Saturday, May 21, 2011

Story of the Negro, by Arna Bontemps

I wasn't sure what I could expect from this book. The few libraries in my system which have it in their collections all shelve it with the adult non-fiction, perhaps because it's worth keeping but would receive more challenges in the juvenile or young adult collections.

Bontemps begins his story with the arrival of the first African slaves in the North American colonies, at Jamestown in the 1600s. They were not brought at the request of the colonists, but 20 were nonetheless purchased at that time, and the remainder were sent away with the ship. Bontemps then goes back in time to Africa, when various cultures were flourishing independently. He discusses a number of the more noteworthy ones.

From there he follows history to when the export of slaves began to the American colonies and to a number of island colonies (such as Haiti) as well. After discussing the conditions of slavery in these location, a number of noteworthy freedom fighters are profiled (such as Crispus Attucks, Toussaint L'ouverture, and Nat Turner).

Chapter by chapter, the book brings us toward the present through the eyes of the enslaved. Although descriptions of slavery are always difficult to read, Bontemps writes in a very level and fair way. He points, out, for example, that not every white man in the south was a slave owner. From his chapter "Masters and Slaves,"

Only the rich and well-to-do could afford that
luxury. A good slave was worth around two thousand
dollars, sometimes more, and that was more money
in those days than it is now. For every master of slaves
in the southern states there were nearly a dozen poor whites.

In many cases the slaves were actually better off than
the poor whites. They lived in cabins on the big plantations
and ate food provided by the owner. They wore the
clothes that were given to them. If the master happened
to be humane, and sufficiently prosperous, the quarters
he build for his slave people were not too uncomfortable.
In some special cases, well-liked slaves enjoyed unusual
favors. At no time did they have to worry about their job
or where the next meal was coming from or how they
would pay their rent. Some poor whites got the impression
that the slaves had the best of everything, and they
resented it. They began to feel that the Negroes were the
cause of all their troubles.

You can see how easy to read the author's narrative style is, as well. So although the book is a reasonably lengthy one, it's easy to read quickly. The author doesn't overcomplicate the story he is looking to tell with unnecessary facts and dates, but despite lack of citations you can rest assured of his research credentials- he has several college degrees, worked teaching and high schools and colleges, and was the Head Librarian at a college in Tennessee (bonus points).

I have in my possession at the moment the fifth edition of the book, ends by covering the black power movement of the 1950's (which, obviously, was not in the first edition). It's definitely a fine piece of work, and it appears that it was regularly updated into the 1960's. It's a shame that our library system doesn't have the final edition published; the copy I'm reading seems woefully incomplete in the absence of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the events that followed.

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