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Michael Harriot's 'Black AF History' could hardly come at a better time

Dey Street Books

Over the past few years, it seems that rarely a week has gone by without a news story chronicling the renewed debate about whose history matters and how — or whether — it can be taught.

There have been countless specious claims about Critical Race Theory (a graduate-level framework that examines racial inequality) being taught in elementary schools. Every state but six (so far) has seen proposals to restrict the teaching of "divisive" topics — like the horrors of slavery, according Education Week. And, last year, there were more requests for book bans than there had been in decades. (We can at least hope that this book's inevitable banning will only serve to raise its profile even more.)

In a desert of denialism, Harriot's book is a welcome oasis.

Fans of the renowned journalist and cultural critic will be happy to find Harriot's signature wit on full display. They will also be unsurprised that he pulls no punches. Harriot makes his central thesis clear early on:

Harriot peels back the layers of those lies to reveal stories about the Black experience in this country that are as remarkable for their content as they are for their absence from our history textbooks. He explains how enslaved people skilled at growing rice on the west African coast were responsible for saving "the entire Carolina economic system from collapse — with the introduction of America's first edible cash crop." He breaks down how a massive slave rebellion accelerated the process of the Territory of Orleans becoming the state of Louisiana. He documents the brief period during which formerly enslaved people actually received the 40 acres promised them by General Sherman — until the land was taken back and returned to its former Confederate owners.

While Black AF History is replete with fascinating stories, the most compelling chapters for me were the ones laser-focused on Black resistance and resilience, like the fifth chapter, "Drapetomaniacs: Get Free or Die Trying." The name is drawn from a white doctor's contention that people wanting to escape slavery must be suffering from "an explosive new mental illness called 'drapetomania,' or 'the disease causing slaves to run away.'" ("Drapetomaniax: Unshackled History," Harriot's new podcast, premiered in July.) There are too many tales of drapetomaniacs to reference here, but they ranged from individuals like Sallie Smith, who "'stayed in the woods' half of the time of her enslavement" to the unknown number of maroons, communities where escaped slaves lived beyond white control. These included "Bas du Fleuve, a vast area between the mouth of the Mississippi and New Orleans that was controlled by runaways for most of the 1770s" as well as the Great Dismal Swamp, located in Virginia and North Carolina, where "new research suggests that thousands [of escaped Africans] may have lived."

Black resilience and brilliance are on full display in Harriot's chapter, "Construction," which details the stunning successes of the formerly enslaved immediately following Emancipation. In 1868, three years after the end of the "war to protect slavery," South Carolina's Black majority elected its first Black secretary of state. Two years later, the state had a Black lieutenant governor and a Black member of its Supreme Court. In Mississippi and Alabama, Black voter registration was more than 90%, and the first Black man in the U.S. Senate hailed from Mississippi, as Harriot details. Louisiana's first Black governor was elected in 1872. Black political power was on the rise, as evident from the fact that "between 1870-1884, fifteen Black men were elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, and more than three hundred served in state legislatures."

Those victories were soon undercut, sometimes through legal measures. Louisiana changed its state constitution in 1898, requiring a literacy test for voters. It could be waived, however, for those who were entitled to vote before Jan. 1, 1867 (the day Black men were given the vote) — and for their adult sons or grandsons. Thus, the low white literacy rate would not reduce white men's turnout. In 1880, Black men in Louisiana had a voter registration rate of more than 90%. By 1890, the rate was less than 3%, Harriot writes.

Then there were the extrajudicial responses. When Black voters in Eutaw, Alabama, supported Republican Ulysses S. Grant in the presidential election, he won by a 2,000-vote margin. Just before midterm elections two years later, the Klan "opened fire at a rally of twenty-eight hundred Black people, killing at least four and causing hundreds to stay home on election day. The Democratic gubernatorial candidate won the county by forty-three votes," Harriot writes. Campaigns of terror, which included thousands of lynchings, would continue throughout the region up until (and beyond) the Civil Rights era.

Despite the book's abundant humor, at no point does Harriot shy away from the brutality inflicted upon Black people since before this country's founding. His recognition of the role Black women have played in freedom struggles includes covering Ida B. Wells' groundbreaking anti-lynching work. The book also contains excruciating descriptions of the lynching parties once so prevalent in this country.

In addition to telling the histories we should have been taught in school, but mostly weren't, Harriot also incorporates his personal history and anecdotes about his family into the book. Illustrations bring an additional layer of texture. And each chapter ends with a painfully entertaining unit review, styled as the questions found after history textbook chapters.

The worst part about Black AF History is that it needed to be published in the 21st century, that its stories aren't already part of our collective memory. The best part is that it exists, and we can all be grateful to Harriot for this engaging, well-researched, and frequently laugh-out-loud funny history that places the Black experience at center stage.

Ericka Taylor is the acting chief of staff for Americans for Financial Reform and the director of popular education for Take On Wall Street. Her freelance writing has appeared in Bloom, The Millions, Willow Springs and Yes! Magazine.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ericka Taylor
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