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From Barnes & NobleThe 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