Review of “Battles for Freedom: The Use and Abuse of American History” by Eric Foner

My idea of a perfect dinner party would be to have Eric Foner there. Just him alone would be fine. And I wouldn’t have to say a word, I would just ask him to talk. This book is the next-best thing; in fact, it’s better, because you don’t even have to cook! You can just open it and read his thoughts on a variety of important topics.

Eric Foner is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, and the leading historian of America’s Reconstruction Era. He is also intellectually dazzling, and both wise and endlessly interesting. I have read all his books, taken his courses online, and now am delighted to read this collection of essays by him that are reprinted from “The Nation” Magazine, and that were published from 1977 to 2017. Even though I was familiar with many of them, he is so excellent that one can just never read him too much or too often.

The book begins with an introduction by Randall Kennedy, the renowned Harvard intellectual, who summarizes much of Foner’s more salient insights on both the politics of history and the politics of race.

Foner reminds us that historical accounts and representations of the past, such as those curated in museums, stake a claim in a very contested terrain, because what we remember about our history helps form our ideas about who we are as a people. Furthermore, the selection of which documents, pictures, statues or other representations of our past are displayed and which are omitted are critically important to that process.

It is ironic that museums have been regarded as “neutral” or “value-free” reflections of cultural heritage, because in fact, they are anything but.

Objects and ideas are selected to sustain certain myths and ideologies, valorizing them over those that are ignored. They in turn generate a cultural consciousness: this is what we “remember” and this is what we take to be “historical truth.” The form and structures of these remembrances are simultaneously a deliberate designation of what we choose to forget.

As Foner avers, “[u]ltimately, public monuments are built by those with sufficient power to determine which parts of history are worth commemorating and what vision of history ought to be conveyed.”

Monument of Robert E. Lee

Foner rails against “the amnesia, evasions and misrepresentations” of popular history, particularly in the area of racial conflict. He notes that “[t]hroughout our history, contemporary political problems and commitments have shaped the questions Americans asked about their past and the answers they found.”

He looks not only at museums but also at the docudrama, observing astutely that “the fact that individual action is highlighted and collective action ignored is not simply a consequence of the small screen. Even more, one suspects, it reflects the persistent hold of that peculiarly American strand of individualism on the writers.”

Here he is making the point that a story of individual initiative is one of the ways in which a more threatening narrative of a social movement (especially one that is minority-led) is watered down to conform to the myth of the American Dream, in which any hard-working, courageous person has an equal chance to make a difference and/or to succeed in the American society and economy.

But, as he points out that the intellectual Eric Hobsbawm warned, “studies of the agency of ordinary people, so important in expanding the cast of historical characters, must be placed in the broader context of how social and political power is exercised.”

The fact that these stories rarely are put into a broader social and economic context offers a “meta” lesson about the political ends of carefully shaped narratives couched as “histories.” In addition to telling a story about a specific person, they subtly confer a certain authority or legitimacy upon what is actually a specific set of values, norms, and perspectives that in turn affects popular reactions to events.

In his essay reviewing the work of James W. Loewen (author of books such as “Lies My Teacher Told Me and “Teaching What Really Happened”) Foner singles out tours of historic plantations as a good example of selective memory. He argues that they “ignore or sugarcoat the lives of slaves. No whips, chains or other artifacts of discipline are on display, and presentations by guides focus on the furniture, gardens and architecture rather than the role of slave labor in creating the wealth they represent.” [We found this to be true on a recent tour of George Washington’s Mt. Vernon, where Washington’s slaves were described as Washington’s “servants.”]

Plantation tour showing a vision of a genteel past

Not only is slavery elided whenever possible, he charges, but also the slave trade, “a central element of the pre-Civil War Southern economy,” is generally omitted from public histories. And most germane to Foner’s primary field of study, “Reconstruction …is almost invisible in America’s public history.” To the extent it is covered, it is done so in a way that twists the truth. The history often told (“a time of rampant corruption presided over by unscrupulous Northern carpetbaggers and former slaves unprepared of the freedom that had been thrust upon them”) is an erroneous one that “helped to justify the subsequent policies of segregation and black disfranchisement in the South and the North’s prolonged indifference to white Southerner’s nullification of the federal Constitution.”

He holds that opponents of equality changed the narrative to one of a federal bureaucracy trampling on the rights of white citizens in favor of those who were lazy, incompetent, and bent on defiling white women. (Here Foner laments the irony of that canard, when so many slave women were sexually assaulted by their white masters. Nevertheless, in the South, as he charges, the accusation of rape of a white woman by a black man, rarely substantiated, was enough to motivate a lynching.)

What Foner wants readers to know is that whiteness has an economic value, and that value has underlaid much of the history of race in America, albeit in an unacknowledged way.

Similarly, he emphasizes, “American radicalism is generally excised from public history.” He cites historian Charles Beard, who taught that American history had been shaped by the struggle of competing economic groups. But you don’t read about that in most history books. He applauds Bernie Sanders for bringing back a recognition of the importance of economic structures for the exercise of power in politics, but regrets that Sanders draws upon the experience of European socialists more than that of homegrown American radicals.

Socialist Eugene V. Debs in 1912 – we “locked him up”

Other topics include social Darwinism (remarkably persistent, and especially popular now among the Alt-Right), affirmative action, the Electoral college, Lincoln and his personal growth on the issue of slavery, the uses of the memory of Lincoln, the 14th Amendment, a particularly astute analysis of Barack Obama and his presidency, and September 11 and the anti-Arab, “clash of civilizations” mentality that has gained so much popularity, and according to which western civilization is superior. (He reminds us: “The definition of ‘Western civilization’ is highly selective – it includes the Enlightenment but not the Inquisition, liberalism but not the Holocaust, Charles Darwin but not the Salem witch trials.”)

He concludes: “History does inform the present, and it should. That’s what I mean by a useable past: a historical consciousness that can enable us to address the problems of society today in an intelligent manner.”

Evaluation: Anyone not already familiar with the breadth and depth of Foner’s ideas will get an excellent overview from this wonderful and all-too-brief collection of essays. They have been chosen well: even the older essays remain relevant and important in light of current events.

Rating: 5/5

Published by I.B. Tauris & Co., 2017

Book Review of “Jacksonland” by Steve Inskeep

It is ironic that Andrew Jackson, a murderer, kidnapper, slave owner, slave trader, land speculator acting on inside information, and last but not least, the cruel architect of Indian genocide, should hold such a revered place in the pantheon of American presidents – so much so, that when the question arose of who’s image to replace on money, it was the image of Hamilton that garnered the most attention. [Ironic as well, since it was Jackson who was obsessively opposed to a federal bank, vetoing a bill to recharter the Bank of the United States, which led to an economic depression, and Hamilton, a fiscal genius, who championed the idea.] As much as Americans have been shocked or disappointed over the behavior of some of our recent presidents – at least until the 2016 election – their actions are minor peccadillos compared to the abhorrent and morally horrific activities of Andrew Jackson.


Steve Inskeep, a cohost of NPR’s Morning Edition, and someone who has received multiple awards for investigative journalism, tells Jackson’s story, juxtaposing it to the story of the leader of the Cherokee people, John Ross. It is not hard for Ross to come off looking better.

It was truly difficult to listen to all the outrages committed by Jackson, and against the Native American people, and yet it is essential to understand this part of American history.

Evaluation: If you only read one nonfiction book this year, I hope you will make it this one. It is critically important that Americans understand what kind of man Andrew Jackson really was, and what was done to the Native Americans who occupied the land he coveted. It is an outstanding book, and a pleasure to experience via audio.

Rating: 5/5

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

It’s almost unfair to compare other narrators to the cohost of one of the most widely heard radio news programs in the United States. Inskeep knows how to “read for the ear” and his impassioned narration hits all the right notes.

Published unabridged on 10 CDs (12 listening hours) by Random House Audio, an imprint of the Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2015

April 13, 1743 – Birth of Thomas Jefferson & Review of “The Art of Power” by Jon Meacham

Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743 at his family home in Shadwell in the Colony of Virginia, the third of ten children. Today he is considered to be an icon of individual liberty, democracy, and republicanism, hailed as the architect of the American Revolution.

But was Jefferson actually a great man or just one whose reputation was immeasurably enhanced by the need of Americans to turn their Founders into saints?


Little interests me more than the process of historiography – i.e., the study of historical writing, and the ways in which interpretations of the past change depending on the individual historian and interpretative needs of the present. Books about Jefferson provide a great opportunity to see historiography at work.

What historians choose to focus on regarding Jefferson has important implications for our national identity, making biographies of him all the more significant. The determination of what to include about “a Founder” and how to interpret it not only reflects upon the legitimacy of the American experiment, but also on the continuing social and political order, given our valorizing of “the intent of the Founding Fathers.”

So history is not just a chronicle; it has ideological contours. It not only helps shape what we believe about ourselves, but reveals what we want to believe, and what we want to forget.

For those who want their idealized perceptions of the Founding Fathers left intact, this book is the perfect anodyne to the recent spate of critical works about Jefferson.


Meacham takes great pains to present Jefferson as positively as possible, and in the event of overwhelming facts to the contrary, he has three different approaches to impose his view of Jefferson on the reader. When Meacham is recounting what amounts to dirty tricks, underhandedness, manipulation, and hypocrisy (most of which Jefferson put Madison and others up to doing rather than exposing his own role), Meacham either pleads the different standards of Jefferson’s times, or simply redefines what Jefferson did as “practical” or “adaptable” or “savvy” or even “wise” (a move that Yale History Professor Marci Shore has referred to in a different context as “the teleological deceptions of retrospect”). Most often, however, Meacham takes a third approach and simply omits less savory aspects of Jefferson’s behavior.

James Madison, always willing to do Jefferson's bidding

James Madison, always willing to do Jefferson’s bidding

Leaving out some events and selecting others creates a narrow shadowbox revealing only what the box’s creator wants you to see. No other voices challenge the dominant narrative. Whether consciously or not, the images of the particular history are filtered and focused to impose one version of the past over another.

Consider these facts:

In 1769 Jefferson paid for a very detailed ad in the Virginia Gazette for the capture and return of a runaway mulatto slave. The next year, as a young lawyer, Jefferson defended a mulatto slave who was suing for his freedom. Jefferson argued, “under the law of nature, we are all born free.” (At this time, he owned more than 20 slaves.)

Meanwhile, in 1776, while writing the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson had 83 slaves. This was a low number for him: from 1774 to 1826, he had around 200 slaves at any one time, owning more than 600 people during his lifetime. Most famously, he used one of them as his concubine, starting up with the not-yet-16 year old Sally Hemings when he was 46. She was almost continuously pregnant when he was in town. When she first became pregnant, while acting as a chaperone for Jefferson’s daughter in France, and where she would have had the opportunity to stay there and be free, Jefferson “bribed” her to come back to Virginia (as his slave) by promising that their children could be set free from slavery at age 21. [Jefferson did keep his word to some extent, and set Sally’s children free in his will, although by then they were considerably older than age 21. Sally, by contrast, was not set free by the will. It is thought he gave verbal instructions to his family to that effect, but there is no proof. In the event, it was only eight years after Jefferson died, that his legitimate daughter Martha allowed Sally to leave.]

Meacham describes a number of times when the younger Jefferson indeed tried to get anti-slavery measures passed but could not. He avers that Jefferson came to believe abolition was politically lethal; he was not, therefore, willing to risk his popularity for what was “a lost cause”. Nevertheless, Jefferson not once made a move to free his own slaves, so how sincere was he really? John and Abigail Adams refused to have slaves; George Washington arranged to have his slaves freed after he and his wife died; and in 1796, one of Jefferson’s relatives, the statesman and eminent scholar George Tucker (who wrote a new edition of Blackstone’s Commentaries that was considered a valuable reference work for many American lawyers and law students in the early 19th century), wrote and published the pamphlet “A Dissertation on Slavery: With A Proposal for the Gradual Abolition of It in the State of Virginia.” In short, it wasn’t as if no one else in Jefferson’s time opted for and acted upon a moral course of action.

George Tucker, 1752-1827

George Tucker, 1752-1827

It seems clear that Jefferson’s extravagant tastes and sense of entitlement prevented him from having such a large contingent of paid servants on the payroll. He had expensive taste in imported wines, foodstuffs, furniture, linens, silver, paintings, books, and entertainment. He did not care to live without these things, even if it meant that a large number of people had to live in slavery. Further, he was not above instructing his overseer to punish slaves who were not deemed to be adequately productive. The historian Henry Wiencek recounts a story (totally omitted by Meacham), describing how Monticello’s young black boys, “the small ones,” age 10, 11 or 12, were whipped to get them to work harder in Jefferson’s nail factory, the profits of which paid the mansion’s grocery bills. Some slaves, Jefferson wrote, “require a vigour of discipline to make them do reasonable work.”

Living the good life at Montecello - the Tea Room

Living the good life at Montecello – the Tea Room

Nor does Meacham spend time on Jefferson’s detailed calculations about how much money he could make from the “propagation” of black slaves (a 4 percent profit every year, he noted). He boasted of it to George Washington.

Last but not least, Jefferson wrote about blacks as being “racially inferior“ and “as incapable as children.” He thought that even if slaves were freed, they should all be deported (except, we presume, for Sally, who was, apparently, capable of at least one thing not commonly considered to be “childlike”.)

Meacham does, at the very end, give consideration to the contradiction of Jefferson’s beliefs about freedom for all of mankind and his continued investment in the institution of slavery, but doesn’t really resolve these contradictions, other to say that because Jefferson couldn’t push abolition through, “[h]e gave up.” Meacham did not convince me on that score, especially because when Jefferson wanted anything else done, he took every conceivable step, whether through pressure, mud-slinging, reputation-destroying, or deal-making, to achieve his aims.

Vegetable garden at Montecello - it took a village, or at least a very large contingent of slaves, to maintain

Vegetable garden at Montecello – it took a village, or at least a very large contingent of slaves, to maintain

Another big issue Meacham elides over is the hypocritical way in which Jefferson became apoplectic over what he considered the “monarchical” tendencies of Washington, Adams, Hamilton, and other Federalists. Yet Jefferson’s presidency pushed the limits of a strong executive in ways never before done so, and in ways that Jefferson would have considered anathema if someone else had made those moves. The Louisiana purchase, for example, was clearly unconstitutional – even Jefferson admitted it (in secret). The embargo on sending goods to Great Britain was also a curtailment of liberty and an extension of the reach of the federal government that would have had Jefferson crying treason if his predecessors had engaged in these acts. Meacham concedes this, but contends that Jefferson’s usurpations of power showed how “brilliantly” he could remold his ideology when “the future of the country” was at stake.

And on and on….


Nevertheless, Jefferson endures, as Meacham avers. He holds that Jefferson passes the fundamental test of leadership:

Despite all his shortcomings and all the inevitable disappointments and mistakes and drams deferred, he left America, and the world, in a better place than it had been when he first entered the area of public life.”

I would agree that the idea of Jefferson, and more precisely, the ideals of Jefferson, endure, and have changed the nation for the better. As Meacham observes:

All the … Jeffersons – the emblematic ones, the metaphorical ones, the ones different generations and differing partisans interpret and invent, seeking inspiration from his example and sanction from his name – all these Jeffersons tell us more about ourselves than they do about the man himself.”

The ideals Jefferson inscribed into the Declaration of Independence gave us a bridge from what was (and is) to what we wanted (and still want) to be. Although “we the people” only referred to some of the people, the bridge was in place: now we could aspire to reach the other side.


And certainly his contributions to the cause of freedom from and of religion cannot be denied. (This was a cause surely as emotionally fraught as slavery, albeit without the same economic repercussions. Yet Jefferson worked tirelessly to ensure that America would be a country that was based on a separation of church and state.) As for the man himself, I wish we could acknowledge the great uses to which he has been put, without having to deify him in the process.

Evaluation: I listened to the audio version of this book. Edward Herrmann did a very good job at narrating, and the text (in spite of my complaints about its selectivity) never lost my interest. I would only caution that, as with any historical interpretation, it is advisable to read other accounts along with it.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Random House Audio, unabridged on 15 compact discs, 2012.

Review of “The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War “ by H. W. Brands

By the end of 1948, the Cold War between the communist East and the capitalist West was in full force. The communists under Mao Zedong had defeated the Kuomintang of Chiang Kai-shek and had become rulers of China. Chiang and his followers had been chased off the mainland and held a precarious grip on the island of Formosa. In the United States, the Republican Party cast blame on the Democrats, particularly President Harry S. Truman, for “losing China.” Then, on June 24, 1950, the communist North Korean army swept into capitalist (sort of) South Korea and within days captured the capital, Seoul. (Previously, at the end of World War II, Korea had been split into two countries at the 38th Parallel; North Korea was communist with leader Kim Il-sung and South Korea was set up to be a democratic republic.)


South Korea and NATO were caught completely off guard. For several weeks, it looked as if the North Koreans would swiftly conquer the entire peninsula. However, by a stroke of luck, the Soviet Union was boycotting the United Nations Security Council, and their absence allowed the United States to lead the passage of a resolution that authorized the use of force by the UN to oust the North Koreans. American General Douglas MacArthur was put in charge of the UN forces. He quickly assembled a somewhat ragtag army consisting primarily of American troops based in Japan and moved to the southeast corner of Korea. There they established a defensive perimeter around the port of Pusan and arrested the impetus of the invasion.

The United States was reluctant to send a large force to defend Korea because it believed many more troops were needed in Europe to deter a Soviet invasion there. In addition, Truman did not want to risk a more general conflict, and never sought a formal declaration of war. Thus, what was to evolve into a four-year, intense armed conflict became labeled legally as a “police action.”

MacArthur had a well deserved reputation as a capable (some said brilliant) military strategist. He formulated a plan for a counter-offensive that involved landing a large force at Inchon, well behind enemy lines. The Inchon landing allowed UN forces to cut the supply lines of the North Koreans, who were soon driven into a wild retreat. By October, the North Korean army had been driven from the south and was fleeing north of the 38th parallel (the border between North and South Korea).


MacArthur wanted to destroy the North Korean army even if it required chasing them all the way to the border of China. Truman feared that chasing them too close to the Chinese border might provoke the Chinese into greatly expanding the scope of the conflict. Truman flew all the way to Wake Island (a trip that took several days) to confer with MacArthur, who assured him that he (MacArthur) knew the mind of the “Asiatics,” and that the Chinese would not intervene. But the Chinese did intervene with overwhelming numbers and nearly destroyed the American Eighth Army. So much for being able to divine the ratiocinations of the “inscrutable Orientals.”

What to do next became the subject of a vitriolic debate within and between various factions of the American civilian and military establishments, and the subject of dozens if not hundreds of history books.


H. W. Brands is a professor of History at the University of Texas. In The General vs. the President, he fashions a history of the beginning of the Korean War painting it as much as a confrontation between the two chief American protagonists (MacArthur and Truman) as a battle between the United Nations and the invaders of South Korea. MacArthur wanted to hit the Chinese with every available weapon, even atomic bombs. At the very least, he wanted to bomb supply bases in Chinese territory. In addition, he wanted to “unleash Chiang,” that is, use the Nationalist Chinese army on Formosa either to invade China proper or reinforce UN troops in Korea. In his view, he was being forced by Washington to fight a “limited war” with one hand tied behind his back.

MacArthur observes the naval shelling of Inchon from USS Mount McKinley, 15 September 1950 with Brigadier General Courtney Whitney (left) and Major General Edward M. Almond (right).

MacArthur observes the naval shelling of Inchon from USS Mount McKinley, 15 September 1950 with Brigadier General Courtney Whitney (left) and Major General Edward M. Almond (right).

Truman, mindful of the Soviet threat in Europe, wanted to limit the conflict as much as possible in order to husband American military power for other potential hot spots. MacArthur attempted to take his case directly to the American people. He circumvented civilian authority by publishing a letter to the American Legion outlining his position. Truman fired him for his insubordination, even though MacArthur did not directly disobey a presidential order.

Their conflict over strategy was not the only source of rancor between them. As Brands writes:

“In his five years as president, Truman had tolerated repeated slights and affronts from MacArthur: the general’s habit of making pronouncements on matters beyond his military responsibilities, his failure to return to America to brief the government on the U.S. occupation of Japan, his campaigning for president in 1948 without bothering to resign his command.”

Brands reports that “Truman had suppressed his anger, lest a public row between the president and the general threaten the precarious stability of the Far East.”

MacArthur briefly became a hero of the American political right, receiving many honors and starring in several ticker-tape parades. His actions did not withstand scrutiny of a Congressional investigation, however. Within a few months of his return to America, he had more or less faded into oblivion.

New York Times, April 21, 1951 showing the ticker tape parade for Douglas MacArthur

New York Times, April 21, 1951 showing the ticker tape parade for Douglas MacArthur

Brands points out three major considerations of which I (and, according to Brands, MacArthur) had not been aware. First, South Korea was not connected by land to any friendly territory. Thus, all resupply of the UN forces had to come by water or air, and South Korea had very limited seaport and airport facilities. American airpower was stretched very thin. Moreover, the Soviet Union had a large submarine fleet based in nearby Vladivostok. If the military situation became unfavorable, a retreat or withdrawal from the peninsula would be perilous in the extreme. Second, the Chinese and Soviets also seemed to be fighting in a limited way because they had not struck very vulnerable UN air bases in Korea. They too were fighting the war with one hand tied behind their backs, in part because of the same obstacles to fighting in Korea as beset UN forces. (Brands avers “China’s restraint . . . had been crucial to the survival of American and UN forces in Korea.”)

As for the Soviet Union, it chose to stay on the sidelines (aside from providing MIG fighter jets and possibly some experienced pilots to the Chinese), letting the Americans and Chinese bleed each other.  However, the Soviets remained a menace and a potential threat that could have greatly upset the balance of military forces if they had intervened. Third, the American military had been so reduced after World War II that it was in no position to fight in Korea while simultaneously maintaining a strong defensive position in Europe.


Much of the unfavorable information described above was outlined in secret testimony to Congress, but was not made public or disclosed to MacArthur until much later. Brands opines that MacArthur may not even have been aware of the real reasons behind his dismissal. Congress had also been unaware of much of the American vulnerability in Korea. Brands notes that “[t]he Committee members were sobered, if not stunned, by the chiefs’ and [George] Marshall’s descriptions of the actual condition of the American military vis-a-vis America’s enemies. Americans tended to believe that having won World War II, the American military could dispatch China with one hand and whack Russia with the other. The secret testimony of Marshall and the chiefs made patent that America’s military had its hands full already.”

Discussion: This history exhibits yet another period in American history when an American leader was frustrated and even infuriated by the recalcitrant behavior of generals, but for a variety of reasons was loathe to jeopardize the popularity of a conflict by dismissing them. In particular, the case of Lincoln and McClellan comes to mind. In this case just like other such conflicts, and like most reputable historians, Brands sides with Truman in the clash between the local military commander and the civilian authority.

Events may unfold differently in the future. Our current president frequently demonstrates his ignorance of historical nuance by unequivocal praise of MacArthur. I guess narcissists admire other narcissists as well as themselves.

Evaluation: The General vs. the President is a well argued addition to Korean War literature.

Rating: 4/5 stars

Published by Doubleday, a division of Penguin Random House, 2016

Book Review of “Killing the Black Body” by Dorothy Roberts

Dorothy Roberts, a graduate of Yale College and Harvard Law School, documents the historical usurpation of black women’s reproductive freedom by systematic, institutionalized decisions based on a confluence of race and gender discrimination. She reviews the process that started with slave masters’ use of black women’s bodies to increase their slave holdings, to racist eugenics policies that resulted in the surreptitious sterilization of thousands of black women, to attempts to restrict the fertility of black women on the grounds that they are inflating the welfare roles.


She charges that the dominant idea of reproductive liberty is primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women and is focused on the right to abortion. She points out that reproductive freedom is not only a matter of an individual woman’s right to choose, but it also is woven into a larger social context, so that economic exigencies (including access to health care, jobs, child care, medical information, and medical technology) as well as systemic racism (e.g., residential segregation which restricts access to better jobs) play a deterministic role.

Roberts points to many policy proposals holding that “the key to solving America’s social problems is to curtail Black women’s birth rates.” American society, she maintains, is still affected by thought patterns that either consciously or unconsciously imbue whites with positive characteristics (“industrious, intelligent, responsible”), while Blacks are associated with the opposite, negative qualities (“lazy, ignorant, shiftless”). In fact, a study in 1990 found that “78 percent of white Americans thought that Blacks preferred to live on welfare.” Many whites seem unaware of, or unaffected by, the fact that whites make up the greater number of welfare recipients (although the percentage of black recipients is higher). Since 1990 attitudes have not changed much. Most whites are even uncognizant of the passage in 1996 of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunities Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) which replaced AFDC. This Act mandates that single mothers who receive welfare find paid work; it encourages them to marry; and it limits their time on aid to a lifetime maximum of five years. Some states have even shorter time limits. PRWORA in effect treats the inability to work as a personal, moral failing and insists that women are better off with men. Thus poor black women must somehow cope with the distances they must travel from their segregated living areas to find work, the lack of child care (so that they must often pull older children out of school to help), and the bottom-of-the-barrel wages they will receive for unskilled work.

A concern for helping the Black community to escape the spiral of poverty has never been a priority. On the contrary, according to Roberts, it is “the huge cost these children impose on taxpayers.” Indeed, the general adherence to a preference for “non-government intervention” by those against “the welfare state” (or as we might say nowadays, “socialism”) gainsays the fact that “negative” liberty only benefits those who already hold money and power. The so-called “neutral” principles adopted by the courts and the government that call for leaving things as they are and letting market forces take over is not neutral at all. It rewards those with the economic positions to take advantage of opportunities to better themselves even more. The fact is that many people, because of unequal social and economic positions, are not actually free to make decisions or take choices that the government claims to be protecting by “non-interference.”

Roberts does an excellent job of detailing the violations committed toward black women over the years. I would take issue with her on the omission of two issues. One is the role black men have played in this racially-tinged misogynist drama. Although attitudes of both white men and white women are discussed, those of black men toward black women are not included. A second issue is the role of men in general in the entire reproductive dialogue. Roberts fully documents the extent to which black women are blamed. But she does not discuss the historical and societal bias toward not blaming men at all for pregnancy. Robert seeks to take blame away from black women and situate it in a socioeconomic context. While this is not an illegitimate request, what about sharing some blame with the ones who make them pregnant in the first place? And more specifically, what about the pressures upon black teenagers of both genders to have sex and/or have babies? Surely some of it has to do with peer attitudes, pressure from other teens, and perhaps even the dearth of love and companionship in their lives. These questions aren’t addressed.

Overall, however, this book is a valuable contribution to the scholarship of race, and should definitely be included as a complement to the many books on feminism that overlook the black woman’s experience. The systemic, societal problems noted with the cyclical entrenchment of poverty must be tackled, rather than focusing all of the nation’s hostility on the black women who have borne so much. As Katz and Stern write in the Winter 2008 issue of Dissent, “Black poverty and inequality, in the last analysis, are problems of national imagination and will. Surmounting them requires understanding how they work today and finding the resolve to attack their sources. The task is difficult, but, then, the stakes are very high.” Roberts has done a lot of research to help. Now it is up to us.

Review of “Freedom in Congo Square” by Carole Boston Weatherford

In Louisiana, slaves had a day off from work on Sundays. In New Orleans, after 1817, they could only gather in one place on this day, an open field known as Congo Square. There, the slaves could play African music, dance, play, and sing. As the author says in an Afterword, “For a few hours every Sunday, Congo Square gave slaves a taste of freedom.”


This picture book for children begins with a Foreword by a historian about Congo Square (which is now located within Louis Armstrong Park in New Orleans).

Then the author uses rhyming couplets on double-page spreads to take us through the days of the week to show some of the work done by slaves, and how much they looked forward to Sundays. Midweek, for example:

Wednesdays, there were beds to make,
silver to shine, and bread to bake.

The dreaded lash, too much to bear.
Four more days to Congo Square.”


Come Sunday, both the author and illustrator convey the joy of that one day:

They rejoiced as if they had no cares;
half day, half free in Congo Square.

This piece of earth was a world apart.
Congo Square was freedom’s heart.”


The book ends with a glossary and an Author’s Note.

R. Gregory Christie is the perfect illustrator for a book that focuses so much on movement, whether showing the work done by slaves during the week, or dancing and singing on Sundays. He uses folk art-style paintings and a bright palette well-represented by Pan-African colors. His figures look more rigid and angled during the work week, but they stretch and leap and flow in Congo Square.

Both the author and the illustrator have garnered many awards.


Evaluation: This book has much to recommend it: the story will teach children some of the many things slaves were required to do. Moreover, the juxtaposition of the harshness of slavery with the joy expressed on (half) days of freedom certainly illustrates – both in words and pictures, how absurd was the outrageous canard that slaves were “happy.” Finally, the way Christie changes the lines and colors of his art can show children how important and effective images are in affecting perception.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Little Bee Books, an imprint of Bonnier Publishing Group, 2016

Review of “The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became An American Hero” by Timothy Egan

This excellent history of Thomas Francis Meagher (pronounced as Marr) is also a history of the Irish, particularly from the 1600’s onward. The story is quite sad, with the life of Meagher a microcosm in a way of the experience of the Irish nation as a whole. Both suffered repeated persecution, but did not give in to despair. Rather, they were persistent, passionate, and dedicated to justice, family, hearth, kin, and country.


Egan begins by delineating elements of the Irish Penal Code, a series of acts passed by the English, characterized by the philosopher Edmund Burke as “a machine as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people, and the debasement in them of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man.” W.E.H. Lecky summarized these laws in his A History of Ireland in the Eighteenth Century:

The Roman Catholic was forbidden to receive education.

He was forbidden to enter a profession.
He was forbidden to hold public office.
He was forbidden to engage in trade or commerce.
He was forbidden to live in a corporate town or within five miles thereof.

He was forbidden to own a horse of greater value than five pounds.

He was forbidden to purchase land.

He was forbidden to lease land.

He was forbidden to accept a mortgage on land in security for a loan.
He was forbidden to vote.

He was forbidden to keep any arms for his protection.

He was forbidden to hold a life annuity.

He was forbidden to buy land from a Protestant.

He was forbidden to receive a gift of land from a Protestant.

He was forbidden to inherit land from a Protestant.
He was forbidden to inherit anything from a Protestant.
He was forbidden to rent any land that was worth more than thirty shillings a year.

He was forbidden to reap from his land any profit exceeding a third of the rent.

He could not be guardian to a child.

He could not, when dying, leave his infant children under Catholic guardianship.

He could not himself educate his child.
He could not send his child to a Catholic teacher.

He could not employ a Catholic teacher to come to his child.

He could not send his child abroad to receive education.

And yet the English never did succeed in snuffing out hope, or in quenching the Irish thirst for self-determination.

Thomas Meagher was born in 1823, and died shortly before his 44th birthday in 1867. In some ways though, he truly remained “immortal” – still remembered today, both in Ireland and in the U.S.

With the onset of The Great Famine (also known as the Irish Potato Famine) in 1845, Meagher was drawn into public life to protest the unwillingness of the London government to provide relief for the Irish, in spite of the great stores of food being produced in Ireland by Protestant landowners and designated for export only. (During the famine, approximately one million people died and a million more emigrated from Ireland, causing the island’s population to fall by between 20% and 25%.)

 1846 illustration showing a starving boy and girl raking the ground for potatoes during the Irish Potato Famine

1846 illustration showing a starving boy and girl raking the ground for potatoes during the Irish Potato Famine

Meagher became an Irish nationalist and a leader of the “Young Irelanders” in the Rebellion of 1848. He and others were convicted of sedition, and first sentenced to death. In response to popular outrage all over the world, the group instead were sentenced to exile for life in Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) in Australia, where Britain had established some notoriously bad penal colonies, sending some 162,000 convicts there between 1788 and 1868. Many convicts were transported for petty crimes while a significant number were political prisoners.


In 1852 Meagher escaped and made his way to the United States, where he settled in New York City. His first wife, whom he met in Tasmania, went to Ireland to give birth, intending to meet up with him later in America, but she died in childbirth. In New York Meagher eventually married a second time, studied law, and lectured extensively on the Irish cause.

When the American Civil War began, Meagher joined the army, recruiting his fellow immigrants for the famous Irish Brigade, which he commanded. The bravery of the Irish Brigade won them respect even by the Confederates.

Thomas Francis Meagher, Brigadier General of the Irish Brigade

Thomas Francis Meagher, Brigadier General of the Irish Brigade

Following the Civil War, Meagher was appointed acting governor of the Montana Territory, a position for which he was never paid, and which undoubtedly led to his assassination by anti-Catholic, anti-Irish “Know Nothings” in 1867.

Egan tells the two stories – of Ireland and of Meagher – with a righteous indignation and passion that animates his prose.

It’s difficult to isolate the most powerful parts of the book, but the limning of the suffering in Ireland during the Irish Potato Famine, along with the shockingly cold-hearted English response, is surely one of them.

Other parts of the story seem like one thrilling action adventure after another, from Meagher’s hair’s breadth escape from Australia, to the sickening carnage of the Civil War that Meagher somehow survived, in spite of serving in some of the worst battles of that war.

Meagher’s fate in Montana seemed like the ultimate irony. After all he endured, through which he managed not only to live but to thrive – to get cut down by hateful nativists in an outlaw part of America was so unjust and outrageous. As we see nativists once again trying to gain ascendancy in the American polity, we can only hope that this time, reason will triumph over fear and prejudice, and that somehow our “better angels” will prevail.

Monument to Meagher in Helena, Montana, erected in 1905

Monument to Meagher in Helena, Montana, erected in 1905

Discussion: Much of American history is conveyed with a political agenda in the deep background. Britain is an important ally, and we don’t go out of our way to recount its crimes except in terms of the American Revolution, an almost acceptable conflict between brothers, and in which America looked pretty good in any event (at least according to our own histories). But Britain’s other, more egregious colonial misdeeds are not often taught, and it is an unfortunate oversight. The Irish who suffered and died deserve to have their plight known in the U.S. as well as in Ireland, and their heroes remembered for all they sacrificed. Egan takes an important step in remedying this omission.

Evaluation: My favorite kind of history is one that reads like an action/adventure novel, and this book certainly meets that criterion. The author, Timothy Egan, has won a number of awards for his nonfiction, including winning the National Book Award for Nonfiction for The Worst Hard Time. The story he tells in this book is one with which we should all be familiar, to help us understand much of the recent history of England and Ireland, not to mention the to get a better sense of the cruelty and injustice of prejudice against others.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published in hardcover by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

The narrator – Gerald Doyle – is terrific. Gerard Doyle is an actor and experienced narrator who has received over 25 Earphones awards. He has twice been recognized as an AudioFile magazine “Best Voice of the Year.” It adds immeasurably to the story to have it relayed in an Irish accent.

Published unabridged on 11 CDs (14 listening hours) by Brilliance Audio, 2016