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'Legacy: Treasures of Black History'

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[February 21, 2007]  "Legacy: Treasures of Black History." Thomas C. Battle and Donna M. Wells, editors, National Geographic, 2006, 223 pages.

Review by
Richard Sumrall

"Legacy: Treasures of Black History" represents a publishing first for African Americana: a publication based on the unique collection in the Moorland Spingarn Research Center at Howard University.

This extraordinary archive "is a significant contribution and an engrossing, visually exciting exploration of the black experience and its impact on our nation." The collection is composed of two distinct donations to the university from donors Arthur Spingarn and Jesse Moorland and contains over 200,000 bound volumes, 1,900 serials and 52,000 photographs.

Editors Thomas C. Battle and Donna M. Wells, both from the Moorland Spingarn Center, have made extensive use of the center's holdings to compile a comprehensive history of the African-American experience from its pre-America beginnings in 1434 to the challenges faced in the 21st century. The book's 12 chapters are representative of that history and form a useful timeline for the reader. The titles of the chapters are:

  • "African Exploration and Trade, 1434-1800"

  • "The Transatlantic Slave Trade, 1450-1860s"

  • "The Experience of Enslavement, 1619-1865"

  • "Antebellum, 1786-1861"

  • "Runaways, Rebellions, Abolitionism, 1700-1865"

  • "The Civil War, 1861-1865"

  • "Post-Civil War, 1865-1878"

  • "Life and War Under Jim Crow, 1890-1945"

  • "The New Negro, 1920-1939"

  • ‘Civil Rights, 1941-1968"

  • "The Black Arts Movement, 1960s-1970s"

  • "Leadership, 1970s-"

"African Exploration and Trade, 1434-1800"

Americans are sometimes surprised to learn that the story of African-Americans, particularly their enslavement in the Americas, actually begins long before the origins of colonial America or the antebellum South. This misconception is partly the result of the bias in the surviving sources of historical information. Those sources overwhelmingly represent a European point of view and often contain one-sided accounts of their encounters with the different African cultures. The deliberate blurring of African tribal identity during the age of exploration was a convenient way for the Western cultures to characterize these peoples as inferior and justify their enslavement for economic and commercial exploitation.

"The Experience of Enslavement, 1619-1865"

It is one of the tragic ironies of history that 18th-century American colonists fought for their liberty and freedom from England while simultaneously engaging in the lucrative slave trade. Nowhere was this paradox more eloquently expressed than in an 1860 speech by Frederick Douglass. In "The Constitution of the United States: Is It Pro Slavery or Anti-Slavery?" Douglass made the argument that the Constitution contains six objects for adoption
-- union, defense, welfare, tranquillity, justice and liberty. According to Douglass, "These are all good objects, and slavery, so far from being among them, it is a foe of them all."

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The word "slave" first appears in the records of colonial Virginia, and the enslavement of Africans in the Americas continued for the next 250 years. The particular kind of slavery practiced at that time was known as chattel slavery. Chattel slavery was "the legal ownership of one human being by another."

One of the book's most heartbreaking examples of this is chronicled in the chapter entitled "Enslaved Children in the United States." It documents the high percentage of children who were captured in Africa and sold into slavery in the Americas. Estimates of this human cargo are as high as one-fourth to one-third of the entire number of transported Africans. These children received little or no preferential treatment because of their age and "picked cotton, suckled tobacco and weeded crops on plantations or farms. … Children learned to perform chores satisfactorily or suffer corporal punishment or other abuse."

"The New Negro, 1920-1939"

By the 1920s African-Americans had experienced changes in American society and jurisprudence they once thought unimaginable -- the Emancipation Proclamation, the end of the Civil War and the ratification of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States.

Unfortunately this did not ensure that they would be welcomed with open arms into mainstream American society, nor would they benefit from the rights and liberties guaranteed by that society. These limitations on personal, economic and legal rights gave way to a new form of racial inequality. This discriminatory practice was given the name "Jim Crow" and continued to expose African-Americans to "further injustices, violence and restrictions, sparking their desire to improve opportunities and inspiring a concerted effort to force change."

One result of Jim Crow segregation was the sociological phenomenon known as the "Great Migration." This migration of African-Americans from the South to the northern and western parts of the country was instrumental in spreading their culture, traditions and beliefs to other segments of American society. One example is the Harlem Renaissance -- a literary, intellectual and performing arts movement within the African-American community of New York City. Instrumental in this movement was the author Langston Hughes. Hughes is regarded as the "poet laureate of the black people," and his poem "I, Too, Sing America" was his response to the American poet Walt Whitman.

"Legacy: Treasures of Black History" is a seminal work on African-American history, culture and art. According to author Lawrence Otis Graham, this book "captures the black American experience in a way that no other volume has done before. This smart, beautifully illustrated book should be in every library, school and home." This book is recommended to anyone who wishes to increase their understanding of the African-American experience in the United States.

[Text from file received from Richard Sumrall, Lincoln Public Library District]

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