An insightful, cogent consideration of the history and persistence of conflicts over racial equality in America.



How presidential invocations of the Insurrection Act of 1807 have reflected the contested status of African American civil rights.

As cultural critic and attorney Allan explains, the act authorizes the deployment of military and federal forces against its own citizens but leaves it up to the executive to determine what counts as an insurrection. This openness means that invocations of the act become touchstones for the fears and priorities not just of particular presidents, but of the culture’s various competing factions during specific historical moments. A pattern of alternating, antithetical motivations, Allan makes clear, can be discerned in a long-term view of the roughly two dozen instances in which the act has been invoked: either a desire to restrict African American civil rights by stifling protests against slavery or other racial injustices or to enforce those rights against the indifference or resistance of local authorities. What we ultimately witness in studying the act, she provocatively but convincingly argues, is an “ongoing and often bloody battle to fully incorporate Black Americans into the citizenry of the United States—a struggle which…appears more like an open-ended civil war than a history of ‘progress.’ ” Though Allan sometimes strains to provide broad philosophical commentary on the existential topics she discusses and in framing historical events with personal responses to contemporary flashpoints, her explication of the act’s use and sociohistorical significance is consistently incisive and illuminating. Particularly effective are the author’s explorations of John F. Kennedy’s two invocations of the act in his attempts to desegregate schools as well as the striking genealogy set forth in tracing legal and social expressions of White supremacy from the antebellum era to the Trump era. Though he “did not invoke the Act,” writes Allan, “his administration did devise a means of federal intervention in the protests against police brutality in Portland, Oregon.”

An insightful, cogent consideration of the history and persistence of conflicts over racial equality in America.

Pub Date: Jan. 4, 2022

ISBN: 978-1-324-00303-8

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Oct. 20, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2021

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

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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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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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