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Voices in Our Blood: America's Best on the Civil Rights Movement

Voices in Our Blood: America's Best on the Civil Rights Movement

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by Jon Meacham

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Voices in Our Blood is a literary anthology of the most important and artful interpretations of the civil rights movement, past and present. It showcases what forty of the nation's best writers — including Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Alice Walker, Robert Penn Warren, Eudora Welty, and Richard Wright


Voices in Our Blood is a literary anthology of the most important and artful interpretations of the civil rights movement, past and present. It showcases what forty of the nation's best writers — including Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Alice Walker, Robert Penn Warren, Eudora Welty, and Richard Wright — had to say about the central domestic drama of the American Century.

Editor Jon Meacham has chosen pieces by journalists, novelists, historians, and artists, bringing together a wide range of black and white perspectives and experiences. The result is an unprecedented and powerful portrait of the movement's spirit and struggle, told through voices that resonate with passion and strength.

Maya Angelou takes us on a poignant journey back to her childhood in the Arkansas of the 1930s. On the front page of The New York Times, James Reston marks the movement's apex as he describes what it was like to watch Martin Luther King, Jr., deliver his heralded "I Have a Dream" speech in real time. Alice Walker takes up the movement's progress a decade later in her article "Choosing to Stay at Home: Ten Years After the March on Washington." And John Lewis chronicles the unimaginable courage of the ordinary African Americans who challenged the prevailing order, paid for it in blood and tears, and justly triumphed.

Voices in Our Blood is a compelling look at the movement as it actually happened, from the days leading up to World War II to the anxieties and ambiguities of this new century. The story of race in America is a never-ending one, and Voices in Our Blood tells us how we got this far—and how far we still have to go to reach the Promised Land.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review
Here is the contemporaneous record of the civil rights movement, profound and historic events captured by great writers as they happened. Voices in Our Blood, the first anthology of its kind, collects standout essays and reportage by Ralph Ellison, David Halberstam, Maya Angelou, Robert Penn Warren, Richard Wright, and many others. Several decades later, the movement's success may seem preordained; but these compelling pieces attest to just how volatile the debate was and how precarious the balance -- and how important the issues remain.

In Voices in Our Blood, Newsweek managing editor John Meacham accurately samples the complexity of the civil rights movement's underlying themes, assembling an impressive, eclectic array of commentary, journalism, and interviews. Here is a running narrative of America's deep midcentury moral crisis, as recorded by the era's finest writers. In his stirring introduction, Meacham quotes Richard Wright's prophetic 1945 statement regarding the abolition of legalized segregation: "If this country can't find its way to a human path, if it can't inform conduct with a deep sense of life, then all of us, black as well as white, are going down the same drain."

Jim Crow, while a reality for black Americans, was peripheral to post-WWII white Americans, who were more intent on pursuing prosperity than tackling racial discrimination and answering the "Negro Question." Many black and white contemporary thinkers, though, pushed the nation's social conscience, and their brilliantly written reportage and commentary fills Voices in Our Blood. Meacham's anthology illuminates the human lives at risk, as well as the broader cultural and philosophical aspects of the struggle.

The collection is both a literary delight and a documentation of racism's pervading poisons. Willie Morris's North Toward Home (1967) peers behind a small Mississippi town's façade of normality, exposing the legalized apartheid and soul-warping prejudice that define life and its parameters. For Maya Angelou, in passages excerpted from 1970's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, poverty and racism become almost living entities in her Arkansas childhood. Meanwhile, James Baldwin eloquently and poetically describes the bitter toll exacted by prejudice and denied opportunity on a black Harlemite in Notes of a Native Son. A stellar (surprise) inclusion is Rebecca West's 1947 article "Opera in Greenville," detailing the racial killing of a black man in South Carolina and its terrifying aftermath.

In these and many other selections, Meacham ably captures the civil rights movement in motion, balanced between hope and despair. And ever for the oppressor, the ultimate price of inequality is high. As novelist William Faulkner poignantly asks (of his fellow white southerners), "Why didn't someone tell us this before? Tell us this in time?" (Robert Fleming)

Robert Fleming is the author of many books, most recently The African-American Writer's Handbook: How to Get in Print and Stay in Print. He is also a contributor to Brown Sugar: A Collection of Erotic Black Fiction. Mr. Fleming lives in New York City

Black Issues Book Review
Without question, the civil rights movement was one of the most significant periods in American history. Meacham’s new book, which pays homage to the period, is a compilation of work spotlighting some of the nation’s most powerful and vociferous writers and journalists.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
To "give a flavor of what life was like" as the Civil Rights movement played itself out, Meacham, the managing editor of Newsweek, has assembled "a highly personal anthology" of "the country's best writing on the midcentury crisis." Extending far beyond the decade between Rosa Parks's bold act of resistance to the proprieties of segregation in 1955 and the landmark civil rights bills of 1965, Meacham includes some unexpected works written in the heat of the moment: Tom Wolfe's "wicked portrait of the liberal elite's fascination with the Black Panthers," Alex Haley's Playboy interview with Malcolm X and Howell Raines's memoir of his family's complex relationship with their black housekeeper. The pieces range broadly, from "the fissures between the young and the old within the black community" in the late 1950s (embodied in the relationship between Stokely Carmichael and John Kaspar), to the "cornucopia of discontent" afflicting "blacks in the 1980s and 1990s" as rendered by Ellis Cose. Mixing the work of artists and journalists, including Rebecca West, Taylor Branch, William Styron, Eudora Welty, Stanley Crouch, Elizabeth Hardwick, Alice Walker, Hodding Carter and Richard Wright, this compilation is a useful resource for tracking the daily realities of civil rights struggles. Meacham captures the movement's "complications behind the public spectacle" with immediacy, driving home the point that black and white citizens of the U.S. remain "connected by a common heritage, yet hopelessly divided by skin color." (Jan.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
It's no exaggeration to say "America's best" in the subtitle: Robert Penn Warren, David Halberstam, Maya Angelou, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Willie Morris, William Styron, Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, Alice Walker, Walker Percy—and more! My hesitation is for YA readers because this is a large collection (561 pages) and the print is not large by any means. Nevertheless, students could read portions, especially since the book is divided into four chronological blocks. A student could focus on any of the periods: just before the movement, as it starts, as it culminates, and as it ebbs. The editing is momentous. What to choose from so much literature? Some pieces are articles from such icons as The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly. Most are excerpts taken from larger works: for instance, from Parting the Waters, the prize-winning biography of MLK by Taylor Branch, is a description of King speaking about "the bus situation in Montgomery" to people gathered in a church after Rosa Parks has been arrested. An excerpt from Congressman John Louis's autobiography Walking with the Wind is included—"Bloody Sunday" about the march on Selma. Even though some of the writers are best known for their fiction (William Faulkner, Eudora Welty), their work chosen for this collection is nonfiction. Each selection is remarkable in its own way, and the anthology as a whole is a formidable reading project. KLIATT Codes: SA*—Exceptional book, recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2001, Random House, 561p. index.,
— Claire Rosser
Juan Williams
Here are stories and news reports about real people exposing real fear, racial prejudice, as well as real bravery and honesty, as they deal with racial situations...This is the essence of race raltions, and it is also the true heart of this valuable collection of writings.
Washington Monthly

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Read an Excerpt

Inheritors of Slavery: Twelve Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States, 1941
Richard Wright

The word "Negro," the term by which, orally or in print, we black folk in the United States are usually designated, is not really a name at all nor a description, but a psychological island whose objective form is the most unanimous fiat in all American history; a fiat buttressed by popular and national tradition, and written down in many state and city statutes; a fiat which artificially and arbitrarily defines, regulates, and limits in scope of meaning the vital contours of our lives, and the lives of our children and our children's children.

This island, within whose confines we live, is anchored in the feelings of millions of people, and is situated in the midst of the sea of white faces we meet each day; and, by and large, as three hundred years of time has borne our nation into the twentieth century, its rocky boundaries have remained unyielding to the waves of our hope that dash against it.
The steep cliffs of this island are manifest, on the whole, in the conduct of whites toward us hour by hour, a conduct which tells us that we possess no rights commanding respect, that we have no claim to pursue happiness in our own fashion, that our progress toward civilization constitutes an insult, that our behavior must be kept firmly within an orbit branded as inferior, that we must be compelled to labor at the behest of others, that as a group we are owned by the whites, and that manliness on our part warrants instant reprisal.

Three hundred years are a long time for millions of folk like us to be held in such subjection, so long a time that perhaps scores of years will have to pass before we shall be able to express what this slavery has done to us, for our personalities are still numb from its long shocks; and, as the numbness leaves our souls, we shall yet have to feel and give utterance to the full pain we shall inherit.

More than one-half of us black folk in the United States are tillers of the soil, and three-fourths of those of us who till the soil are sharecroppers and day laborers. The land we till is beautiful, with red and black and brown clay, with fresh and hungry smells, with pine trees and palm trees, with rolling hills and swampy delta—an unbelievably fertile land, bounded on the north by the states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana, on the south by the Gulf of Mexico, on the west by the Mississippi River, and on the east by the Atlantic Ocean.

Our southern springs are filled with quiet noises and scenes of growth. Apple buds laugh into blossom. Honeysuckles creep up the sides of houses. Sunflowers nod in the hot fields. From mossy tree to mossy tree—oak, elm, willow, aspen, sycamore, dogwood, cedar, walnut, ash, and hickory–bright green leaves jut from a million branches to form an awning that tries to shield and shade the earth. Blue and pink kites of small boys sail in the windy air.

In summer the magnolia trees fill the countryside with sweet scent for long miles. Days are slumberous, and the skies are high and thronged with clouds that ride fast. At midday the sun blazes and bleaches the soil. Butterflies flit through the heat; wasps sing their sharp, straight lines; birds fluff and flounce, piping in querulous joy. Nights are covered with canopies sometimes blue and sometimes black, canopies that sag low with ripe and nervous stars. The throaty boast of frogs momentarily drowns out the call and counter-call of crickets.

In autumn the land is afire with color. Red and brown leaves lift and flutter dryly, becoming entangled in the stiff grass and cornstalks. Cotton is picked and ginned; cane is crushed and its juice is simmered down into molasses; yams are grubbed out of the clay; hogs are slaughtered and cured in lingering smoke; corn is husked and ground into meal. At twilight the sky is full of wild geese winging ever southward, and bats jerk through the air. At night the winds blow free.

In winter the forests resound with the bite of steel axes eating into tall trees as men gather wood for the leaden days of cold. The guns of hunters snap and crack. Long days of rain come, and our swollen creeks rush to join a hundred rivers that wash across the land and make great harbors where they feed the gulf or the sea. Occasionally the rivers leap their banks and leave new thick layers of silt to enrich the earth, and then the look of the land is garish, bleak, suffused with a first-day stillness, strangeness, and awe.

But whether in spring or summer or autumn or winter, time slips past us remorselessly, and it is hard to tell of the iron that lies beneath the surface of our quiet, dull days. To paint the picture of how we live on the tobacco, cane, rice, and cotton plantations is to compete with mighty artists: the movies, the radio, the newspapers, the magazines, and even the Church. They have painted one picture: charming, idyllic, romantic; but we live another: full of the fear of the Lords of the Land, bowing and grinning when we meet white faces, toiling from sun to sun, living in unpainted wooden shacks that sit casually and insecurely upon the red clay.

In the main we are different from other folk in that, when an impulse moves us, when we are caught in the throes of inspiration, when we are moved to better our lot, we do not ask ourselves: "Can we do it?" but: "Will they let us do it?" Before we black folk can move, we must first look into the white man's mind to see what is there, to see what he is thinking, and the white man’s mind is a mind that is always changing.

In general there are three classes of men above us: the Lords of the Land—operators of the plantations; the Bosses of the Buildings—the owners of industry; and the vast numbers of poor white workers—our immediate competitors in the daily struggle for bread. The Lords of the Land hold sway over the plantations and over us; the Bosses of the Buildings lend money and issue orders to the Lords of the Land. The Bosses of the Buildings feed upon the Lords of the Land, and the Lords of the Land feed upon the 5,000,000 landless poor whites and upon us, throwing to the poor whites the scant solace of filching from us 4,000,000 landless blacks what the poor whites themselves are cheated of in this elaborate game.

Back of this tangled process is a long history. When the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, there were some 4,000,000 of us black folk stranded and bewildered upon the land which we had tilled under compulsion for two and a half centuries. Sundered suddenly from the only relationship with Western civilization we had been allowed to form since our captivity, our personalities blighted by two hundred and fifty years of servitude, and eager to hold our wives and husbands and children together in family units, some of us turned back to the same Lords of the Land who had held us as slaves and begged for work, resorted to their advice; and there began for us a new kind of bondage: sharecropping.

Glad to be free, some of us drifted and gave way to every vagary of impulse that swept through us, being held in the line of life only by the necessity to work and eat. Confined for centuries to the life of the cotton field, many of us possessed no feelings of family, home, community, race, church, or progress. We could scarcely believe that we were free, and our restlessness and incessant mobility were our naïve way of testing that freedom. Just as a kitten stretches and yawns after a long sleep, so thousands of us tramped from place to place for the sheer sake of moving, looking, wondering, landless upon the land. Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Virginia, and West Virginia became the home states of us freed blacks.

Meet the Author

Jon Meacham received the Pulitzer Prize for his 2008 biography of Andrew Jackson, American Lion. He is also the author of the New York Times bestsellers Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, American Gospel, and Franklin and Winston. Meacham, who teaches at Vanderbilt University and at The University of the South, is a fellow of the Society of American Historians. He lives in Nashville and in Sewanee with his wife and children.

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Voices in Our Blood: America's Best on the Civil Rights Movement 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
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