Blassingame, John W. 1979. The slave community: plantation life in the antebellum South. New York: Oxford University Press.
The most overt explanation of the author’s research problem is when he states: “To argue, as some scholars have, that the first slaves suffered greatly from the enslavement process because it contradicted their ‘heroic’ warrior tradition, or that it was easier for them because Africans were docile in nature and submissive, is to substitute mythology for history,” (p. 4).
The struggles of African slaves are the topic for Blassingame’s entire book, and it is impossible to indicate one page number describing all the travails that are detailed in the tome. However, the first chapter of the book does provide examples of the suffering of slaves in Africa, during the transatlantic voyages, and in the New World. Pages 6 and 7 describe in some detail the brutality of the slave boat voyages. The author also mentions what slaves went through in Africa on page 5, and on page 4 mentions the struggles of Native Americans. Although Blassingame’s book is not about Native American slavery, the explanation on page 4 establishes a connection between colonization and the presumption of white supremacy throughout the world during the age of exploration.
In the opening chapter of the book, Blassingame provides local, regional, and national ideological shifts. The remainder of the book focuses mainly on the experiences of slaves and the evolution of slave culture. Blassingame does not discuss ideological shifts in the dominant white culture because the attitudes toward slavery changed little over the course of several centuries. What Blassingame does discuss is the ways slave culture evolved in the several generations between the transatlantic voyages and the development of robust plantation economies in the American South. Blassingame does not discuss the differences between slave and anti-slave state ideologies in the United States.
The struggle for slaves to gain access to social, political, and economic institutions in the United States is not discussed because the bulk of the book is concerned with slave culture and slave culture is by definition excluded from white institutions. In Chapter 3,-page 105-106, the author does address the cultural elements that African-Americans developed in their own communities such as churches.
Scholarship and accounts of slaves have perpetuated stereotypes about African-Americans that are completely wrong, and the primary source material including slave narratives proves that slave culture was far more complex than whites have credited it for being (p. 4). Slave culture included unique elements of family and culture, as slaves were ripped from their societies and families and forced to develop communities with others in bondage.
The strengths of this book are that it was groundbreaking, it contributed greatly to the field of African-American and indeed African scholarship, and that it provides a fairly accurate and thorough portrait of African-American community life prior to emancipation. The weaknesses of this book are that it is outdated by several decades, but that fact does not detract from it considerably given that the information was derived from primary sources.
Blassingame was a historian at Yale University. In addition to The Slave Community, Blassingame edited slave narratives such as those of Frederick Douglass. He eventually became the chair of Yale’s African Studies Department. Blassingame is described as “one of the foremost scholars of black studies and African-American history,” (Huff, 2013).
2. Franklin, John Hope, and Alfred A. Moss. 2000. From slavery to freedom: a history of African-Americans. New York: A.A Knopf.
This is a textbook with no thesis statement. If there were a thesis statement, it would be that African-American culture is complex but important to understand in order to have a more rounded knowledge of American as well as African-American history. There is no page number with a thesis statement in this book.
Starting in Chapter 3, the author of this book discusses the suffering endured by slaves. Successive chapters are about slave experiences in different colonies such as Virginia and Maryland (page 65). Suffering is a consistent theme in this book because it is impossible to discuss African-American history otherwise, but in Chapter 10 there is deep discussion about intersectional strife (p. 214). Some of the greatest struggles described in this book come in Chapter 13 because it is about the failure of Reconstruction to ensure liberty and equality. On page 286, for example, the author addresses the triumph of white supremacy.
Several local, regional, and national ideological shifts are discussed in this book. Prior to Chapter 10, the prevailing ideology described is that of the white establishment condoning slavery, or what it referred to as “that peculiar institution” (p. 138). Abolitionism is discussed in various places but especially in Chapters 8-10. Even before that, an ideological shift took place when the transatlantic trade was stopped in the nineteenth century. Racism and prejudice continued to underwrite American white ideology, which is why there are few actual shifts discussed. Instead, the author focuses on the ways African-Americans have struggled to overcome oppression.
The attempt to gain access to political, cultural, social, and economic institutions is a theme of this book. These issues are discussed in several places. For example, trends in education are described on page 445, and opportunities for African-American self-expression are described on page 455. Struggling to gain access to white institutions is discussed through the Civil Rights movement.
From their tribal origins in Africa to the race-based politics of the 20th and 21st centuries, African-American history has been characterized by oppression, struggle, and the drive and determination to overcome adversity. The core arguments made in this book are that oppression is systematic, and that systems that perpetuate oppression are nearly impossible to dismantle.
The strengths of this book include the fact that it provides an overview of African-American history in textbook format that many readers will find accessible and with language that is easy to understand. The primary weakness of this book is that it tries to cover too much ground and can be overwhelming at first.
John Hope Franklin was a professor at Duke University, and he published a plethora of books on American and especially African-American history. He was “active in numerous professional and education organizations,” (Duke University Libraries, n.d.). Evelyn Brooks Higgenbotham was the chair of the Department of African and African-American Studies at Harvard University from 2006-2013.
3. Limerick, Patricia Nelson. 1987. The legacy of conquest: the unbroken past of the American West. New York: Norton.
The American West has been romanticized in countless novels and movies, and history has been influenced by legend as much as fact. On page 30, the author states that the purpose of the book is to synthesize multiple threads of Western history, salvaging the facts from the legends, and offering more nuanced visions and versions of reality from post-colonial perspectives.
Because Limerick’s book is divided into two parts, one about the conquerors and one about the conquered, the theme of oppression is obvious throughout. Part Two is more directly about the way Native Americans struggled to maintain heritage, dignity, life, and livelihood while their populations were being systematically decimated. On page 259, the author begins a section on racialism. On page 231, the author also discusses the role that Mexicans played in American history and the struggles inherent in being caught between several different worlds at once. Various business and political interests were vying for the same territories in the American frontier lands and borderlands.
There are several local, regional, and national ideological shifts at play in the story of Westward expansion. Local issues ranged from those impacting specific towns based on the local economies to the borderlands between Mexican and Anglo-held territories. Regional issues are the core dimension of Limerick’s book, as the “West” is treated as a cohesive geographical, if not cultural, realm. Finally, national issues are at stake due to the fact that federal policy informed programs of westward expansion. Page 231 has some examples of different shifts. There can be no specific page numbers discussing ideological shifts, because they occur sporadically at different points in the text.
Even poor whites were trying to gain access to American economic, social, and political institutions during the phases of westward expansion. The struggles of Native Americans were qualitatively different, as their goals were not so much gaining access to white social institutions but simply to be left alone and independent from white culture (p. 221).
The author argues that the story of the west is far more complex than historians previously believed. Mexican native and Spanish Mexican cultures experienced unique struggles of locating identity and belonging within established institutions. Native Americans played a greater role in developing the west than is typically credited. The West is now a reflection of its past (p. 230).
The strength of this book is that it touches upon many subjects about American western history that are often omitted from books. The author does a good job of including all the stakeholders in westward expansion. However, the book has some weaknesses especially in the rambling writing style and disjointed composition.
The author is a professor and chair of the board of the Center for the American West at the University of Colorado. She is from Banning, California, anchoring her roots in the American West. Limerick is an award-winning historian who has written a number of books on western American history.
4. Painter, Nell Irvin. 1987. Standing at Armageddon: the United States, 1877-1919. New York: W.W. Norton.
The history of the progressive era highlights some of the failures of Reconstruction and the promises of a new era in American domestic affairs (p. 1). Progressivism has had a tremendous impact on American society and its identity, and was particularly helpful for African-Americans, women, and other under-represented and politically disenfranchised groups (p. 1-12).
African-Americans had few concrete means after the end of the Civil War. Reconstruction failed dismally, leading to the entrenchment of Black Codes throughout the South and the perpetuations of racism nationwide. Without a cohesive commitment to equality, America stagnated politically. The progressive movement was a means by which African-Americans and women were able to locate a voice and more importantly, to be heard. The Black Codes are discussed on page 6, and further discussions are about the ways institutionalized racism simply replaced slavery as a means to ensure continued supremacy. Likewise, women also endeavored to experience empowerment, and progressivism was a key.
Ideological shifts are the main motifs of this book. Progressivism was an ideological shift characterized by populism and honest interest in social equality and social justice. Labor movement politics also became infused into the progressive ideology. The author discusses numerous types of ideology including racist ideology and the tenets of eugenics, as well as patriarchy. These ideologies would persist, but they were coming under increasing threat and scrutiny because women and African-Americans were empowering themselves. Suffrage for women is discussed on page 231, representing a strong ideological shift and leading to the progressive era. Also, foreign policy ideologies were changing by the time the nation entered World War One (p. 283).
Women struggled hard to gain access to the most basic institutions in the United States including educational institutions, economic institutions, and political institutions. Suffrage is discussed in Chapter 8, starting on page 231. African-Americans remained disenfranchised even if they were technically allowed to vote. Black Codes and systematic disenfranchisement are discussed in Chapter 7, starting on page 216.
Reconstruction was a failure and sexism was preventing half the country from participating in American political and economic life. The Progressive Era in America is one in which the rights of African-Americans and women won hard-fought battles for freedom and equality. With the right to vote, the population of voters in America doubled almost instantly (p. 231).
There are core strengths in this book, including the description of African-Americans evolving a unique culture in conjunction with and in opposition to white supremacy and in spite of institutionalized racism. The progressive era of American history is interesting and the author does a good job of grabbing the reader’s attention. There are no noticeable weaknesses in this text, except for the fact that it is old.
Nell Irvin Painter is an “artist and scholar in residence” at Yale University in the Department of African-American Studies. She is also a leading historian, a Fullbright scholar, and professor at Princeton University. In addition to writing books, Painter is in fact, a painter who has recently earned a Master in Fine Arts.
Blassingame, John W. 1979. The slave community: plantation life in the antebellum South. New York: Oxford University Press.
Center of the American West. “About Patty Limerick.” Retrieved online: http://centerwest.org/about/patty
Duke University Libraries (n.d). Biography of John Hope Franklin. Retrieved online: http://library.duke.edu/rubenstein/franklin/bio.html
Franklin, John Hope, and Alfred A. Moss. 2000. From slavery to freedom: a history of African-Americans. New York: A.A Knopf
Huff, C.A. (2013). John Blassingame. Georgia Encyclopedia. Retrieved online: http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/john-blassingame-1940-2000
Limerick, Patricia Nelson. 1987. The legacy of conquest: the unbroken past of the American West. New York: Norton.
“Nell Irvin Painter.” Retrieved online: http://www.nellpainter.com/
Painter, Nell Irvin. 1987. Standing at Armageddon: the United States, 1877-1919. New York: W.W. Norton.
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