Sunday, February 11, 2024

What I'm Reading: Black History Month


As I was trying to decide which of my recent reads to spotlight for Black History Month, I said, "Why pick just one?" So here are three titles I've finished this month that look at black life in the early 19th century.

I feel like I need to talk about Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl first, because it is a first-hand account that is mentioned in both other works. The memoir of Harriet Jacobs exposes the struggles of the enslaved, even those who may not have seemed at first glance to be in a harsh situation. She did not work in fields, was not beaten, and had much of her family around her. However, she was also pursued by her enslaver and manipulated to the extent that, at fifteen, she selected another white man to become her lover and serve as something of a protector. She goes on to tell how she hid in a sparse attic space for YEARS in order to avoid the man who owned her and his amorous advances. It is unfathomable. I think of the discomforts I complain about - the middle seat on an airplane and other minor inconveniences - and I struggle to comprehend what Jacobs endured before finally securing her freedom.

It is much easier to understand why the other two authors mention Harriet Jacobs in their books. Her testimony is powerful and sweeps away some of the comforting lies about slavery told in both the north and the south.

(I listened to Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl free with Audible Plus.)

One of the most important people in Harriet's life was her grandmother, who was a free woman but was helpless to help Harriet escape beyond hiding her in the attic. In Black Elders, Frederick Knight uses this example and many others to emphasize the value of aged black people in their forced labor communities. Another example is Frederick Douglass, whose grandmother served as substitute for the mother who had been sold away when he was a child. The author provides an astonishing number of individual examples of black elders from the American Revolution through the Civil War and their impact on family, the work force, the church, and politics. While it sometimes feels a little disjointed and repetitive, the sheer number of personal quotes and stories the author has compiled is an impressive accomplishment.

I had hoped for a more in-depth look at the black family in this book and how the situations they were placed in caused the creation of non-biological family units. There are some individual examples of this taking place, but not the broader look at how it impacted (and still impacts) black culture that I was looking for. The author does include many examples of hardship and injustice endured by black elders and their perseverance to serve as honored members of their communities.

One thing that will stay with me from this book was the author's habit of calling plantations forced labor camps. While this is accurate, it is not a term I had applied in this situation. It was a powerful way to strip away any romanticism of the southern plantation lifestyle. This and some of the little-known people Knight mentions were thought provoking and effective in helping readers consider our history from a point-of-view perhaps not previously considered.

(I received my copy of Black Elders: The Meaning of Age in American Slavery and Freedom free through the publisher and NetGalley. Opinions are my own.)

Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America was my favorite of these books, partly because it was most useful for a writing project I am considering. I started out with a library copy and ended up purchasing my own so that I could mark it up and use it for future reference. If you are interested in the Underground Railroad beyond the vague mention that it received in high school history, pick up this book. I was constantly amazed by the testimonies and statistics compiled. It's one of those books that make you realize just how much you don't know.

Some of these facts seemed obvious after reading them, such as the fact that 80% of freedom seekers to the north came from border states. The enslaved in the deep south had little hope and were unlikely to possess any knowledge of where to go if they could escape and travel the many miles to a free state. It's sad and awful and I had never thought about it, but it also makes sense. It added a dimension to the terrible fear of being sold to the deep south.

There's a lot of information here and a lot of people to keep track of, which seems to frustrate some readers, but this book is worth the effort. It tells the story of the Underground Railroad in a comprehensive way, going into great detail about freedom seekers and those who helped them where such historical information is available while stripping away any romantic ideas readers may have of how easy or common escape really was. It was humbling to read about so many people - men and women, black and white - who sacrificed so much to stand up to the horrific slaveholding power. The testimonies are stirring enough to make one wonder, "Would I have the courage to do the same?" I see this book becoming a much-used resource in my research library.

I have a few more books related to the Underground Railroad and America's Civil War on my TBR, so let me know if those are something you'd like to see featured more here. What are you reading for Black History Month?

See more of what I'm reading on Goodreads or what I have reviewed here. I love to talk about books! Let me know what you're reading too. 

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