MixedThe New Republic... important ... A great strength of this book is its sheer sweep ... To its immense credit, Black Ghost of Empire shines a light on what popular understandings of emancipation often leave out: that emancipation both within and beyond the U.S. often sought to placate the economic interests of slaveholders, while denying Black people any sustained protection from their former owners or the economic means that might ensure genuine Black equality. To highlight this fact certainly adds weight to the moral necessity of reparations, but in its relentless focus on the real failures of emancipation, it privileges a deeply pessimistic interpretation of the past that may in fact undermine its cause ... Rather than understanding Black people as agents of their own emancipation, Manjapra presents them as victims of the political processes that set them free. While Manjapra provides ample space for Black resistance, so concerned is he with prosecuting emancipation laws and the white abolitionists who advocated for them, that he either ignores or downplays the ways enslaved and free Black communities created the political context that made these laws possible and the ways Black communities often endorsed these laws and used them to push their struggle forward ... In Manjapra’s telling, there is little room for these interracial, populist coalitions, ones that achieved tangible gains. Instead, he is more invested in recovering pan-Africanists of the past whom he believes light the way toward true historical redress. Yet here too Manjapra gives us only a selective reading of the past ... Manjapra is rightly focused on challenging a liberal triumphalist account of slavery’s demise. But in the process he obscures how specific political contexts shaped Black emancipations ... one hears precious little about how the American, French, and Latin American revolutions—to say nothing of the Civil War—provided Black people with both the political language and material circumstances to fight for and win their own freedom ... The deeply pessimistic view of emancipation Manjapra’s book embodies will undoubtedly appeal to certain readers. But whether it will ultimately help the cause of reparations—a moral and political necessity—remains to be seen. Perhaps the most useful histories that might serve the cause of reparations will not focus exclusively on how slavery ended but on the nearly four hundred years of slavery itself.
MixedThe New RepublicA great strength of Liberty Is Sweet is that it refuses to paint either the colonists or the British Empire as simple villains or victims ... As Holton moves from the French and Indian War to the War of Independence, he spends much time on the battlefield. Though he has a gift for pacing and narrative detail, this section, by far the longest of the book, can begin to feel antiquated. But Holton is attuned to what is sometimes called the \'new military history\' and therefore offers intriguing details ... Liberty Is Sweet underwhelms. It demonstrates Holton’s enviable grasp of the scholarship and his skill at narrative prose, but it offers no larger argument, only a myriad of smaller rejoinders to popular myths. It is full of interests but no big ideas. One senses that he is giving us a souped-up version of his college lectures rather than a fully thought-through narrative history.
Jonathan Daniel Wells
PositiveThe New RepublicIn The Kidnapping Club, the historian Jonathan Daniel Wells focuses on the hundreds of kidnappings that New York’s Black community experienced in the three decades before the Civil War, with an additional few chapters on Manhattan’s role in the illegal transatlantic slave trade. Both slave trades persisted, Wells writes, because of Manhattan’s financial ties to slaveholders. Building on the resurgent literature on slavery and capitalism, Wells deftly captures the ways Manhattan’s financial elite, such as Moses Taylor—head of what became today’s Citibank—advocated for slaveholders’ interests ... Wells focuses much of his story on Manhattan’s criminal justice system: the police officers who captured runaways on behalf of Southern slaveholders, and powerful officials, like the city recorder Richard Riker and Governor William Marcy, who gave New York’s police officers legal authority to capture runaways... The Kidnapping Club is meant to read as parable for today, but Wells’s eagerness to tell a dark but inspiring story—of how radical Black activists and their white allies challenged a broken criminal justice and capitalist system—at times leads him to elide significant historical details ... Wells’s desire to offer his readers glimmers of hope—that greed can be sublimated to a larger sense of justice—works against what might be a more useful historical lesson: What matters is less what people think than what they do.
MixedThe New RepublicAt times it feels like we’re in an AP U.S. history class, but Kreitner makes these episodes new and interesting by reinterpreting them to fit his broader disunion thesis ... Break It Up is at its best when it highlights the vocal threats of disunion that emanated not from the proslavery South—a well-known story—but from the anti-slavery North ... the limitations of Kreitner’s argument become clear. Kreitner takes a kitchen-sink approach, one where every separatist movement, every prophecy of civil war, and every threat of disunion or secession, is given equal weight. What he does not do is assess the seriousness of each threat ... There are, however, virtues to Kreitner’s wide-angle sleuthing. Most rewarding is his integration of the West into the national narrative ... its main point is certainly worth heeding.
RaveThe New Republic... extraordinary ... through painstaking archival research, Bell [has] reconstructed their lives with such vivid detail, sensitivity, and riveting storytelling that you would think each of their figures left us whole autobiographies. For the simple act of recovering their stories, [this] book would be commendable. But what makes [it] essential reading is the larger questions [it] demand of us as readers: What exactly was the condition under which un-enslaved black people lived before emancipation—and what is it that they and their descendants are owed? ... rich detail ... Where the archives run thin, Bell responsibly imagines what these two boys’ interior lives might have been like, and how they might have been kidnapped ... That the man who offered these boys some work was black might seem surprising. But the most compelling aspect of Stolen is how Bell handles these seeming oddities.
W. Caleb McDaniel
PositiveThe New RepublicIn the story of Henrietta Wood...McDaniel expertly recovers her obscure life from diffuse archival fragments ... McDaniel is particularly good at challenging assumptions ... McDaniel acknowledges the dangers of \'a cheap payoff\" [with reparations]. But he wants us to consider the weakness of the counter-argument, the one that would have us accept \'apologies without paychecks\' ... In any case, by acknowledging the inability of reparations to achieve justice, we might actually strengthen, rather than weaken, the case for them.
PositiveThe New RepublicOn its surface, [The Water Dancer] is a traditional resistance narrative ... The novel is at its best when Coates is excavating...subtler truths. If Hiram’s awareness that freedom is meaningless without family is one, then Coates’s refusal to cast his black characters as simple heroes or victims is another ... The novel’s publicists have made much of the fact that Toni Morrison’s work inspired Coates’s novel...But The Water Dancer has far more in common with Octavia Butler’s Kindred, another plantation novel that, like The Water Dancer, features a science fiction element ... In The Water Dancer, the purpose of Hiram’s super-power is less clear. Apart from the obvious point it makes—remembering one’s ancestors, no matter how painful, is the key to one’s strength, the key to freedom—it is mostly a distraction ... Like Kindred, whose main character is married to a white man and partially descended from slave-owners, The Water Dancer seems to dwell on interracial ties to remind us how deeply black and white histories are intertwined. In the United States at least, it is not just blood-ties that many of us share, but the ties of a deeply knotted past.
Joanne B. Freeman
PositiveThe New Republic... superb ... Freeman has written a smartly argued, diligently researched, even groundbreaking book. But many readers will put down Field of Blood with the impression that the Civil War could have been averted had only the nation’s elected officials acted more cordially toward each other and learned to compromise... Yet one of the problems with this line of thinking is that, in emphasizing the tragedy of the war, it downplays what the war accomplished—emancipation—even if unintentionally ... Freeman is certainly right that congressional violence didn’t help matters. And as a political parable for today, Field of Blood works well.\
PositiveThe New RepublicGordon, a professor at NYU and one of America’s most accomplished historians, has written The Second Coming of the KKK as an explicit political parable: Understanding the Klan of the 1920s can help us understand the rightwing populism of today … She deftly illustrates how racism seeped into a seemingly unrelated political issue, then became institutionalized. Gordon does not claim that the second Klan got rid of its racism. Rather, in the 1920s it broadened its racism to include other groups it deemed ‘un-American,’ and adapted it to the particular historical moment … The Second Coming of the KKK is mainly a story of how the Klan rebranded itself to the public.
MixedThe New RepublicThe problem is less Kaplan’s depiction of Lincoln than his view of Adams. Both were antislavery politicians, but he considers Adams an 'antislavery activist' as well—something that, by Kaplan’s own definition, does not hold ... But the central problem is this: Adams’s political positions on slavery and race were far more similar to Lincoln’s than they were different ... His eagerness to highlight Lincoln’s failure to embrace racial equality forces him to downplay the Emancipation Proclamation’s true significance ... Kaplan has found an important subject for a book, but he has misidentified the abolitionists. Had he focused more on genuine antislavery activists and less on politicians, he might have arrived at a different conclusion.
RaveSlateTaylor synthesizes this more recent scholarship but astutely combines it with the Progressive-era argument about the way the Founding Fathers manipulated populist anger to their own ends. Written with remarkable clarity and finesse, this will be the gold standard by which all future histories of the period will be compared.
PositiveThe New Republic...brilliant and provocative...Guyatt can at times overstate his case...[but] by demonstrating that segregationist ideas began at the founding, were sanctioned by well-intentioned white liberals, and had spread across the nation, Guyatt has written a remarkable history that matches the gravity of the problem.