Book Reviews: Black History Month Beckons

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by Angela P. Dodson

New works on Black history have been pouring in throughout the past year. As Black History Month arrives, it is time to take a closer look at the offerings. If there is a trend in subject matter, it is that most of the latest books appear to be on sharply focused, narrow, but nevertheless appealing topics that history has neglected or viewed differently in the past. Here are some brief sketches for our roundup.

African American History Reconsidered (New Black Studies Series), by Pero Dagbovie, $25, University of Illinois Press, March 2010, ISBN-10: 0252077016, ISBN-13: 978-0252077012, pp. 280. An associate professor of history at Michigan State University assesses the state of scholarship on and the teaching of African-American history, examining its past, present and future as a field of study.

Freedom Summer: The Savage Season That Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy, by Bruce Watson, $27.95, Viking Adult, June 2010, ISBN-10: 0670021709, ISBN-13: 978-0670021703, pp. 384. The subtitle encapsulates the historic episode recounted in this book, but through sharp detail and vivid narrative, this seasoned author brings out the drama and significance of the daring acts and deadly events that transpired in Mississippi in the summer of 1964 and that pierced the conscience of a nation.

Never to Leave Us Alone: The Prayer Life of Martin Luther King Jr., by Lewis Baldwin, with a foreword by Wyatt Tee Walker, $16.95, Fortress Press, September 2010, ISBN-10: 0800697448, ISBN-13: 978-0800697440, pp. 176. A Vanderbilt University religion professor probes the heart, soul and mind of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the first book to show how he harnessed the power of prayer in his personal life and in the movement he shepherded.

Race and Renaissance: African Americans in Pittsburgh since World War II, by Joe W. Trotter and Jared N. Day, $29.95, University of Pittsburgh Press, June 2010, ISBN-10: 0822943913, SBN-13: 978-0822943914, pp. 304. Two Carnegie Mellon University professors detail the history of African-American life in Pittsburgh after the Second World War. Steel was the magnet that had long brought Blacks there, and their percentage of the population swelled from 12 percent to 20 percent from 1950 to 1970. Many arrived as employment opportunities were declining, however, and Blacks bore the brunt of post-industrialization. The authors drew on interviews, oral histories, news accounts and other sources to produce a rare, in-depth look at urban history in a city with a rich Black cultural life.

Schooling the Freed People: Teaching, Learning, and the Struggle for Black Freedom, 1861-1876, by Ronald Butchart, $39.95, University of North Carolina Press, September 2010, ISBN-10: 0807834203, ISBN-13: 978-0807834206, pp. 336. This analysis by a University of Georgia professor rips up the images we have of well-bred, crusading White women from the North flooding into the South to teach the newly freed masses after the Civil War. The author combed the records of freedmen’s bureaus and archives of Southern states to compile a database of nearly 12,000 teachers that depicts a less monolithic, more racially diverse corps of instructors than previously thought, with the North and South about evenly represented.

Tasting Freedom, Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America, by Daniel R. Biddle and Murray Dubin, $35, Temple University Press, August 2010, ISBN-10: 1592134653, ISBN-13: 978-1592134656, pp. 656. This well-executed biography by two Philadelphia journalists gives Octavius Valentine Catto, a 19th-century orator, teacher and baseball hero, his richly deserved place in history. Although his name is unknown to many, Catto fought for civil rights for African-Americans a century before the term was commonly applied to the Black struggle. He became a martyr at age 32 when a White man gunned him down in broad daylight during a race riot in the City of Brotherly Love on Election Day in 1871.

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson, $30, Random House, September 2010, ISBN-10: 0679444327, ISBN-13: 978-0679444329, pp. 640. Hardly any list of “best” books published in 2010 has been complete without a mention of this title, and it certainly deserves a place in every library of Black history. The author, a former reporter and Pulitzer prizewinner for The New York Times, writes a captivating history, told through the lives of selected individuals, of the mass exodus of Blacks from the South. She vividly illuminates the conditions they fled and chronicles their trials and triumphs as they struggled to gain footholds in the North and to make the transition from rural, agrarian societies to urban, industrial centers.

Angela P. Dodson is a longtime contributor to Diverse: Issues in Higher Education magazine and to DiverseEducation.com.

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