Wednesday, February 04, 2009

From Timbuktu to Katrina: Readings in African-American History Volume I


This is an important and fascinating collection of primary and secondary documents chosen and introduced by University of Washington history professor, Dr. Quintard Taylor. Dr. Taylor is also the director of the website, the “Google” of African American history.

Volume one, which I will be reviewing here, covers documents ranging chronologically from the 14th Century through the early 20th Century. Volume II follows the same format and continues chronologically all the way up to 2005, the year of Hurricane Katrina.

The layout and content of this book come together beautifully to create a very readable and informative history book. Due to the vast scope of this book, you may be picturing two twenty pound encyclopedic volumes. This book is made up of two easily portable paperback volumes, roughly 200 pages each.

Volume one contains 108 documents including personal letters, speeches, eyewitness accounts, and government documents to list a few. Each of the eight chapters has a brief introduction which provides context for the time frame covered. Individual entries include author and source information for the passage. They are sometimes as short as one paragraph and never exceed three pages in length.

The sources of the entries include widely known historical figures like Frederick Douglas, as well as lesser known figures such as Lucy Parsons, anarchist and leading figure in the radical labor movement. The experiences of everyday people like Mrs. Lucy Tibbs can also be found in this collection. The testimony she gave at a Congressional investigation of the Memphis Riot of 1866 (during which she recalls being raped and robbed by a group of ex-Confederates) is reprinted in a chapter devoted to the post Civil War Reconstruction era.

Tables throughout the volumes provide important historical overviews. One example is “The Slave Trade Over Four Centuries” which includes lists of major slaving countries, major sources of slaves, and major destinations from the 16th through the 19th century. A great deal of information is laid out clearly on a single page. This table provides important context for the rest of the chapter which features accounts from slaves, slave traders, and travelers to West Africa during the time of the slave trade.

This book manages to cover a vast period of time, through a diverse collection of sources, in an amazingly succinct manner. From Timbuktu to Katrina: Readings in African-American History does an excellent job of reflecting the complexity of American history while remaining brief and comprehensible to the non-scholar.

As Dr. Taylor states in the book’s preface, “Documents tell a powerful story.” This is required reading for anyone interested in American History, scholar and novice alike.

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