The news cycle is loud, but we need to hear those who can’t shout
Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) is on numerous lists of “best 20th century American novels.” Ellison never finished a second novel, but his fine writing is on display in The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison, edited by John Callahan and Marc Conner (Random House, 2019). Ellison as a black author fought against being forced into a racial protest mode, even though there was much to protest.
Jackie Robinson integrated major league baseball. Satchel Paige and Buck O’Neil gained fame in the Negro League days when segregation still ruled. O’Neil said one now-forgotten player was “Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, and Tris Speaker” rolled into one—and Jeremy Beer tells his story in Oscar Charleston: The Life and Legend of Baseball’s Greatest Forgotten Player (University of Nebraska, 2019). Charleston was a great center fielder and a hitter with speed and power. In the 1930s he played on and managed the Pittsburgh Crawfords, often called the greatest Negro League team ever, with a lineup that included Cool Papa Bell and Josh Gibson.
The Allure of Blackness Among Mixed-Race Americans, 1862-1916, by Ingrid Dineen-Wimberly (University of Nebraska, 2019) shows the complex positions of those with racial diversity in their own bodies. Some chose to “pass” as white, but others deliberately embraced their African American heritage and often became leaders within black communities. Dineen-Wimberly concludes, “To acknowledge that Black-identified women and men both helped and harmed those they sought to uplift, I contend, makes us uncomfortable because the idea displaces the American narrative of Black benevolence and White oppression.”
For those who enjoyed The Green Book, an Oscar winner as best picture of 2018: Candacy Taylor’s Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America (Abrams, 2020) tells the stories of hotels, music halls, and other venues where African Americans were welcome and includes reprinted book covers from the annual edition.
Black History Month is also a time to learn more about African history. Toby Green’s A Fistful of Shells (University of Chicago, 2019) shows that some West Africans had sophisticated knowledge of rice-growing, herding, and so forth: When they came against their wills to the U.S., they could provide more than muscle, if slave owners were willing to listen. Land of Tears by Robert Harms (Basic, 2019) shows how European powers explored and exploited Central Africa.
The Scottsboro Boys, nine African Americans ages 13 to 20, suffered a miscarriage of justice when they were accused in 1931 of raping two white women on a train. The bad news is that they received death sentences. The good news is that the U.S. Supreme Court heard their appeals, which led to charges being dropped for four of them, and none of the other five was executed. The sad news is that those five languished in prison, some until 1946.
That story is known, but what’s less known is how the U.S. Communist Party turned the prisoners into mascots in an attempt to build African American support. Soviet Communists found the case a useful way to turn attention from their intentional starvation of at least 4 million Ukrainians. Meredith Roman’s Opposing Jim Crow: African Americans and the Soviet Indictment of U.S. Racism, 1928-1937 (University of Nebraska, 2012) shows how Soviets hyped American racism to make those they were turning into serfs feel that others had it worse.
Roman’s thorough research shows Communist Party propagandists proclaiming, “Throughout the whole of the Soviet Union, from Leningrad to Vladivostok, from Minsk to Tiflis, the mighty voices of millions thunder ‘Freedom for the Scottsboro Prisoners.’” Captive journalists made up statistics about protest meetings in Ukraine: “How could its inhabitants be starving and discontented … when they supposedly donated more funds, labor, and resources than their fellow citizens to the project of building socialism and to improving the welfare of the Scottsboro prisoners and their relatives?”