Here’s another one going on my “give to all my friends” list!
This book is really, really good.
Each chapter is a vignette of one person per generation, starting with two half-sisters, Essie and Effia. One is sold into slavery, the other married to a British slaver. The chapters follow six of each of their descendants in Ghana and America. As you might expect, 6 generations of African and Africa-American history includes some seriously ugly chapters: colonialism, explicit and implicit racism, the transatlantic slave trade, the Fugitive Slave Act, sharecropping, and on and on.
The most beautiful part of this book is how wonderfully the whole turns out to be much, much greater than the sum of its parts. Each individual story is interesting and researched and developed and compelling. As a whole, they are a sparklingly nuanced, thoughtful, and thought-provoking picture of race, inequity, justice, history, and heritage.
A few years ago I read Isabel Wilkerson’s phenomenal The Warmth of Other Suns. One of the motifs in that non-fiction book was how impossible it is for a black middle class to rise and stay risen. As Ta-Nehisi Coates summarizes:
America does not really want a black middle class. Some of the most bracing portions of Wilkerson’s book involve the vicious attacks on black ambition. When a black family in Chicago saves up enough to move out of the crowded slums into Cicero, the neighborhood riots. The father had saved for years for a piano for his kids. The people of Cicero tossed the piano out the window, looted his home, torched his apartment and then torched his building. In the South, when black people attempted to leave to earn better wages, they were often forcibly detained, and thus kept in slavery as late as the 1950s.On a policy level, there is a persistent strain wherein efforts to aid The People are engineered in such a way wherein they help black people a lot less. It is utterly painful to read about the New Deal being left in the hands of Southern governments which were hostile to black people, and then to today see a significant chunk of health care, again, left in the hands of Southern governments which are hostile to black people.