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This blog includes book reviews by ARC research associates and fellows.

5/5/14

From Douglass to Duvalier: U.S. African Americans, Haiti, and Pan Americanism, 1870–1964 (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2010) by Millery Polyné

Review by: Keisha Blain, Ph.D.

Keisha Blain, Ph.D., is a 2014-2015 ARC post-doctoral fellow whose dissertation is entitled "‘For the Freedom of the Race’: Black Women & the Practices of Nationalism, 1929-1945".

Devil in the Grove Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America by Gilbert KingFrom Douglass to Duvalier U.S. African Americans, Haiti, and Pan AmericanismThe Haitian Revolution (1791–1804) is perhaps the single most significant development in the history of the modern African Diaspora. Indeed, the revolution marked a turning point in the history of race relations in the Atlantic World, overturning a system of chattel slavery on the French colony of Saint Domingue and serving as inspiration for subsequent slave revolts across the diaspora. In a fascinating new book, From Douglass to Duvalier, historian Millery Polyné reaffirms the significance of the Haitian Revolution by exploring how it shaped relations between African Americans and Haitians from the period of Reconstruction to the modern Civil Rights Movement. Through an examination of key figures— Frederick Douglass, Walter White, and Lavina Williams—Polyné’s From Douglass to Duvalier illuminates the complexity of U.S.-Haiti interactions and posits a form of “Black Pan Americanism,” which Polyné defines as “an organizing concept to understand and examine responses, strategies, and/or possible new expressions of racial solidarity movements and of political, economic and cultural development within intraracial movements” among African-descended peoples in the Americas (11).

Arranged chronologically, From Douglass to Duvalier includes six chapters centered on a particular individual or group of political actors. Frederick Douglass attempted to represent the interests of U.S. African Americans, Haitians, and people in the Dominican Republic in the late 19th century. While Douglass initially supported U.S. annexation as “a tool for racial uplift,” Polyné argues that during Douglass’s tenure as U.S. minister to Haiti (1889–1891), he began to support the interests of African peoples in the Caribbean (41). However, Douglass’s shifting positions on the issue of U.S. expansion underscore the complexities involved in “African American responses to U.S. foreign policy in the Americas” (54). Several chapters examine how other African American intellectuals (and artists) employed the tenets of Pan Americanism—mutual cooperation, egalitarianism, and nonintervention between nation-states—in their interactions with Haitians in the decades following Douglass’s death in 1895.

In “To Combine the Training of the Head and the Hands,” Polyné discusses how in the early 1930s members of the Robert R. Moton Education Commission espoused a commitment to Haitian education that drew upon Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee model of vocational industrial education. “The Policy of Good Neighborliness,” the third chapter, focuses on Claude A. Barnett, who founded the Associated Negro Press (ANP) in 1919, explaining how he operated in the “spirit of Black Pan Americanism” (114). Drawing on archival materials from the Claude Barnett Papers as well as ANP articles, Polyné highlights Barnett’s sustained efforts to report positive news on Haiti and support business ventures between Haitians and U.S. African Americans during the years after the U.S. military occupation of Haiti (1915–1934). While African American–Haitian interactions within the context of Pan Africanist groups and movements have been examined, Polyné highlights race leaders who “did not subscribe to Pan Africanism or the overtly racial politics of Marcus Garvey” (87). Even though Polyné points out that race certainly mattered to Barnett and others, he situates their interactions with Haitians within the framework of “Black Pan Americanism,” offering for exploration an alternative view of diasporic relations.

In emphasizing “What Happens in Haiti Has Repercussions Which Far Transcend Haiti Itself,” Polyné describes NAACP Executive Secretary Walter White’s efforts to improve Haiti’s economy, image, and tourism during the early years of the Cold War. According to Polyné, White’s efforts to aid Haiti during this period “reflected a larger global process or political program to attack the effects of white supremacy” (152). Polyné also skillfully demonstrates how Lavina Williams and Jean-Leon Destine used Haitian folkloric dance as a vehicle through which they exhibited Haitian culture on an international stage. By establishing national cultural institutions in Haiti and incorporating “troupes of polished, well-conditioned, professional dancers,” Williams and Destine challenged stereotypes of Haitian culture as primitive and exotic (158). Polyné ends his study with a discussion of how the dictatorship of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier damaged African American–Haitian relations during the years of the modern Civil Rights Movement.

From Douglass to Duvalier has many strengths, most notably its impressive evidentiary base and a fresh view of African American–Haitian relations. Grounded in a variety of primary sources from archives in the United States and Haiti, From Douglass to Duvalier adds a new perspective on the on-going engagement of African-descended people in global politics in the decades after emancipation. Through varied examples, Polyné makes a compelling case for Black Pan-Americanism in African American–Haiti relations during the 20th century, much as it had during the Reconstruction era. In so doing, his work exposes the complexity of African diasporic relations, and joins Mary Renda’s Taking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of U.S. Imperialism, 1915–1940 (2001) and Maurice Johnson and Jacqueline Bacon’s anthology, African Americans and the Haitian Revolution: Selected Essays and Historical Documents (2010) on U.S. African American–Haitian relations.

Still, more discussion of African American–Haitian interactions at the grassroots level would have added weight to the arguments. By offering a “top-down” narrative of African American–Haitian interactions, Polyné’s study offers little about “non-elites”—ordinary men and women—and how they responded to a Black Pan American ethos that often accompanied Pan-African movements and organizations. And it is only in the chapter on Claude Barnett that Polyné briefly mentions Etta Moten Barnett, a significant activist in her own right. There we would have liked some information on how Moten Barnett and other African American women engaged Black Pan Africanism or Pan Americanism, compared to black male intellectuals. More attention to gender relations and African American–Haitian interactions at the grassroots level would have strengthened this study.

Despite these criticisms, Polyné has written an impressive monograph, which should be of interest to a wide range of scholars of U.S. history, African American history, Caribbean Studies, and the modern African Diaspora.

10/22/12

Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America by Gilbert King

Review by: William Sturkey, Ph.D.

William Sturkey, Ph.D., was a 2012-2013 ARC post-doctoral fellow whose dissertation was entitled "The Heritage of Hub City: The Struggle for Opportunity in the New South".

Devil in the Grove Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America by Gilbert King

Eight years before arguing Brown v. Board and twenty-one years before becoming the first African American appointed to the Supreme Court, legendary Civil Rights attorney Thurgood Marshall was in the custody of a racist white Tennessee sheriff and about to be delivered to a lynch mob. Thankfully, an ally saved Marshall from the mob and helped him flee Tennessee where he had just successfully defended twenty-five local black men accused of attempted murder because they dared to defend their homes and families during a full-blown race riot earlier that year. That episode in Tennessee was just one of many terrifying moments Marshall encountered as he travelled through the South during the years prior to the Brown case, facing down racist white prosecutors and law enforcement officials in an epic postwar crusade against injustice.

In his new book Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America, Gilbert King takes readers to the swamps and orange groves of postwar Florida to tell a compelling story of racism, judicial injustice, and murder—all centered around the legendary Thurgood Marshall. The Groveland boys were four young black men wrongly accused of raping a young white woman in the summer 1949. The accusations were borderline absurd. There was no physical evidence in the case, and at least one of the accused was actually in police custody during the time of the alleged rape. Nonetheless, three black men were arrested for the alleged crime while one was chased, cornered, and then shot in cold blood as he fled an all-white sheriff’s posse.

The rape story quickly spread through the groves, galvanizing local Ku Klux Klansman and their allies who arrived at the jail intent on lynching the accused black males. After being turned away by local sheriff Willis McCall, the white supremacist mob launched a largescale attack against the local black community, forcing dozens of families to flee into the woods and others to leave the city forever. (The backstory of the attack is that some local black residents lived in better conditions than their working-class white counterparts. One family also ran a competing gambling ring.) Worried about his credibility among potential voters, Sherriff McCall then sets out to obtain confessions from the innocent men at any cost. One-by-one, he takes them into a basement, handcuffs them to an exposed ceiling pipe, and beats them with a rubber hose until they “confess” to the crime. Just weeks later, each of the boys are convicted by an all-white jury. Two are sentenced to death and one receives the “merciful” punishment of life in prison. Thanks in part to Florida NAACP leader Harry Moore, word of this injustice reaches the national NAACP office whose attorneys, including Marshall, decide to include the defense of the Groveland Boys as part of their multi-front war against Southern racial injustice. The bulk of this book is about the ensuing struggle, told within the context of Marshall and the NAACP’s ongoing fight against Southern Jim Crow that as we all know would eventually culminate with the 1954 Brown decision.

By the time readers reach the Groveland Boys’ conviction, we are well familiar with Marshall’s background, including the dramatic experiences he has had in fighting racial injustice in courts throughout the South, including the dramatic story of the near-lynching in Tennessee. The depiction of Marshall is one of the primary strengths of the book. King takes Marshall out of the courtroom at times, summarizing his early achievements and strategies, but also skillfully capturing his character. King uses oral histories, newspaper accounts, NAACP documents, and secondary sources to show us a folksy, pragmatic Thurgood Marshall. We see not just the lawyer, but the everyday man, a passionate activist who feared, argued, joked, and drank just like anyone else. We also get to see Marshall as a leader, understanding his strengths and faults through the eyes of his employers and underlings, especially the gifted young black lawyer Frank Williams who eventually argues the Groveland Four’s appeal in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. So often in Civil Rights literature, Marshall’s accomplishments overshadow his personality. It is hard to blame authors for that as he was one of the most influential and accomplished Americans of the twentieth century. But Gilbert King gives readers a unique, multi-layered view of “Mr. Civil Rights,” a man who is at once flawed, abrasive, charming, and remarkably courageous.

Devil in the Grove chronicles one of the hundreds of tragic stories that together compose the often-horrific nature of America’s racial narrative. It is certainly not the first book to detail the pre-Brown v. Board activities of Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP or even the first book to tell the story of the Groveland Boys. But I highly recommend this book because it does so in such a compelling way, with an iconic, unbending personality driving the narrative and connecting the story of the Groveland Boys to a bigger history of Southern racial violence and injustice and of those courageous men and women—both at the local level and in the national NAACP—who dared to fight it.

The narrative is a bit doglegged at times and meanders into several side stories and bits of information that may not interest casual readers. But it is also easy enough to forgive King because of the wealth of information he has packed into the book. His research is tremendous, and it must have been quite challenging to organize all the material into a single narrative. King is a talented writer who values a good first sentence (an underrated quality) and has a great eye for detail and organization. He also knows when to hold back, an elusive gift to most storytellers, but one that allows King to keep teaching us about Thurgood Marshall well into the book’s 300+ pages. Overall, Devil in the Grove is a well-told and engaging story, a page-turner that would be a welcome to any book club or classroom. Read the book if you don’t know much about Thurgood Marshall or the NAACP before the Brown case, if you don’t know much about race and the justice system during Jim Crow, or simply if you care about the legacy of racism in America and want to gain a better understanding of the nightmarish realities facing poor Southern black families on the eve of America’s most mythically idyllic decade. It is an excellent book.

4/25/11

Race for Citizenship: Black Orientalism and Asian Uplift from Pre-Emancipation to Neoliberal America (New York: New York University Press, 2011) by Helen Heran Jun

Review by: Ikuko Asaka, Ph.D.

Ikuko Asaka, Ph.D., was a 2010-2011 ARC post-doctoral fellow whose dissertation was entitled "Race across Empire and Republic: Black Migration to Canada and Racial, National, and Gender Formations in Atlantic Context".

Race for Citizenship Black Orientalism and Asian Uplift from Pre-Emancipation to Neoliberal AmericaRace for Citizenship explores how Asian Americans and African Americans have participated in discourse of U.S. citizenship, examining how the institution of citizenship pushed racialized subjects to create progressive narratives of inclusion in the struggle to achieve political, economic, and social inclusion. Jun argues that the creation of definitions of race is “a relational process in which differential inclusions and exclusions are endemic to the institution of citizenship itself.”

Jun analyzes three historical moments in which discourses of Asian American and African American citizenship emerged in notable ways in the face of political, social, and economic crises. The first section examines how the rallying of white labor against Chinese immigrants defined the contours within which blacks could articulate claims to citizenship at that time. Her analysis shows how Orientalism promoted a discursive process called black Orientalism, in which representations of China and the Chinese solidified black national identity in the period after the Reconstruction. Shifting to the World War II period, the second part contextualizes African America urbanization and migration to the West Coast in connection to Japanese American internment, Asian immigration exclusion, and residential segregation. Jun employs the term Asian uplift to illustrate how the construction of Asian Americans as domestic subjects in this period coincided with processes of black racialization. The final section centers on the post-1965 period, an era defined by global changes in modes of production and by a surge in Asian and Latin American immigration. The focus is on discourses of “black/Korean interethnic conflict,” which indicated a particular set of fears and concerns around race and national identity in the late twentieth-century U.S.

The book deemphasizes the notion of intentions, perceptions, and attitudes behind various discourses of race for citizenship. Rather, it argues that the institution of citizenship compels variously racialized groups to negotiate their exclusion in relation to others within “a narrow discursive field.” Such proposition offers us a nuanced approach to textual work by marginalized groups without engaging in an often-futile discussion of intention and motives and enables us to look at the contradictions arising from racialized subject formation as a fundamental condition of U.S. citizenship.

4/18/11

Extravagant Abjection: Blackness, Power and Sexuality in the African American Literary Imagination (New York: New York University Press, 2010) by

Darieck Scott

Review by: Ariane Cruz, Ph.D.

Ariane Cruz, Ph.D., was a 2010-2011 ARC post-doctoral fellow whose dissertation was entitled "Berries Bittersweet: Visual Representations of Black Female Sexuality in Contemporary American Pornography".

Extravagant Abjection Blackness, Power and Sexuality in the African American Literary ImaginationDarieck Scott’s Extravagant Abjection: Blackness, Power and Sexuality in the African American Literary Imagination (2010) theorizes the relationship between blackness, (black male-ness) and abjection. Arguing for what he terms blackness in/and abjection, Scott contends not only that blackness, invented from a history of abjection, is abjection itself, but also that abjection offers the black body unique, and heretofore un-theorized opportunities for black power—“the power of abject blackness.” The text is thus foundational as a project of redefining the relationship between power and blackness.

Drawing heavily from the psychoanalytic theory of Julia Kristeva and Herbert Marcuse, Extravagant Abjection is also deeply indebted to and the work of Franz Fanon, from whom Scott draws the recurring metaphor of the “tensed muscles,” a physical and psychic manifest of the colonized unconsciousness that describes the black, or blackend, male body’s readiness to flinch in both expectation of impending violence, and in defense /resistance of this same violence. In addition to their function as a response to bodily pain, existing or expected, we must also read the metaphor of the tensed muscles to suggest a state of sexual arousal. Hence the muscles clenched as a result of sexual pleasure and/or pain mirror the ambivalence of the state of blackness in/of abjection itself. That is, the apparent paradox of pleasure from pain parallels that of power from abjection. The metaphor of the tenses muscles then speaks to the critical relationship Scott limns between sexuality, blackness, and abjection, but also gestures to the salient link between power and pleasure—the experience of pleasure.

From reading literary representations of black male rape in novels such as Morrison’s Beloved, Scott sketches the black male’s possibilities of accessing pleasure, power and resistance in pain, violence and humiliation. Through the lens of black male rape, Scott argues that sexualized violence is constitutive of black masculinity and rape is the historical affliction that makes legible black identity; however, there is black power (though seemingly “counterintuitive” and utterly paradoxical) to be accessed and produced via this experience of trauma.

Scott’s of theorization of the metaphor of the “bottom” as a meditation on the positionality of the black male abject, illuminates to my own recent work on BDSM. In Scott’s work, like in the discourse on BDSM, the bottom is revealed to be not just a fluid position, but also a position of command, power, and of course, pleasure. Scott, however, theorizes the racial politics of the bottom in a way that the often de-racialized literature on BDSM fails to. The physical, metaphorical, and physic space of the bottom becomes central to his project of mapping blackness in/an abjection. The blackend bottom facilitates a reading of how power may be located and produced in positionalities typically associated with debasement, humiliation and violence. As such, the bottom thus becomes another salient condition of blackness in/and abjection.

Scott’s book is challenging itself as it works to catechize, contest, and broaden prevailing conceptions about what black power is and how it is annexed and demonstrated, as well as map and mislay the constitutive legacies of sexual violence, domination and humiliation with black male-ness. Yet the density of his language and complexity of his thought is lightened by many moments of beautiful writing, where the reader can hear Scott’s fiction writing alter ego. Scott’s book will prove invaluable to any serious student of black masculinity. It also makes strong interventions into the fields of black sexuality studies, philosophy, phenomenology, African Diasporas studies, literary studies, and queer studies.

4/18/11

Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality and Blackness by Nicole Fleetwood

Review by: Jasmine Cobb, Ph.D.

Jasmine Cobb, Ph.D., was a 2010-2011 ARC post-doctoral fellow whose dissertation was entitled "Racing the Trans-Atlantic Parlor:  Picturing Freedom in the Early Nineteenth Century".

Extravagant Abjection Blackness, Power and Sexuality in the African American Literary ImaginationTroubling Vision Performance, Visuality and Blackness by Nicole FleetwoodTroubling Vision: Performance, Visuality and Blackness is Nicole Fleetwood’s first book. Fleetwood, an assistant professor of American Studies at Rutgers, New Brunswick, also has published works on youth performance, hip-hop culture, and hurricane Katrina. Fleetwood explains upfront that Troubling Vision “is a study of Black visuality and performance, not a study of film or mass media” (p. 2). Her book joins a long tradition of the study of Black visual culture, but nicely delineates a new trend that is less focused on what Michelle Wallace described as the “negative/positive images.” Troubling Vision draws on scholarship from the fields of performance studies and art history to argue “that the visible black body is always already troubling to the dominant visual field” and explores the “productive possibilities of this figuration through specific cultural works and practices” (p. 6). In addition to art and performance, her book offers insights for readers in the fields of Africana studies and American studies.

With an emphasis on what Fleetwood describes as the “black visual” and “black performative,” the chapters of Troubling Vision explain “that the black body is always problematic in the field of vision because of the discourses of captivity and capitalism that frame the body as such” (p. 18). Across five chapters, with the support of 38 images, Fleetwood explores various visual media including photography, installation art, and bodily performance. Chapter 1 explores the work of Pittsburgh’s Charles “Teenie” Harris; chapter 2 discusses plays about colorism by Black women playwrights, Zora Neal Hurston’s Color Struck and Dael Orlandersmith’s Yellowman. Chapter 3 argues for hypervisibility as a uniquely Black woman’s experience of performativity, through a discussion of Janet Jackson, Lil’ Kim and other Black women performers. Chapter 4 describes the marketing of Hip Hop clothing through advertisements that iconicize the Black male body and Chapter five critiques the media art of Fatimah Tuggar.

I recommend Troubling Vision to readers interested in teaching or researching issues related to race and visual culture. As a junior scholar rethinking the themes of my first book manuscript within the field of Black visual studies, I find this text extremely helpful. For my own publication needs, Fleetwood’s text models a clear and concise method for parsing one’s interlocutors early on in the text. Moreover, an important point to model for studies on these subjects, Troubling Vision illustrates how to express connections or interests in interdisciplinary conversations. For the classroom, Troubling Vision will give students a solid grasp of the relevant literatures informing contemporary discussions of Black imagery. It cites significant works in the history of the field, but also gives students an updated sense of the disparate, but related, kinds of media available for study—from photography to installation art to electronic media.

Nicole, R. Fleetwood, Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness (University of Chicago Press, 2011). ISBN-13: 978-0-226-25303-9

4/1/11

Frederick Douglass. Race and the Rebirth of American Liberalism (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2008) by Peter C. Myers

Originally published in the Trinidad and Tobago Review, September 8, 2009.

Review by: Cary Fraser, Ph.D.

Frederick Douglass. Race and the Rebirth of American LiberalismAs Barack Obama’s odyssey as the first African American President of the United States unfolds amidst the most serious economic challenges since the Great Depression of the 1930s, two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that have demonstrated the limits of American military power, and widely televised displays of domestic discontent tinged with the potent elixir of American racism over health care reform, it is evident that the politics of race and governance in America has entered a new phase. Obama’s presidency will be a test of both his political acumen and the capacity of America to redeem itself from the troubled history of white supremacy that has defined its life and culture. In this context, this recently-published book on Frederick Douglass, the intellectually gifted African American who became a central figure in the abolitionist movement and a champion of a vision of viable citizenship for African Americans after the Civil War and Emancipation, offers an opportunity to understand the historical magnitude of the challenge that currently confronts Barack Obama as he seeks to transcend the torment of race in American political culture.

Like Douglass in the 19th century and Martin Luther King, Jr in the 20th, Obama in the 21st century has had to articulate a vision of American society that does not draw sustenance from the poisoned chalice of race. The fact that three intellectually gifted African American leaders have been unable to tame the demon of race serves as a reminder of the longevity and intractability of “The American Dilemma”.

Confronted from childhood with the insight that education “would forever unfit him to be a slave”, Frederick Douglass’ life was defined by the search to escape slavery, as both personal burden and as cultural and political pathology in American life. In escaping slavery, however, Douglass discovered that the agonies of slavery left a legacy of race as an indelible marker of difference and a fundament of American life—a legacy that has yet to disappear even after the first Reconstruction of 1865–1876 and the Second Reconstruction of 1954–1969. Throughout American history, the imagined differences of race have constructed a reality of American society as: (1) a deviant with respect to the idea that all men are created equal, notwithstanding the rhetorical commitment to the idea as a fundament of American national ideology; (2) committed to the idea that human difference should lend itself to the construction and perpetuation of a hierarchy of race based upon a fundamental illusion of “white supremacy”; and, (3) displaying a pathological obsession with the idea that phenotypical markers are transformed into mental/intellectual attributes in human beings. In effect, race in the American imagination has created its own versions of reality and, notwithstanding the challenges from legal, moral, and scientific efforts to repudiate the illusions of “white supremacy” and pernicious delusions about the “automatic inferiority” of people of colour, the idea that whites should be perceived as a “dominant race”—in the parlance of the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896—has remained a central feature of American life.

Myers’ exploration of Frederick Douglass’ thought that emerged over the course of his life that straddled the American Civil War, seeks to establish the importance of Douglass as a tribune of American Liberalism who continues to have resonance in contemporary America.

Myers’ concern with reasserting Douglass’ voice and his intellectual example in African American life is driven in part by a concern that “radical currents have gained such force among the generality of blacks as to threaten to displace the liberal mainstream of African American political thought.” (p.3) For Myers, “Virtually all observers agree that the present condition of black alienation is fraught with peril, for African Americans in particular and for America as a whole.” (p.7) To counter this alienation and its implicit rejection of the American experience by “the radical currents,” Myers argues that Douglass: grew quickly to affirm a vision of justice deeply rooted in American principles; and over the course of his long career, he produced the most powerful argument for the affirmation of those principles in the history of African American political thought. In the end, Douglass stands virtually unrivalled as the invincible adversary of black alienation, an exemplar and apostle of peculiarly American and African American forms of hopefulness. (p.7)

From this point of departure, Myers explores the significance of Douglass’ life and his writings over the course of the 19th century. He argues that Douglass was an architect of the African American intellectual tradition who sought to use American ideals, its Constitutional principles, his newspaper columns and speeches, and his access to both abolitionists and politicians in pursuit of black emancipation and full citizenship rights for African Americans. In Myers’ view, Douglass’ challenge to slavery seems to have been motivated by a firm belief that divine Providence was opposed to slavery and, moreover, the system represented a contradiction of natural law and stood against reason. As a consequence, for Douglass, to engage in respectful argument with proponents of the system was to dignify an unworthy system that was based on the dehumanisation of both the slave and the slave-holder. Further, he embraced the idea that the slave had a right to revolt against the system; adopted the view that the Constitution was, at heart, a weapon to be used against slavery and its champions; and welcomed the advent of the Civil War to destroy a monstrous system and expunge the moral blemish that slavery embodied.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, Douglass’ concerns focused upon championing the full integration of African Americans into the American political order and the development of a culture of self-reliance that could ensure African American survival as a free people and which would provide a way out of poverty and the other legacies of slavery. In addition, he inveighed against the proposals to expatriate African Americans by way of colonization schemes and the attempts to establish a racial caste system as the successor regime to slavery. In effect, after the Civil War, Douglass was engaged in the challenge to prevent the creation of another racial hierarchy that would institutionalize African Americans as a disadvantaged population.

Myers’ exploration of Douglass’ life and thought reveals the enormous complexity of the man and his sophisticated appreciation of politics in 19th century America. Douglass was both catalyst and combatant in the search for an alternative American order that would transcend slavery and race as markers of African American disadvantage. His thought reflected the struggles of an engaged intellectual and the challenges of both shaping and responding to shifts in the political context and the intellectual climate of a society. It is also a narrative of an exceptional man whose personal trajectory was a microcosm of the shifting historical context in America over the course of the 19th century, making him a man of, and for, his time. Just as important, his life and work would serve as precedent and parallel for other major African American figures like Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. DuBois, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Barack Obama.

While Myers has undoubtedly offered an interesting perspective on Douglass and his role in the development of African American intellectual and political life, his attempt to deploy Douglass as a counter to contemporary currents of alienation among African Americans is less successful. Given the structural inequality fostered by the politics of white supremacy that has defined American life for much of the country’s history, it is rather naïve to argue that the life and thought of a single individual of exceptional intellectual and intestinal fortitude could provide an alternative to the realities of racial disadvantage in the contemporary context. Individual accomplishment has a limited impact upon the processes of social change and the reversal of the culture of alienation that exists in contemporary America. Douglass as a role model has to be considered in a context where African American activists like Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr were all assassinated in the struggle to dismantle the “Jim Crow” regime in American life. While Douglass was able to live well beyond the end of the Civil War and continue to struggle to give meaning to black emancipation in the late 19th century, King’s prescient statement on the eve of his assassination in April 1968—“I may not get there with you.”—has a resonance and an immediacy that has not diminished in contemporary American life.

It would have been useful for Myers to have paid greater consideration to the sources of African American alienation in contemporary America, including the persistence of residential and educational segregation on the basis of race, employment and income disparities among racial groups, and the post-1968 resurgence of an American conservatism under the aegis of the Republican party determined to compromise the politics of inclusion that reshaped America in the 20th century. From the 19th amendment to the Constitution in 1920 guaranteeing female suffrage to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that restored and enforced suffrage rights for African Americans and other historically-disadvantaged populations, American politics over the course of the 20th century was defined by the expansion of citizenship rights to bring previously excluded groups into the democratic political order.

In response to the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of the mid-1960s, the Republican party began the assiduous courtship of Southern “Conservatives” that would pave the way for the election of Richard Nixon in 1968 and his Republican heirs to the Presidency—Ronald Reagan and the Bushes—who all sought to reverse the political empowerment of African Americans that was one consequence of the Civil Rights Revolution. As the Democrats had done after the end of Reconstruction in 1876, the Republicans pursued a strategy focused upon containing the growth of African American influence in American life. In effect, the Republicans after 1965 fostered a climate in which African American alienation from American political life gained ground as a response to the efforts to denigrate the politics of inclusive democracy after 1968. In his July 5, 1852, speech—What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?—Douglass had cited an excerpt of Psalm 137:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Yea! We wept when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there, they that carried us away captive, required of us a song: and they who wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

It was a refrain that could be applied just as well to the Republican Ascendancy over the period 1968–2008 in American political life. It will be the success of the Obama administration in the adoption of an American liberal agenda that will determine whether a new vision of inclusive politics will reframe the American democratic order and the role of African Americans therein. In that context, Frederick Douglass’ life and thought will have considerable relevance as Myers has reminded the readers of his thoughtful volume.