U-M historian co-edited new African American history series

February 6, 1997
  • umichnews@umich.edu

ANN ARBOR—The compelling, complex history of African Americans, a history that spans five centuries and three continents, is explored in an extraordinary, 11-volume series for young people just published by Oxford University Press.

“The Young Oxford History of African Americans” series is edited by Earl Lewis, professor of history and Afroamerican and African studies at the University of Michigan, and Robin D. G. Kelley, professor of history and Africana studies at New York University.

“The series, which targets high school age students, is sophisticated in its approach but very accessible to younger audiences,” Lewis said. “The authors are well-known scholars and historians who present the most recent historical scholarship in a political, social and economic context and explain it from the African-American point of view.”

For instance, in volume one, “The First Passage: Blacks in the Americas, 1502-1617,” historian Colin A. Palmer of the City University of New York details the development of the slave trade and the enforced migration of an estimated 10 million-20 million people from diverse nations, explaining how, nevertheless, an African-American culture developed and endured.

In volume four, “Let My People Go,” Rutgers historian Deborah Gray White illuminates the painful reversal of fortune that came with the invention of the cotton gin—a catastrophe for slaves. Before the 1790s, slavery seemed to be a dying institution, White notes, but the cotton gin changed that.

“Once this happened,” she explains, “slaves who might have been set free by debt and conscience-ridden Chesapeake planters were instead sold to the planters of cotton-growing states of the lower south. Cotton sealed the fate of slaves and slavery.”

All the volumes tell “real life stories” and provide glimpses into the minds and lives of African Americans—many of them hitherto unknown—through their letters, diaries and documents. For example, Noralee Frankel, assistant director at the American Historical Association and author of “Break Those Chains at Last,” volume five, quotes a little-known speech to freed slaves by Major Martin Delaney, one of the few African Americans to become an officer in the U.S. Army during the Civil War.

“People say you are too lazy to work, that you have not the intelligence to get on yourselves…You men and women, every one of you around me, made thousands of dollars. Only you were the means for your master to lead the idle and inglorious life, and to give his children the education which he denied to you for fear you may awake to conscience,” Delaney said.

The historians also share anecdotes from ordinary African Americans whose personal experiences clarify and explain historical events and trends. In “A Chance to Make Good,” volume seven, historian James Grossman, director of the Scholl Center for Family and Community History, Newberry Library, cites the memories of Minnie Savage, a child of sharecroppers born in 1902, to demonstrate the virtually insuperable difficulties her generation encountered in attaining an education.

Savage “worked from dawn to dusk, ?plowing, cultivating, you name it.? A younger sister carried home lessons for Minnie to work on at night but the evening tutorials brought only limited results due to her exhaustion after a day?s labor under the hot sun. Despite her parents? resolve to secure an education for all their children,” Grossman said, “Minnie logged only five years at school.”

Lewis, Kelley and historian Vincent Harding of the Iliff School of Theology collaborated on volume nine, “We Changed the World: African Americans, 1945-1970.” The volume analyzes the roots of the civil rights movement including events leading up to the Rosa Parks? refusal to sit at the back of the bus and the Montgomery bus boycott, the rise of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, and the advent of the SNCC and the Black Panthers.

Kelley?s Volume 10, “Into the Fire: African Americans since 1970,” brings readers into the current era of the emerging African-American middle class, the decay of the inner cities due to de-industrialization, the conservative policies of the Reagan- Bush era, the explosion of hip-hop culture and rap, and the influence of conservative Black intellectuals.

Hundreds of illustrations, many never before published, clarify and expand the text. They range from photographs of artifacts from the ancient kingdoms of western Sudan and 17th century sugar cane plantations to reward posters for fugitive slaves to news photos of the early civil rights movement.

Each volume costs $21. The series, which includes an index and a biographical supplement (volume 11) detailing the lives of influential African Americans, is $231 dollars. Oxford University Press can be reached at (212) 726-6000.

Earl Lewis