Black History Month shines a light on lesser-known topics from our past and has the potential to open new conversations on historical events often taken for granted. The latest crop of books on black history achieves both goals.
LIVING HISTORY IN HARLEM
Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts’ enlightening Harlem Is Nowhere takes a new approach in her look at the venerable community. Rather than crafting a detached, straightforward account, Rhodes-Pitts makes it personal, showing Harlem’s impact on her during the time she lived there. Her trips include stops at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and Lenox Avenue’s famous funeral parlor, where many of the Harlem Renaissance’s key figures were laid to rest. She encounters knowledgeable, flamboyant types like longtime Harlem resident Julius Bobby Nelson, who seems to know everything that’s ever happened there, and neighbors Miss Minnie and Monroe, who quickly become surrogate parents and close confidants. They give her insider details and a scope available only from longtime residents.
Rhodes-Pitts includes tales about photographer James Vander Zee, authors Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison and Zora Neale Hurston, and activist Marcus Garvey, among many others. Still, Harlem Is Nowhere is more an inspirational memoir than a retrospective work, and should motivate others who’ve only heard about Harlem from a distance to inspect it more closely.
FIGHTING ON TWO FRONTS
Elizabeth D. Leonard’s Men of Color to Arms! looks at black soldiers who defended a nation that hadn’t yet fully recognized their humanity. In the period between 1863 and 1865, more than 180,000 African Americans joined the Union Army due to promises of freedom in exchange for service. Instead they often encountered vigorous anger and resentment from whites who saw them as inferior and even responsible for the deaths of their comrades, despite the bravery of soldiers such as Medal of Honor winners Sergeant Major Christian A. Fleetwood, John Lawson, Thomas Hawkins and Robert Pinn, who distinguished themselves in combat.
There was another enlistment surge later in the decade, when blacks joined the wars against the Sioux, Apache and other Native American nations. Once again, black soldiers found themselves fighting dual sets of enemies. They were isolated and often abandoned by their white counterparts after battles and regarded with contempt by the Native Americans, who wondered how blacks could fight alongside people who openly loathed them. Yet Men Of Color to Arms! reveals the triumphs and victories achieved by black soldiers as well as the efforts undertaken on their behalf by whites of good will against vicious and sustained opposition and hatred.
THE FUTURE OF HISTORY
Although Thomas C. Holt’s comprehensive new historical work, Children of Fire, revisits familiar territory, he does an excellent job of including newer subjects and areas of interest too. He traces the evolution of black Americans from the earliest arrivals to 21st-century figures, highlighting obscure figures alongside established giants like Frederick Douglass and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. For example, Anthony Johnson, a slave in Virginia during the late 1600s, not only bought his freedom but became one of Virginia’s most prosperous landowners. In describing how Johnson was eventually cheated out of his entire empire through a series of overtly bigoted (and now illegal) court rulings, Holt reveals how racism increasingly became part of the South’s judicial and agricultural systems.
Though Holt acknowledges the debt his book owes to other major scholars, Children of Fire includes plenty of his own assessments on topics from Reconstruction to the rise in interaction between black Americans and immigrants from Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. Holt’s work is both a significant addition to other vital histories of the African-American past and a suggestion of new directions for the future.
CROSSING THE LINE
Daniel J. Sharfstein’s The Invisible Line doesn’t offer apologies for the conduct of the three black families it highlights, all of whom passed for white, but seeks to put their actions into context. The Gibsons knew all the land they’d amassed in 18th-century South Carolina would be taken over in a flash if the populace knew that blacks were the real owners. The Spencers of the mid-19th century became part of a poor community in the eastern Kentucky hills where racial backgrounds were obscured by the common struggle to survive. And the Walls ultimately revealed their true identity and paid the price, forfeiting a sizable amount of fame and wealth in Washington, D.C., in the early 1900s.
By 21st-century standards, the ability of the Gibsons to fool people and the reluctance of the Spencers to even discuss the subject of their origin with their neighbors seems woefully naive, even timid and disgraceful. But as Sharfstein’s research shows, the restricted path for blacks in those eras was such that neither family was willing to give up what they saw as their rightful status. Both became skilled at mimicking the language, customs and actions of whites. When contrasted with the severe price the Walls paid for coming forward, their choices might seem easier to understand. The Invisible Line is a detailed and instructive look at America’s tortured history and still-evolving attitudes toward race.
A STRUGGLE REMEMBERED
Finally, journalist Wayne Greenhaw’s Fighting the Devil in Dixie is the first complete chronicle of the struggle against segregation in Alabama, a state second only to Mississippi in terms of hatred and viciousness against its black citizens. The 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four little girls got international coverage, but killings, lynchings and other attacks had been happening in Alabama long before. Greenhaw, who covered every major event in Alabama’s civil rights era, begins with the 1957 beating and drowning of Willie Edwards Jr., a truck driver attacked by a mob for allegedly assaulting a white woman. Edwards was married with a family and had just received a promotion.
Combining personal memories with a wealth of sources gleaned from that period, Greenhaw tracks many major developments, among them the “Bloody Selma” march, the Freedom Rides and the election of George Wallace and his rise to national fame as the face of segregation. He also documents the role of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which became one of the few organizations that publicly stood against the tide and helped ultimately defeat those who wanted to keep the Jim Crow era alive in Alabama. Fighting the Devil In Dixie shows the power of perseverance and chronicles one of the great victories in America’s ongoing struggle for social justice.