Most of us who remember when state-imposed segregation was the norm rather than the exception (particularly in the South) remain amazed by the election of Barack Obama as our country’s president. Thus it’s quite appropriate that the question of racial identity and what it truly means is the dominant theme for this year’s survey of books for Black History Month.

There’s no better place to begin than the visually stunning, authoritative volume Freedom in My Heart: Voices From The United States National Slavery Museum, edited by Cynthia Jacobs Carter. With amazing, rare photographs underscoring and reaffirming tales of triumph and achievement chronicled in its 10 chapters, the book begins where the nightmare of enslavement started, in Africa. Rather than simply linger on that horror, however, the opening section has valuable information about that continent’s proud heritage and anthropological importance while also showing how the vicious African slave trade developed. The book continues with stories about rebellion and intimidation, tracing the emergence and evolution of a culture steeped in the African past and shaped by the American present. Freedom in My Heart covers familiar names and obscure figures, venerable institutions and little-known sites in various states while deftly examining slavery’s initial and lingering impact.

Finding a place in society
If any modern television or film producer conceived a story as elaborate and incredible as the one depicted by Martha A. Sandweiss in her remarkable book Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line, they would have a hard time finding any studio willing to back it. Sandweiss, a professor of history and American studies at Amherst College, has uncovered the true feats of pioneering scientist, author and brilliant public speaker Clarence King. This same man led a second life as black Pullman porter and steel worker James Todd. He managed for decades to keep these two existences separate, hiding in the process a loving wife and five biracial children. King/Todd darts back and forth between stardom and near poverty, privilege and deprivation, for reasons that still aren’t completely clear despite Sandweiss’ research and storytelling acumen. Not even the deceptive path taken by critic Anatole Broyard or the decision by Walter White to be a champion for legions who distrusted his light-skinned looks compares to this constant juggling and personality switching. The fact that King/Todd did all of this long before there was any hint of radical change coming in America (the late 19th and early 20th centuries) makes what he did even more astonishing and Sandweiss’ work in uncovering it more noteworthy.

By contrast, author and academic Jennifer Baszile’s challenges come in supposedly more enlightened times. The Black Girl Next Door spotlights Baszile’s struggles growing up in an integrated (actually largely upper-class white) California neighborhood and trying to understand who she was, how she felt and what she wanted to do with her life. Constantly pushed to excel by parents anxious not to be judged by stereotypes they fought to escape, Baszile deals with identity problems among the elite and educated. She also describes the turf wars and clashes she experienced as she became the first black female professor at Yale, and how switching surroundings from an affluent community to the Ivy League’s supposed ivory tower didn’t mean she would automatically find happiness, fulfillment or professional respect.

Voices lifted
Finally there’s the epic poem The Children of the Children Keep Coming: An Epic Griotsong from onetime pro football player, Harlem gallery owner and financial backer of Essence magazine Russell Goings. Goings’ piece offers praise, optimism tempered by an understanding of past horrors and upcoming challenges, and the upbeat, rousing vocabulary that’s helped instill in generations not only of black Americans, but oppressed people around the world, the self-esteem and pride necessary to persevere no matter the circumstances.

Ron Wynn writes for the Nashville City Paper and other publications.

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