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Celebrating Black History Month!

8th February 2021

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Our Top Picks for February!

From Slave Ship to Harvard by James H. Johnston

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From Slave Ship to Harvard is the true story of an African American family in Maryland over six generations. The author has reconstructed a unique narrative of black struggle and achievement from paintings, photographs, books, diaries, court records, legal documents, and oral histories. From Slave Ship to Harvard traces the family from the colonial period and the American Revolution through the Civil War to Harvard and finally today.

Just as Peale painted the portrait of Yarrow, James H. Johnston’s new book puts a face on slavery and paints the history of race in Maryland. It is a different picture from what most of us imagine. Relationships between blacks and whites were far more complex, and the races more dependent on each other. Fortunately, as this one family’s experience shows, individuals of both races repeatedly stepped forward to lessen divisions and to move America toward the diverse society of today.

Boss of Black Broolyn: The Life and Times of Bertram L. Baker by Ron Howell

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Boss of Black Brooklyn presents a riveting and untold story about the struggles and achievements of the first black person to hold public office in Brooklyn. Bertram L. Baker immigrated to the United States from the Caribbean island of Nevis in 1915. 

Baker represents a remarkable turning point in the evolution of modern New York City. In the 1940s, when he won his seat in the New York state assembly, blacks made up only 4 percent of the population of Brooklyn. Today they make up a third of the population, and there are scores of black elected officials. Yet Brooklyn, often called the capital of the Black Diaspora, is a capital under siege. Developers and realtors seeking to gentrify the borough are all but conspiring to push blacks out of the city. A very important and long-overdue book, Boss of Black Brooklyn not only explores black politics and black organizations but also penetrates Baker’s inner life and reveals themes that resonate today: black fatherhood, relations between black men and black women, faithfulness to place and ancestry. Bertram L. Baker’s story has receded into the shadows of time, but Boss of Black Brooklyn recaptures it and inspires us to learn from it.

The Princeton Fugitive Slave: The Trials of James Collins Johnson by Lolita Buckner Inniss

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James Collins Johnson made his name by escaping slavery in Maryland and fleeing to Princeton, New Jersey, where he built a life in a bustling community of African Americans working at what is now Princeton University. After only four years, he was recognized by a student from Maryland, arrested, and subjected to a trial for extradition under the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act. On the eve of his rendition, after attempts to free Johnson by force had failed, a local aristocratic white woman purchased Johnson’s freedom, allowing him to avoid re-enslavement. The Princeton Fugitive Slave reconstructs James Collins Johnson’s life, from birth and enslaved life in Maryland to his daring escape, sensational trial for re-enslavement, and last-minute change of fortune, and through to the end of his life in Princeton, where he remained a figure of local fascination.

By telling Johnson’s story and examining the relationship between antebellum Princeton’s black residents and the economic engine that supported their community, the book questions the distinction between employment and servitude that shrinks and threatens to disappear when an individual’s freedom is circumscribed by immobility, lack of opportunity, and contingency on local interpretations of a hotly contested body of law.

A Great Sacrifice: Northern Black Soliders, Their Families, and the Experience of Civil War by James G. Mendez

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A Great Sacrifice is an in-depth analysis of the effects of the Civil War on northern black families carried out using letters from northern black women—mothers, wives, sisters, and female family friends—addressed to a number of Union military officials.

Collectively, the letters give a voice to the black family members left on the northern homefront. Through their explanations and requests, readers obtain a greater apprehension of the struggles African American families faced during the war, and their conditions as the war progressed. The original letters that were received by government agencies, as well as many of the copies of the letters sent in response, are held by the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

This study is unique because it examines the effects of the war specifically on northern black families. Most other studies on African Americans during the Civil War focused almost exclusively on the soldiers.

“Pretends to be Free” by Graham Russell Gao Hodges and Alan Edward Brown

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Republication on the twenty-fifth anniversary of “Pretends to Be Free” recognizes the signal importance of its sterling presentation of northern self-emancipation. Today, even more than a quarter-century ago, these fugitive slave notices are the best verbal snapshots of enslaved Americans before and during the American Revolution. Through these notices, readers can discover how enslaved blacks chose allegiance during our War for Independence.

Replete with a preface by Edward E. Baptist, the leading scholar of slavery and capitalism and director of a massive project aimed at digitalizing every escape notice, and with a new Introduction and teacher’s guide by Graham Hodges, this new edition makes this documentary study more relevant than ever.

Before the Fires: An Oral HIstory of African American Life in the Bronx from the 1930s to the 1960s by Mark D. Naison and Bob Gumbs

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People associate the South Bronx with gangs, violence, drugs, crime, burned-out buildings, and poverty. This is the message that has been driven into their heads over the years by the media. As Howard Cosell famously said during the 1977 World’s Series at Yankee Stadium, “There it is, ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning.” In this new book, Naison and Gumbs provide a completely different picture of the South Bronx through interviews with residents who lived here from the 1930s to the 1960s.

Alternately analytical and poetic, but all rich in detail, these inspiring interviews describe growing up and living in vibrant black and multiracial Bronx communities whose contours have rarely graced the pages of histories of the Bronx or black New York City. Capturing the excitement of growing up in this stimulating and culturally diverse environment, Before the Fires is filled with the optimism of the period and the heartache of what was shattered in the urban crisis and the burning of the Bronx.

Educational Reconstruction: African American Schools in the Urban South, 1865-1890 by Hilary Green

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Tracing the first two decades of state-funded African American schools, Educational Reconstruction addresses the ways in which black Richmonders, black Mobilians, and their white allies created, developed, and sustained a system of African American schools following the Civil War.

Hilary Green proposes a new chronology in understanding postwar African American education, examining how urban African Americans demanded quality public schools from their new city and state partners. Revealing the significant gains made after the departure of the Freedmen’s Bureau, this study reevaluates African American higher education in terms of developing a cadre of public school educator-activists and highlights the centrality of urban African American protest in shaping educational decisions and policies in their respective cities and states.

Black Lives and Sacred Humanity by Carol Wayne White

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Identifying African American religiosity as the ingenuity of a people constantly striving to inhabit their humanity and eke out a meaningful existence for themselves amid harrowing circumstances, Black Lives and Sacred Humanity constructs a concept of sacred humanity and grounds it in the writings of Anna Julia Cooper, W. E. B. Du Bois, and James Baldwin. Supported by current theories in science studies, critical theory, and religious naturalism, this concept, as Carol Wayne White demonstrates, offers a capacious view of humans as interconnected, social, value-laden organisms with the capacity to transform themselves and create nobler worlds wherein all sentient creatures flourish.

Acknowledging the great harm wrought by divisive and problematic racial constructions in the United States, this book offers an alternative to theistic models of African American religiosity to inspire newer, conceptually compelling views of spirituality that address a classic, perennial religious question: What does it mean to be fully human and fully alive?

Fugitive Testimony: On the Visual Logic of Slave Narratives by Janet Neary

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Fugitive Testimony traces the long arc of the African American slave narrative from the eighteenth century to the present in order to rethink the epistemological limits of the form and to theorize the complicated interplay between the visual and the literary throughout its history. Gathering an archive of ante- and postbellum literary slave narratives as well as contemporary visual art, Janet Neary brings visual and performance theory to bear on the genre’s central problematic: that the ex-slave narrator must be both object and subject of his or her own testimony.

Taking works by current-day visual artists, including Glenn Ligon, Kara Walker, and Ellen Driscoll, Neary employs their representational strategies to decode the visual work performed in nineteenth-century literary narratives by Elizabeth Keckley, Solomon Northup, William Craft, Henry Box Brown, and others. She focuses on the textual visuality of these narratives to illustrate how their authors use the logic of the slave narrative against itself as a way to undermine the epistemology of the genre and to offer a model of visuality as intersubjective recognition rather than objective division.

Teaching While Black: A New Voice on Race and Education in New York City by Pamela Lewis

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Hard-hitting and eloquently written, Teaching While Black offers an insightful, honest portrayal of Lewis’s fight to survive in a profession that has undervalued her worth and her understanding of the kind of education and connection urban children of color need to succeed. The reader gains full access to a perspective that has been virtually ignored since the integration of schools, through which questions surrounding increased resignation rates by teachers of color and failing test scores can be answered.

Teaching While Black is both a deeply personal narrative about a Black woman’s struggle to be heard and a clarion call for cultural responsiveness and teacher accountability. In this must-read account, Lewis summons every teacher of all races to re-examine their teaching methods and agendas and to remember who it is that they serve.

Scandalize My Name: Black Feminist Practice and the Making of Black Social Life by Terrion L. Williamson

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From sapphire, mammy, and jezebel, to the angry black woman, baby mama, and nappy-headed ho, black female iconography has had a long and tortured history in public culture. The telling of this history has long occupied the work of black female theorists—much of which has been foundational in situating black women within the matrix of sociopolitical thought and practice in the United States. Scandalize My Name builds upon the rich tradition of this work while approaching the study of black female representation as an opening onto a critical contemplation of the vagaries of black social life. It makes a case for a radical black subject-position that structures and is structured by an intramural social order that revels in the underside of the stereotype and ultimately destabilizes the very notion of “civil society.”

At turns memoir, sociological inquiry, literary analysis, and cultural critique, Scandalize My Name explores topics as varied as serial murder, reality television, Christian evangelism, teenage pregnancy, and the work of Toni Morrison to advance black feminist practice as a mode through which black sociality is both theorized and made material.

Eunice Hunton Carter: A Lifelong Fight for Social Justice by Marilyn Greenwald and Yun Li

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Eunice Hunton Carter rose to public prominence in 1936 as both the only woman and the only person of color on Thomas Dewey’s famous gangbuster team that prosecuted mobster Lucky Luciano. But her life before and after the trial remains relatively unknown. In this definitive biography on this trailblazing social justice activist, authors Marilyn S. Greenwald and Yun Li tell the story of this unknown but critical pioneer in the struggle for racial and gender equality in the twentieth century.

Carter worked harder than most men because of her race and gender, and Greenwald and Li reflect on her lifelong commitment to her adopted home of Harlem, where she was viewed as a role model, arts patron, community organizer, and, later, as a legal advisor to the United Nations, the National Council of Negro Women, and several other national and global organizations.

Carter’s inspirational multi-decade career working in an environment of bias, segregation, and patriarchy in Depression-era America helped pave the way for those who came after her.

Midden by Julia Bouwsma

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In 1912 the State of Maine forcibly evicted an interracial community of roughly forty-five people from Malaga Island, a small island off the coast of Phippsburg, Maine. Though Malaga had been their home for generations, nine residents (including the entire Marks family) were committed to the Maine School for the Feeble Minded in Pownal, Maine. The others struggled to find homes on other islands or on the mainland, where they were often unwelcome. The Malaga school was dismantled and rebuilt as a chapel on another island. Seventeen graves were exhumed from the Malaga cemetery, consolidated into five caskets, and reburied at the Maine School for the Feeble Minded. Just one year after the start of the eviction proceedings, the Malaga community was erased.

Midden confronts the events and over one hundred years of silence that surround this shameful incident in Maine’s history. Utilizing a wide range of poetic styles—epistolary poems to ghosts, persona poems, erasure poems, interior poems, interviews and instructions, poems framed both in the past and in the present—Midden delves into the vital connections between land, identity, and narrative and asks how we can heal the generations and legacies of damage that result when all three of these are deliberately taken in an attempt to rob people of their very humanity. The book is a poetic excavation of loss, a carving of the landscape of memory, and a reckoning with and tribute to the ghosts we carry and step over, often without our even knowing it.

Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility by Ashon T. Crawley

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In this profoundly innovative book, Ashon T. Crawley engages a wide range of critical paradigms from black studies, queer theory, and sound studies to theology, continental philosophy, and performance studies to theorize the ways in which alternative or “otherwise” modes of existence can serve as disruptions against the marginalization of and violence against minoritarian lifeworlds and possibilities for flourishing.

Examining the whooping, shouting, noise-making, and speaking in tongues of Black Pentecostalism—a multi-racial, multi-class, multi-national Christian sect with one strand of its modern genesis in 1906 Los Angeles—Blackpentecostal Breath reveals how these aesthetic practices allow for the emergence of alternative modes of social organization. As Crawley deftly reveals, these choreographic, sonic, and visual practices and the sensual experiences they create are not only important for imagining what Crawley identifies as “otherwise worlds of possibility,” they also yield a general hermeneutics, a methodology for reading culture in an era when such expressions are increasingly under siege.

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