Black History Month and Negro-Bibliophilia: We Didn’t Start the Fire. Y’all Did

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With my kids home for four days (dammit), I’ve had scant time – what with going insane and all – to stay current. That’s why the bombardment of black book reviews took me aback for a moment once I got back in the know. Whatever could have caused the sudden interest? It couldn’t be the superficial politcal analyses (as opposed to worthy ones like this) attendant upon this election…then it hit me. Oh nooooooo. Black History Month is coming, with all it’s attendant neuroses. Batten down the hatches.

I mock, because I must, but I find myself intrigued by this latest crop.

First, Randall Kennedy’s Sell Out: The Politics of Racial Betrayal:

Fortunately, it’s no how-to manual. Kennedy’s chapters are dense, stuffed with facts and anecdotes, compressed almost beyond belief. His second and third chapters move the reader through roughly 177 years of black sellout history in approximately 50 pages. Since this history has been suppressed almost by definition, it has the advantage of offering a fresh look at a rarely considered aspect of black history. I’m pretty sure that the slave commended by his masters for helping to thwart the 1739 Stono Rebellion, in part by killing rebellious fellow bondsmen, has never shown up on any of those black history calendars full of noble-looking portraits of heroes, even though he was named July. You can bet that the words of William Hannibal Thomas, the first black man to attend Otterbein College, have never been trotted out at graduations, sermons, or rallies. Thomas’ 1901 screed, “The American Negro: What He Was, What He Is, and What He Will Become: A Critical and Practical Discussion,” posits that “the negro represents an intrinsically inferior type of humanity, and one whose predominant characteristics evince an aptitude for a low order of living.” Anyone who, like me, has a morbid fascination with deliberately forgotten corners of history and wrongheaded, outdated belief systems like W.H. Thomas’ will wish that Kennedy had expanded these chapters, perhaps into their own jaw-dropping, crazy book.

Instead, Kennedy devotes a lengthy chapter to a contemporary Thomas—Supreme Court justice Clarence, that is—whom the author describes as “the most vilified black official in the history of the United States.”

Let’s just say that Randy (a dear friend and mentor), has a problem with group think.

I wonder which member of the Black Politburo will be first to ex-communicate him (anew. He’s nomore beloved than I among Negroes) for daring to discuss the black forebears who were not exactly NAACP material back in the day, like the Stono folks. Like Kennedy, I reject black America’s rejection of Justice Thomas and not because I like his politics – because I don’t – but because he has a right to hold whatever views he chooses without fear of having his ghetto pass revoked. There is no such thing as “the black” opinion; to argue otherwise is to be racist. Also check out Slate’s review. It’s also running a three-part excerpt of The Race Card: How Bluffing About Bias Makes Race Relations Worse. Trouble is, I’m not sure that those who get it need these books while those who don’t will never read it, though they’ll denounce it thoroughly as—guess what—racist.

For all my annoyance with BH month (and Kwanzaa), it is a good way to remind ourselves of just how we got into this mess and it isn’t because of the doings of Negroes. It’s because of slavery and Jim Crow and racism. White racism. Here’s the book I’ll be buying first this BH season: The Slave Ship. Commendable, necessary, as it has been to take the macro view of slavery as commerce and politics, it’s been misused by apologists to soft-focus the horror on the micro level. It’s important to remember that slavery demeaned all involved, but it’s equally important to face how clearly an atrocity the commerce of slavery—in particular, the slave ship itself—was on its face at the time.

The Slave Ship [by Marcus Rediker] opens with an extensive and unforgettable inventory of the trade’s particular horrors. There are the accused conspirators in a failed slave ship revolt forced by their captors to eat the hearts and livers of the recently executed. A captive starves himself to death after several unsuccessful attempts to rip open his throat with his fingernails. A black sailor accused of fomenting an insurrection gets pinned to the mast by the ship’s captain, who leaves him to rot to death without food or water over the course of three weeks. Sharks trail slave ships from one edge of the Atlantic to the other, overgrown by the time they reach Jamaica from feeding on human carcasses tossed overboard en route. Captains embrace the spectacle of grisly executions with devilish glee. The desecration of human bodies becomes at once efficient, whimsical and sadistic. A London merchant orders the captain of his ship to brand each captive with the first initials of his wife’s and daughter’s names. One master lowers a shrieking woman feet first into the Atlantic; when “she was drawn up” moments later, according to Rediker, “it was found that a shark…had bit her off from the middle.” The Atlantic slave trade has been the subject of rigorous historical study for more than four decades, but no previous work comes as close to conveying its terror.

Rediker describes The Slave Ship as a “human history.” By this he means, in the first place, that there are people in the story–not aggregates, not statistics, not categories, but individuals. His approach stands in sharp contrast to the mode of analysis that has dominated the study of the Atlantic slave trade since the late 1960s, when historians began to seek reliable numbers–the number of captives shipped from Africa, mortality rates in the middle passage, sex ratios on board slave ships, average rates of profit, the relative importance of specific ports of embarkation in Africa and arrival in the Americas.

It’s the people, stupid. Rediker keeps his focus on the ships; we don’t learn where the captives came from or where they go. Good, I think. No ships, no worldwide slavery.

If the sufferings of Africans bore you, read the review to see its effect on the white sailors involved. Needless to say, the enormous lucre of the trade largely bypassed the average swabbie. Sailors were gang-pressed into service and often died in Africa of various diseases. If they survived that, they died in larger numbers at sea than did the captives due to brutal working conditions. If they survived their maimings but couldn’t work, they were dumped at ports all over the Americas, often to be nursed and given proper burials by the only people who’d bother – slaves. Still, if you didn’t die, you could rape the females – who endured a special hell and evinced a special bravery and cunning at sea—at will. Indeed, that was the main inducement for many sailors.

So, it’s easy to scoff at Black History Month. Until you read a book. Remember, it took y’all since 1619 to make us this crazy. We didn’t start the fire.

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And right now, a longtime friend of Mother Jones has pledged an incredibly generous gift to inspire—and double—giving from online readers. That's huge! Because you can see that our fall fundraising drive is well behind the $325,000 we need to raise. So if you agree that in-depth, fiercely independent journalism matters right now, please support our work and help us raise the money it takes to keep Mother Jones charging hard. Your gift, and all online donations up $94,000 total, will be matched and go twice as far—but only until the November 9 deadline.

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