her and hurled vicious epithets.

A brilliant, vital work about “a crime that is still unfolding.”

Pub Date: June 1, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-316-49293-5

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: March 31, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2021

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A concise personal and scholarly history that avoids academic jargon as it illuminates emotional truths.

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ON JUNETEENTH

The Harvard historian and Texas native demonstrates what the holiday means to her and to the rest of the nation.

Initially celebrated primarily by Black Texans, Juneteenth refers to June 19, 1865, when a Union general arrived in Galveston to proclaim the end of slavery with the defeat of the Confederacy. If only history were that simple. In her latest, Gordon-Reed, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and numerous other honors, describes how Whites raged and committed violence against celebratory Blacks as racism in Texas and across the country continued to spread through segregation, Jim Crow laws, and separate-but-equal rationalizations. As Gordon-Reed amply shows in this smooth combination of memoir, essay, and history, such racism is by no means a thing of the past, even as Juneteenth has come to be celebrated by all of Texas and throughout the U.S. The Galveston announcement, notes the author, came well after the Emancipation Proclamation but before the ratification of the 13th Amendment. Though Gordon-Reed writes fondly of her native state, especially the strong familial ties and sense of community, she acknowledges her challenges as a woman of color in a state where “the image of Texas has a gender and a race: “Texas is a White man.” The author astutely explores “what that means for everyone who lives in Texas and is not a White man.” With all of its diversity and geographic expanse, Texas also has a singular history—as part of Mexico, as its own republic from 1836 to 1846, and as a place that “has connections to people of African descent that go back centuries.” All of this provides context for the uniqueness of this historical moment, which Gordon-Reed explores with her characteristic rigor and insight.

A concise personal and scholarly history that avoids academic jargon as it illuminates emotional truths.

Pub Date: May 4, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-63149-883-1

Page Count: 128

Publisher: Liveright/Norton

Review Posted Online: Feb. 24, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2021

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A top-notch political memoir and serious exercise in practical politics for every reader.

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A PROMISED LAND

In the first volume of his presidential memoir, Obama recounts the hard path to the White House.

In this long, often surprisingly candid narrative, Obama depicts a callow youth spent playing basketball and “getting loaded,” his early reading of difficult authors serving as a way to impress coed classmates. (“As a strategy for picking up girls, my pseudo-intellectualism proved mostly worthless,” he admits.) Yet seriousness did come to him in time and, with it, the conviction that America could live up to its stated aspirations. His early political role as an Illinois state senator, itself an unlikely victory, was not big enough to contain Obama’s early ambition, nor was his term as U.S. Senator. Only the presidency would do, a path he painstakingly carved out, vote by vote and speech by careful speech. As he writes, “By nature I’m a deliberate speaker, which, by the standards of presidential candidates, helped keep my gaffe quotient relatively low.” The author speaks freely about the many obstacles of the race—not just the question of race and racism itself, but also the rise, with “potent disruptor” Sarah Palin, of a know-nothingism that would manifest itself in an obdurate, ideologically driven Republican legislature. Not to mention the meddlings of Donald Trump, who turns up in this volume for his idiotic “birther” campaign while simultaneously fishing for a contract to build “a beautiful ballroom” on the White House lawn. A born moderate, Obama allows that he might not have been ideological enough in the face of Mitch McConnell, whose primary concern was then “clawing [his] way back to power.” Indeed, one of the most compelling aspects of the book, as smoothly written as his previous books, is Obama’s cleareyed scene-setting for how the political landscape would become so fractured—surely a topic he’ll expand on in the next volume.

A top-notch political memoir and serious exercise in practical politics for every reader.

Pub Date: Nov. 17, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5247-6316-9

Page Count: 768

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 16, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2020

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