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In this collection of first-person accounts of black life in America, each story is a thread in a quilt still being sewn. Spanning the centuries, Autobiography of a People is more than just another literary anthology. Though familiar entrants can be found (Nat Turner, W.E.B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston), the otherwise everyday black men and women whose life stories fill these pages are the stars. In their words, history comes alive.
The accounts vary, and that is the book's beauty and strength. So many facets of the black experience in America are illuminated—some raw, some flavorful, all authentic. Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, an African prince, taken from his home and sold into bondage. Jennie Proctor's plainspoken slave narrative: "I's hear tell of them good slave days, but I ain't never seen no good times then." John Parker on life along the Underground Railroad. Booker T. Washington, breaking bread with the poor sharecroppers of Alabama.
Each story is unique, fresh, and carries a punch. For instance, Frederick Douglass had assumed the North to be worse off than the South, owing to its lack of slaves, but his first trip there shattered those preconceptions: "From the wharves I strolled around and over the town, gazing with wonder and admiration at the splendid churches, beautiful dwellings, and finely-cultivated gardens; evincing an amount of wealth, comfort, taste, and refinement, such as I had never seen in any part of slaveholding Maryland."
The early entries are particularly impressive in their eloquence, more so because some of these writers learned English as a second language, gleaned in snatches from their captors, and that most children born into slavery were forbidden to study reading or writing. The slave narratives are harrowing—not only because of the cruel whippings or the lack of food, warm clothing, and comfortable beds—but also because of the enforced ignorance of the slaves, yet another control technique of the white masters. Thus, simple objects like clocks could seem magical and dangerous.
As the book progresses (chronologically and thematically), the African-American experience grows ever more varied. From Hurston's days as a struggling writer to Clarence Atkins's and Max Roach's immersion in the New York jazz scene, the energy and emotion are palpable. More poignant still, activist Paulí Murray recounts her early attempts to find a job during the Depression (when almost no opportunity awaited colored women, as might be imagined). And in a revealing admission, Jackie Robinson's daughter Sharon tells what happened to her when schoolmates discovered that her father was a Richard Nixon supporter.
Always immediate, sometimes intimate, Autobiography of a People reveals the conflicted relationship that African Americans have had with a nation that enslaved them (or their forefathers). Passionate advocates like Jupiter Hammon and Benjamin Banneker underscore the ironies and hypocrisies of white leaders in a country devoted to freedom—a country just liberated from the shackles of British rule—but one where basic human rights are still denied to part of the population. The failure of "emigration" programs, in which blacks elected to repatriate to places like Panama and Haiti, generates multiple indignities. Whether they are in the North or the South, these authors know acutely the injustices of living in a segregated society, of enduring a second-class life. And yet they still believe in the ideal of freedom and equality enough to think that someday, somehow, such will be theirs.
The false promises of Reconstruction cut deep, especially for the men and women who had never been allowed to carry money or travel beyond their masters' plantations, who now had to fend for themselves in a world where sudden freedom seemed more terrifying than slavery. Is it any wonder that so many freed slaves decided to remain as domestic servants on their former masters' estates? Such jobs were at least available, their requirements known; those people who ventured to the big cities had less certain prospects.
Charles Denby recalls a factory in Detroit where Negro workers—all supposedly protected by the union—were given only the most miserable, dangerous jobs, forced to stand for much of the day in a room filled with the fumes of noxious chemicals. Meanwhile, their white coworkers were promoted regularly to safer, more comfortable positions. Today, the same disquieting news would be greeted with anger but little surprise. Then, it shocked African Americans, who mistakenly believed that the end of slavery would mean the end of their troubles.
Autobiography of a People is filled with dozens of such stories, each as unique as the teller. One primary theme for the authors is their skin color, and the reaction others have to it. Thanks to editor Herb Boyd's skillful research and judicious selections, another unifying, more universal theme carries through the book: hope and endurance in the face of hardship. And because people speak in the first person, their voices rise from this book in glorious harmony and strength.
Gail Jaitin is a writer and teacher living in Poughkeepsie, New York.