To Make Our World Anew: A History Of African Americans, edited by Robin D.G. Kelley and Earl Lewis
This book suffers from a problem that is common to many books of its kind, in that the authors of this book assume that the only readers of a book by, for, and about African Americans are in fact other African Americans or, at the least, those who are sympathetic to identity politics relating to such a population. This is not the case with me, and as might be imagined, this book was less enjoyable the more closely the material dealt with contemporary identity politics or other types of politics and generally better when it dealt with the past. It is hard to judge a book like this overall because its chapters are written by a variety of different writers, not all of whom are equally open about having a misguided and mistaken and defective Marxist worldview, and some of whom are very obvious about it, to the detriment of historical accuracy or enjoyability in reading. As is often the case when I read analogous books relating to women, there is a lot that is lost when people believe they are writing for a narrow and sympathetic audience when instead they are writing to a much larger and not necessarily sympathetic audience, and that makes this book less effective than it could have been at communicating the historical experience of African Americans in such a way that it could communicate effectively with an outside audience.
This book is a sizable one at about 600 pages of material, not including its appendices and other supplementary material. This material is then divided into ten somewhat large chapters written by a variety of historians from some varying perspectives. The book begins with a preface, after which there is a discussion of the first passage of blacks from Africa to North America from 1502-1619, in the period before English settlement, where the patterns of the Atlantic slave trade (the author largely neglects the Islamic slave trade, as is customary in these discussions) took place (1). After this there is a chapter on the creation of the African American identity within the colonies between 1619 and 1776, which includes the change of laws and the birth of literary African Americans capable of telling their own stories (2). This is followed by a chapter that discusses blacks as revolutionary citizens in the early period after independence to 1804 (3). After this comes another essay that discusses the rising and tensions concerning blacks and their state in society in antebellum American society (4). The next chapter after this discusses the freedom of blacks from slavery as well as the period of Reconstruction that followed to 1880 (5). At this point the book takes a turn that focuses on things that are increasingly relevant to contemporary politics, with a look at the nadir of relations between 1880 and 1900 (6) as well as an art essay on what Africa means to the author. This is followed by a look at the rising opportunities to some blacks in the first 29 years of the 20th century (7) as well as a look at the raw deal and new deal for blacks to the end of World War II (8). The book then ends with a chapter expressing the changes that black people brought to their world through political action (9), the struggles since 1970 (10), as well as a chronology, suggestion for further reading, info on the book’s contributors, and an index.
By and large, this book suffers from a great many serious tensions between the desire of many of the authors of this book to celebrate the worthwhile achievements of black cultural figures, creative types, and entrepreneurs as well as the often snobbish leftist hostility to matters of business and focus on political power and a narrow socialist political ideology. This is related to other tensions that the authors seem not to be fully aware about that hinder the reader’s enjoyment of this work. For one, many of the authors wish to condemn the widespread belief among many whites that blacks and whites cannot live at peace in an egalitarian multiracial society, a belief that has been extant from at least late colonial times to the present day. Yet other writers undercut this by supporting violent anti-white and anti-capitalist and indeed anti-democratic revolutionary politics that indicate that such people cannot live peacefully in a genuinely American society, and that there is at least a sizable and culturally relevant activist class that is worthy of considerable hostility from mainstream America on grounds of self-preservation alone. The authors seem unwilling to understand and reflect upon what it is that brings elevation to their people at all, and a sense of frustration that other people should act in ways that counteract the ambitions of the authors and others of their ilk. It is very likely, though, that had the writers of this book been aware that they were writing to a potential audience that was not friendly to their basic political worldview that they would have been at least a bit more careful in what they let slip about their aims and goals.