"3 New Books and a Reissued Classic Make Black History Come Alive"
March 4, 2001
by Bella Stander
by Elisa Carbone
Twelve-year-old narrator Nathan is one of the few fictitious characters in this stirring novel that highlights a previously ignored chapter in American history. The only all-black crew in the U.S. Life-Saving Service (forerunner of the Coast Guard), the men of the Pea Island Life-Saving Station on North Carolina's Outer Banks a century ago made some of the most daring rescues in the raging surf of the "Graveyard of the Atlantic." Elisa Carbone describes the howling winter storms that regularly scourge the Outer Banks and make walking upright on land difficult and navigating away from the treacherous shoals almost impossible.
At a time when black Americans had to "know their place," the Pea Island crew members were proof that blacks were just as capable and resourceful as whites. Through Nathan's admiring eyes we see how they carried ashore everyone on board a ship that foundered during a hurricane in October 1896. (It took 100 years for their bravery to be officially recognized.) And we also see how constricted life is for a poor fisherman's son and grandson of freed slaves, to whom spending the months of storm season with six other men on an isolated, windswept beach is a rosy prospect.
In Carbone's convincingly told and well-researched tale, Nathan discovers that a yen for medical manuals can lead to even greater dreams.
Jefferson's Children: The Story of One American Family
by Shannon Lanier and Jane Feldman
"On May 15, 1999, we, the descendants of Martha Jefferson and Sally Hemings, made history standing on the steps of Monticello as one American family," recounts college student Shannon Lanier, whose sixth great-grandmother was Hemings--one of the many enslaved half-siblings of Martha Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson's wife. Following that momentous day, Lanier and photographer Jane Feldman traversed the country interviewing some of those descendants and other interested parties in order to get a more complete family history. All of the black interviewees and most of the white ones, including Lucian K. Truscott IV, who wrote the introduction, believe that Thomas Jefferson fathered Hemings' seven children over the course of 38 years.
"People marvel at our 'rainbow family,'" notes Lanier, some of whose ancestors were lost when they "passed" into whiteness, "but color has never mattered to us. We just love each other."
Indeed, the more one reads the heartfelt, at times searing, oral histories and looks at the portraits of black people who look white and white people who have black ancestors, the more artificial and meaningless the construct of race becomes. Even so, says oral historian Beverly Gray, who contributed the essay on Hemings: "I'm proud of my black heritage. Young people need to stop being ashamed of being black."
The remarkable stories of courage, determination and accomplishment that she and others share demonstrate that there's plenty for us all--black, white, "blended" (as one Hemings descendant puts it) or "other"--to be proud of.
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry
by Mildred D. Taylor
(Phyllis Fogelman/Penguin Putnam)
Graced with a new cover by Jerry Pinkney, the second installment in the chronicle of the indomitable Logan family is back in a 25th anniversary edition. "My stories will not be `politically correct,' " writes Mildred Taylor in her rousing new foreword, "so there will be those who will be offended by them, but as we all know, racism is offensive. It is not polite, and it is full of pain." In early 21st Century America, where everyone, at least on paper, gets equal treatment, it may be hard for some to believe that as few as 70 years ago, daily life for black Americans, especially those in the rural South, contained so much pain and hardship.
Spunky 9-year-old narrator Cassie Logan describes the indignity of trudging miles to her ramshackle Mississippi "colored" school and jumping out of the way of buses carrying white students. More grating still is when the school's long-awaited new textbooks turn out to be battered castoffs from the white school, with "nigra" inscribed in the front covers. These incidents are just a prelude to the shock Cassie gets when she goes shopping in a real town for the first time, and much later when she and her family have to protect themselves from night riders out to punish them for "making trouble."
Besides describing the heartache and terror of those not-so-distant days, Taylor also evokes the joy and strength that come from being part of a loving, reverent and hardworking family. Some readers may be discomfited by the many references to children getting a "whipping"; others may wonder how the seven Logans manage to farm 300-plus acres of cotton with only one mule and no outside help. But those minor issues aside, this powerful tale should incite much thought and discussion.
There Comes a Time: The Struggle for Civil Rights
by Milton Meltzer
Students looking for a concise overview of the civil rights movement would do well to begin here. Milton Meltzer, the author of scores of books for young people, draws readers in by describing how Joseph McNeill and three college buddies in Greensboro, N.C., hatched the plan for the first lunch-counter sit-in, then goes back in time to give a brief history of race-based slavery and the efforts to end it over the course of three centuries.
Meltzer cites facts and figures about black participation in the Revolution and Civil War, describes the dashed hopes of Reconstruction and explains such famous court cases and legislation as the Dred Scott decision, Plessy vs. Ferguson and the Fugitive Slave Act. The bulk of the book is spent on the movements, people and events of the 20th Century, including Brown vs. Board of Education, lynchings, the Ku Klux Klan, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and civil rights legislation.
The only drawbacks are Meltzer's occasionally sensational verbiage, sweeping generalizations and penchant for incomplete sentences: "What the nation saw in the press and television shocked great numbers of people in the North." "Fear of the gun and the club in the hands of Gestapo-like police and sheriffs." Nevertheless, this is an informative and inspiring work, made all the more striking by dozens of black-and-white illustrations.
© 2001 Bella Stander