A Harvard professor of African American Studies offers a portrait of pervasive exploitation and radical resistance in America, told through the turbulent history of St. Louis—a city he sees as exemplary of how imperialism, racism, and capitalism have persistently entwined to corrupt the nation's past and present.
The book represents a triumph in telling together the stories of settler violence and racism that had traditionally eluded historians. Johnson’s insistence on rooting today’s racism in yesterday’s conquest of indigenous people and enslavement of kidnapped people from Africa makes The Broken Heart of America a book for our times ... a major contribution to African American studies, but in ways careful to take expansion and anti-Indian violence into account as well ... a striking illustration of the connections of militarism and racism.
Johnson is a spirited and skillful rhetorician, juggling a profusion of historical facts while never allowing the flame of his anger to dim. Sometimes his metaphors can get a little overheated ... He also errs on the side of rolling, multiclausal explications where a sharper indictment might sometimes do. But the story he’s telling has so many elements that it makes sense he would immerse himself in the intricacies of tax increment financing and municipal bond debt. As he ably shows, so much exploitation lies in the details.
Even for people who have spent their whole lives in this area, Walter Johnson’s way of connecting the dots of racial strife across the American centuries, and having the message spell out St. Louis, will throw a new, not particularly flattering light on familiar events. Readers of The Broken Heart of America will never view the history of the region the same way again ... Johnson bolsters his case using a litany of familiar names and events placed in an often-unfamiliar context ... Just because Johnson teaches at Harvard doesn’t mean the writing in The Broken Heart of America is stodgy or academic. He moves the story along briskly and chronologically and shows an occasional flair ... Johnson generally sticks to his main thesis, though some readers may find his discussions about labor union activities and communist influence a little too long and a little too off-point ... Then, surprisingly, Johnson pivots to optimism ... he sees the roots of a better future.