Novelist Johnson (Hunting in Harlem) convincingly re-creates New York City's stratified colonial society in 1741, while reinterpreting the only historical account of the rumored slave revolt, hysteria and kangaroo trial that led to the executions of many black New Yorkers. (The uprising was also chronicled in Jill Lepore's New York Burning.) Narrated by a modern-day black man who acts as defense attorney for the executed, this account painstakingly refutes Daniel Horsmanden's 1744 book, The New York Conspiracy, in which the trial's judge, prosecutor and court recorder sought to justify the jailing of about 160 Africans, the hanging of 18 and the burning of 13 more at the stake. Johnson's strength is his ability to breathe movement and motivation into Horsmanden's witnesses, though trotting out one intimidated witness after another bogs down the latter half of the narrative. He repeatedly drumrolls an unsurprising conclusion: that 18th-century New York really was a racist and ignorant backwater. Fans of historical fiction or readers interested in the impact of slavery on African-American identity today will enjoy Johnson's daring reconstruction. (Feb.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
In 1712 and again in 1741, black New Yorkers rose up, killed white owners and neighbors, and threatened the city with fire. Many paid with their lives-and then were all but forgotten. African-Americans had not forgotten, though, writes novelist Johnson (Hunting in Harlem, 2003, etc.), and when the African Burial Ground above Wall Street was discovered in the early 1990s, it became "a chance to grieve for the atrocities of the past and mourn for the nameless who came before them." Thanks to colonial recorder Daniel Horsmanden, the alleged perpetrators of the 1741 conspiracy to burn New York had names, most of them Spanish, with smatterings of Dutch. These black men and women-about 160 in all-were implicated through chains of denunciation at whose center stood a 16-year-old white servant named Mary Burton, who personally witnessed and overheard plans to make a great murderous conflagration-or so she said. Burton may or may not have done so, but no matter; as Johnson writes, "People believed that the Great Negro Plot, regardless of the evidence, was a real threat, and this in itself brought real consequences. White people believed it. Black people believed it." In the end, after the noose had been stretched, Burton began to change her story. Now it was not only blacks and a few evil white instigators who were alone rebellious; instead, Burton said, "There were some people with ruffles that were concerned," that is, members of the elite. With that, the witch-hunt ended, even as many of the 160 blacks were sent to plantations away from New York, even as others were burned alive. Most of this lies on ground Jill Lepore covers in the superior New York Burning (2005), which offers broaderhistorical context. Still, Johnson brings a storyteller's sensibility into play, and he makes excellent use of sources and testimonials.
Boston Globe Amanda Heller
Mat Johnson wrests gripping drama from the historical sources. The only proper response to injustice on such a grotesque scale is anger, and his is savage indeed, as he indicts the plagues of slavery and racism, the fool's panacea of scapegoating.
Chicago Sun-Times Chuck Leddy
[An] outstanding historical recreation…Johnson does a marvelous job explaining the grounds for this growing white paranoia. Slavery made New York, and the nation, rich, but it also presented obvious problems of morality and security. Slave uprisings, Johnson tells us, had long been a part of life in colonial America. Indeed, he opens his narrative with a searing account of the 1712 slave revolt in New York City, when slaves had purposely set a fire and then shot whites who came to put it out…Johnson has written an accessible, richly detailed, and well-crafted account of a shameful incident in American history. For slaves in New York City during the year 1741, as well as paranoid whites, times had never before been quite so crazy, and Johnson has succeeded in making sense of this deadly madness.
USA Today Bob Minzesheimer
A vivid reconstruction of mass hysteria aimed at blacks in Colonial New York in 1741, when it was an economically depressed backwater and one in six residents were slaves.
Christian Science Monitor Marjorie Kehe
The Great Negro Plot: A Tale of Conspiracy and Murder in Eighteenth-Century New York by novelist Mat Johnson is a fascinating look at the madness that gripped the city - and the jailings and executions that ensued - before some began to suspect that Burton might be lying in an attempt to gain her own freedom.