Book reviews Lost, found, and reconstructed

A trio of books recovers an undocumented history of struggle on plantations, in the Jim Crow South and the urban North

Within a very few years, mortality will succeed where Adolf Hitler failed. Nevertheless, when the last survivors of the Holocaust relinquish their roles as living witnesses, thousands of interviews, memoirs, and photographs will remain to document the Final Solution. By contrast, almost 250 years of slavery in North America vanished into the anechoic chamber of pre-recorded history (i.e. history before SONY). The Nazis shamelessly filmed their own atrocities, but how much fuller would our knowledge be if plantations had been stocked with videocams? The footage would not resemble Gone with the Wind.

Accounts of slave life by Fanny Kemble, Frederick Law Olmstead, and other whites remain the reactions of outsiders who, even when sympathetic, never can entirely overcome awe over something exotic. Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and William Wells Brown - whose literacy and ambition set them apart from others trapped in bondage - wrote riveting memoirs that focus less on everyday existence as human chattel than on the quest for freedom. In the 1930s, a Works Projects Administration project set about transcribing the fading memories of the last, aging survivors of what Harriet Beecher Stowe called "the peculiar institution." And, lugging a 350-pound recording machine throughout the rural South, John A. Lomax preserved the songs of unsung African Americans, seven decades after Emancipation. Is it possible to come any closer to the authentic sounds of slavery?

Shane White and Graham White, two historians unrelated to each other except in their zeal to answer that question, are convinced that American slavery is best understood through the ear: "Over nearly two-and-a-half centuries, several million African and African-American slaves had fashioned a dynamic, unruly culture that was principally made to be heard." In The Sounds of Slavery, which is accompanied by an 18-track CD of vocal performances accumulated by Lomax and others, White and White reconstruct the aural world of bonded blacks. Drawing cogent inferences from a wide range of sources, they offer plausible accounts of hollers, work songs, field calls, prayers, and sermons. They describe the varied dialects of black English that developed out of West African languages, and they analyze Gullah, the Creole born on islands off the Carolina coast. They also examine non-verbal sounds - the wails and laughs that served as expression and communication but that outsiders interpreted as "wild," "strange," and "dismal."

The Sounds of Slavery: Discovering African American History through Songs, Sermons, and Speech
By Shane White and Graham White
Beacon Press
$29.95, 288 pages
ISBN: 0807050261

Freedom Colonies: Independent Black Texans in the Time of Jim Crow
By Thad Sitton and James H. Conrad
University of Texas Press
$50/$19.95 paperback,
272 pages
ISBN: 0292706189

A Black Physician's Struggle for Civil Rights: Edward C. Mazique, M.D.
By Florence Ridlon
University of New Mexico Press
$29.95, 391 pages
ISBN: 0826333397
Australians based in Sydney, White and White are themselves outsiders who have learned to listen keenly to the American past. They are alert to the overlapping rhythms, the sharp timbral contrasts, and the tonal embellishments that distinguish the antebellum sounds generated by black folk. It is hard not to hear in them the origins of blues, jazz, rock, and rap, but it would be a mistake to reduce the improvisational chants, shouts, and strains of Africans in America to hip-hop in chains. "There was rather more to slave culture than met the eye," insist White and White, who meet it on its own resounding terms.

The jubilation of Juneteenth, when Emancipation was proclaimed belatedly in Texas, soon gave way to lamentation. The immediate effects of abolition were disastrous for most blacks who stayed in the South. The promise of "40 acres and a mule" proved a cruel joke to thousands left destitute, dependent on the good will of malevolent whites. Though legally free, blacks ended up wage slaves, sharecroppers within an agricultural system designed to entrap and exploit them. For the next century, Jim Crow perched over the South, subjecting former slaves and the descendents of slaves to a reign of racist terror and a uniquely American apartheid.

But Thad Sitton and James H. Conrad summon up an alternative history, when as many as a quarter of the liberated blacks managed to sustain their economic freedom by owning and working their own land. Often all they could acquire was secluded, undesirable bottom soil, but it provided subsistence and a refuge from the bigotry that oppressed the hapless landless blacks. In Freedom Colonies, Sitton and Conrad examine the experiences of African Americans who established more than 200 independent communities in Texas, primarily in the eastern part of the state. By 1900, almost one of three black Texans owned land, stretched into an African-American archipelago, "defensive black islands in a rising tide of Jim Crow." Often visible only as a church and a school, these independent farming communities survived for a century through a culture of self-reliance and an ethic of self-defense.

Through one exemplary figure, Edward C. Mazique, Florence Ridlon traces the trajectory of black history from agrarian oppression through urban integration. Born in rural Mississippi to a family that had managed during Reconstruction to acquire acreage but little else, Mazique used a successful career in medicine to help cure racial ills.

In A Black Physician's Struggle for Civil Rights, Ridlon, who teaches at the University of North Texas, recounts the young man's transformative journey to Atlanta to study at Morehouse College, one of those institutions designed to educate what W.E.B. DuBois called "the talented tenth," the black elite responsible for elevating the entire race. After receiving his medical degree from Howard University, Mazique established his practice in Washington, D.C., then administered as a fiefdom by racist southern Congressmen. Black patients and physicians were excluded from most hospitals in the federal district, but Mazique took a leading role in integrating medical education, health care, and hospital staffing in Washington and nationally. While the American Medical Association remained all-white, Mazique used the presidency of the parallel National Medical Association to campaign for equal opportunity in medicine and other fields. Mazique was doused with urine while picketing the YMCA to pressure it to admit black members, but, by the time he died, in 1987, he had become chairman of its board.

A reader of Ridlon's hagiography cannot help but share her admiration. But increasingly lost in her litany of a public figure's accomplishments is the personal sound of one black voice.

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