Africans in America closes with the culmination of the Civil War. That divisive chapter in our nation's history resulted in a new life for a race bound by slavery a new testament to the Constitution's pledge that all men are created equal. Africans in America, therefore, is purely old testament, the painful, violent account of people forced into slavery and their nearly 250-year exodus to freedom.
The book, written by Charles Johnson, Patricia Smith, and researchers with Boston Public Television station WGBH, is a companion to the PBS series airing in October. It is written in documentary style, spotlighting major historical events spliced with anecdotes of human struggles with slavery. Johnson is the author of five novels and professor of English at the University of Washington. Smith is a journalist, poet, and playwright. Together, they take material gathered over ten years by the WGBH research team and craft it into a detailed chronicle of slavery.
The book begins in Africa, where the institution of slavery was an element of tribal culture. Still, tribal leaders treated slaves as part of the community and kept family members together. When foreigners arrived to trade for slave labor, they stuffed husband and wife, mother and child, into the hulls of wooden ships for the rough ride to America behavior that set the pattern for the slaves' mistreatment in the United States. Upon arriving in the states, slaves were sold one by one, without regard to family ties.
The authors note that the nation's founding fathers had a similar double standard, fighting for their country's independence even as they used slaves to work their land. Washington was not the only leader who maintained a public silence on the topic, the authors write. Add to the list the Jeffersons, the Madisons. Sadly, even those African Americans who were free men gaining that status through pardon or by fighting in the Revolutionary War were not truly free. They still were limited to living in segregated neighborhoods. Their job opportunities were minimal. They could not vote.
What breaths life into Africans in America are the stories of the individual struggles: the tale of Mum Bett, the Massachusetts slave who successfully sued for her freedom, or the endeavors of Frederick Douglass, a runaway slave who endured physical and psychological punishment as he traveled the country preaching for the equality of his race.
All told, Africans in America is an insightful account of a race's stormy immigration to, and assimilation into America, an accompaniment that will no doubt enrich the viewing, and deepen the understanding, of the PBS TV series.
John T. Slania is a writer in Chicago.