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

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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 PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES

For Howard Zinn, long-time civil rights and anti-war activist, history and ideology have a lot in common. Since he thinks that everything is in someone's interest, the historian—Zinn posits—has to figure out whose interests he or she is defining/defending/reconstructing (hence one of his previous books, The Politics of History). Zinn has no doubts about where he stands in this "people's history": "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." So what we get here, instead of the usual survey of wars, presidents, and institutions, is a survey of the usual rebellions, strikes, and protest movements. Zinn starts out by depicting the arrival of Columbus in North America from the standpoint of the Indians (which amounts to their standpoint as constructed from the observations of the Europeans); and, after easily establishing the cultural disharmony that ensued, he goes on to the importation of slaves into the colonies. Add the laborers and indentured servants that followed, plus women and later immigrants, and you have Zinn's amorphous constituency. To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption that virtually everything that came to pass was the work of ruling-class planning: this amounts to one great indictment for conspiracy. Despite surface similarities, this is not a social history, since we get no sense of the fabric of life. Instead of negating the one-sided histories he detests, Zinn has merely reversed the image; the distortion remains.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0061965588

Page Count: 772

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1979

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This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

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BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME

NOTES ON THE FIRST 150 YEARS IN AMERICA

The powerful story of a father’s past and a son’s future.

Atlantic senior writer Coates (The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, 2008) offers this eloquent memoir as a letter to his teenage son, bearing witness to his own experiences and conveying passionate hopes for his son’s life. “I am wounded,” he writes. “I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” Coates grew up in the tough neighborhood of West Baltimore, beaten into obedience by his father. “I was a capable boy, intelligent and well-liked,” he remembers, “but powerfully afraid.” His life changed dramatically at Howard University, where his father taught and from which several siblings graduated. Howard, he writes, “had always been one of the most critical gathering posts for black people.” He calls it The Mecca, and its faculty and his fellow students expanded his horizons, helping him to understand “that the black world was its own thing, more than a photo-negative of the people who believe they are white.” Coates refers repeatedly to whites’ insistence on their exclusive racial identity; he realizes now “that nothing so essentialist as race” divides people, but rather “the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named matters more than anything we could ever actually do.” After he married, the author’s world widened again in New York, and later in Paris, where he finally felt extricated from white America’s exploitative, consumerist dreams. He came to understand that “race” does not fully explain “the breach between the world and me,” yet race exerts a crucial force, and young blacks like his son are vulnerable and endangered by “majoritarian bandits.” Coates desperately wants his son to be able to live “apart from fear—even apart from me.”

This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

Pub Date: July 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9354-7

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2015

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