This is a fairly comprehensive book - replete with photos and personal accounts - of the history of African Americans in the U.S. military spanning from the War of Independence to Vietnam. The author also looks into the efforts made by the military in the post-Vietnam era to expand opportunities for advancement in the military for African Americans.
I recommend "THE RIGHT TO FIGHT: A History of African Americans in the Military" to any reader keen to know and better understand an aspect of U.S. history too often overlooked or marginalized.
Thanks to Net Galley and to Cornerstone Digital for providing me a free copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.
When I read the premise of this novel, a United States where the Civil War hadn’t taken place and slavery was alive and well in modern times, I was intrigued. As part of my American Literature course I did read historical and literary texts related to the Civil War and later to the Civil Rights Movement, and I found the thought of what modern-day America might have looked like if things have gone differently both fascinating and horrifying.
The book is classed under alternative history, a subgenre that allows authors to imagine scenarios that might make readers shiver, or just reflect on how far (or otherwise) civilisation has come.
The world in Underground Airlines is on the one side very similar to the world we know (at least the bits we’re shown), and even the historical figures of importance are mentioned, although in some cases with a slightly alternative fate or role (like Lincoln’s earlier demise, and Michael Jackson’s different set of problems). Despite the genre, the book is not very heavy on history and does not hammer readers with deep analysis (there are subtle references to themes like the Mockingbird syndrome) and considering the nature of the subject it even manages to avoid heavy pulling at emotional heartstrings.
The story is told in the first person by Victor or… well, whomever he is. The main character is an African-American free man, but not really. He escaped from a slaughter house where he had been born and was supposed to spend all his life. They found his hiding place and forcefully recruited him to become an official agent who would find escapees and return them back to one of the 4 states where slavery is still legal, thanks to the 18th Amendment to the constitution. At first, Víctor made me think of The Confidence Man by Herman Melville, whereby seemingly different characters tell different stories, although perhaps they are all one and the same master of disguise. But then I thought (and saw a comment that also made that reference) about the film Blade Runner, at least if we think about the first version of the film with Deckard’s narration. Victor is somebody who tries hard not to remember anything about his past (although memories, or more accurately flashbacks, intrude every so often) or to feel anything. He has become so adept at adopting other identities that when at some point Martha —a young mother he meets early in the novel and ends up embroiled in the whole intrigue — wants to know his real name, he’s no longer sure. He also reminded me of Deckard with regards to the doubt in many people’s minds as to his real identity. Is he a human being or a replicant? Victor insist (to himself) that he does what he has to do, that he does not care about the ongoing slavery and his own safety is his only concern, that he does not believe anybody can do anything or any of his acts can change matters, but…
What seemed to be a pretty streamlined occupation for Victor starts to get complicated when he is assigned a case where he soon realises something is not what it seems. The file is not complete, the phrasing is off, and the people he meets along the way seem to be hiding something, although he doesn’t quite realise how much. Agents and double agents, twists and turns, betrayals, and a visit to the Deep South are on the cards for the man whose only goal is to not make ripples and keep to the plan.
The book is written in a style that seems to fit in with the fictional character, although for me, somehow, the picture was as fractured as the man itself. Although I have a weakness for unreliable narrators, and Victor is indeed one of them, I found it difficult to connect with him, perhaps because he was himself disconnected and avoided looking at his emotions, and I am not sure he ever became a fully-fledged character for me.
The idea behind the story is good although I wondered if people really keen on historical fiction would find there is enough detail or would like to know more than the brief tasters and snippets that are hinted at throughout the novel. Personally, the novel made me reflect on the nature of world politics and economy, as in what is considered the developed world we seem to be happy to wear or consume products manufactured in near-slavery conditions with little concern for where they come from or only paying lip service to such issues. The specific reflections on race and racism will perhaps be more shocking to readers not very familiar with the topic or who have not read novels or classic texts by authors and figures who’ve written more extensively on it.
I liked the ending, although I wasn’t a hundred per cent sure how well it fitted in with the rest (but I won’t comment in detail to avoid spoilers). The issue at the heart of the investigation that costs many people dearly was to my mind less surprising than it was built up to be (the big whatsit kind of scenario) although in truth I’m not sure what I was expecting.
In sum this is a novel that paints a scary but somewhat familiar alternative version of history in the US (an uncanny version if one wants) and makes us think about issues of race, loyalty, identity, family and global economy. It can be a good introduction to the genre of alternative fiction and has enough intrigue for the readers in search of a good story.
Freedom on my Mind (Part 1) is the first textbook I've ever read almost entirely cover to cover. African American History is something that's been skimmed over in many of our history classes, and for the first time in a long time I felt a new world of history open up to me. Freedom touches on every aspect of the early African American experience, much of which was too horrifying to even imagine. Though it's written in textbook format, it doesn't read quite so dry- the authors are really good at summing up the information you need while not letting the language get boring. They also don't attempt to skirt around the more difficult subjects, like the treatment endured on the Middle Passage, the rape of countless African American women, and the ugly racial stereotypes which continued to be perpetuated throughout the early 20th century.
The best thing about this textbook are the documents that are included with each chapter. By connecting the historical figures and events they're writing about to physical evidence of the laws and customs of the time, the glossy film we as a nation have put over slavery and the institution of racism is peeled back. Although no one in America denies that slavery existed or is unaware of how terrible it was, by and large we sort of pretend that the horrors of slavery were isolated. Films like Gone With the Wind are evidence of Americans' denial of the true face of the Antebellum era.
The textbook ends just after the Civil War, when black men were struggling to exercise their new right to vote and a half-assed effort toward reconstructing the South had begun. As someone who's always had an interest in The Underground Railroad (it was the first non-fiction thing I read about as a kid) and the early history of the United States, a lot of what we went over in class and in the textbook I already knew, or at least had a base understanding. However, I learned a lot of new things as well and got into a lot more detail about things I was already aware of.
Something that was completely new to me was that not all abolitionists were fighting for true equality between the races. There was "radical" abolitionism and "conservative" abolitionism- radicals believed in true equality, and they were few and far between, even in the North. Many more Northern whites were conservative abolitionists, who were appalled by slavery but still saw blacks as inferior people who should be sent "back" (by the mid-late 1800s most of the slaves were born in America, so they were more American than African) to Africa or who needed guidance from whites. They believed in a slow movement away from slavery and compensation for the slave owners. Radicals were people who believed blacks, whites, women, and men should all be treated with equal respect, that slaves should be freed immediately and that they should be compensated for their suffering, and the former slave owners should get nothing or be punished. While it was disheartening to learn that even some of the abolitionists were racists, learning about how free-thinking the radicals were was very inspiring.
Honestly, I'd recommend this to anyone who is interested in American history, or history in general. It's kind of crazy that I'm recommending a school textbook right now- that should speak to its' awesomeness! It's not even too pricey because it's not from one of those corrupt big textbook companies. I think I got it new for about $40, and it was totally worth it.
Never stop learning!
Picked up my books for Cultural Anthropology at the school bookstore yesterday. I usually try to avoid buying from the school- they rob me enough as it is, and new books are usually half the price online. But I was desperate- I needed these for today, and it was only about a $10 difference, so eh. Coulda been worse.
Started First Fieldwork today (different cover), so far it's semi-interesting. I'll be starting In Search of Respect this evening after work- I'm looking forward to that one a lot.
I love old books, but new books just feel and smell amazing. I just want to carry around In Search of Respect all day because it feels so good in my hands.
Coolest news- they had my English book at the public library! This is one I may want for my collection, but since I'm short on money as always I'm going to keep this checked out for as long as I can. Hopefully I can get the full 9 weeks out of it!
Still have to order my book for my African Americans in History class, which I suppose I'll do right now.
I also found these beautiful fancy post-its at work for a couple bucks- so looking forward to using them to decorate my planner this week! Need some fall-colored washi desperately, but that'll have to wait a while.
It's been a very hectic few days getting used to going to school while working, but through caffeine all is possible.