Title: Learning from the Germans:
Race and the Memory of Evil
Author: Susan Neiman
Pages: 386 (plus citations, indices, etc.)
Rating: 3 of 5
I reject the romanticized “Lost Cause” interpretation of the American Civil War. A perusal of the Declaration of Causes of Seceding States, the “Cornerstone” Speech, and similar primary source documents makes it very clear that for the decision-makers in leadership the war was fought to preserve slavery (whether that is what individual soldiers felt they were fighting for or not). This book is driven by this understanding of the Civil War and the Confederacy coupled with a recognition of the shameful evil of slavery in America and its racist legacy (“Jim Crow,” etc.).
The author, a Jewish American philosopher who currently lives in Germany, explores the difference between how Germany and the US have dealt with government propagated racism in their past history. No direct “more/less evil” or “more/fewer victims” comparison is made between Nazism and slavery. The comparison is in how these events are memorialized, acknowledged, defended, excused, atoned for, and/or (her favorite phrase) “worked off.” Personally, I have pondered this idea before and was interested to see a scholarly book on the topic. It ended up being a very different book than what I was hoping for.
The book meanders through history, the author’s personal experiences (mostly living in Berlin & visiting racially charged locations and racial reconciliation groups in Mississippi), and her own philosophical/political thoughts. Much of it felt scattery and as if she were trying to talk through her ideas on paper and come to conclusions as she was writing. As she does this, she comes from a philosophical/political perspective somewhere to the left of Bernie Sanders, and tends to attribute the worst possible (usually racist) motives to those of other political persuasions.
Overall, I did find much to appreciate and ponder in this book even though there are areas where I would strongly disagree with the author. I would love to see this same topic taken on by someone whose forte was history rather than philosophy.
Title: The Deep
Authors: Rivers Solomon, Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, & Jonathan Snipes
Rating: 2.5 of 5
Future Release Date: November 5, 2019 (Thank you to the authors and publisher for a free copy via NetGalley)
The worldbuilding and overarching concepts in this book are very interesting. We are introduced to an underwater society (basically mermaids though that word is never used) descended from enslaved African women who were tossed overboard during the middle passage. As long as you are willing to suspend disbelief and accept that quite a few things about them can best be explained as “because magic,” it’s a pretty cool concept.
The authors explore themes related to painful history and identity. Our protagonist is the society’s “historian”: a role that seems to be ripped straight out of Lois Gowry’s The Giver (though repurposed a bit). Most of the book focuses on her trauma from having to bear the painful memories of all her ancestors while the rest of her society live essentially without memory.
How the “historian’s” trauma was handled is where the book lost me a bit. Apparently the authors felt that the best way to convey the depth of this trauma is to have her go over and over and over it in almost the exact same words for pages on end, circling back to it repeatedly while giving short shrift to actually describing the memories. Repetitive morbid introspection is a pet peeve of mine, and this book has it in spades. Add to this a completely tangential semi-detailed discussion of “mermaid” sexuality that seems designed purely to check off the “look how woke we are” box, and I feel like the book’s pace was completely off. Overall, interesting story, but it would have been much better as a short story (there was that much traumatized whining).
(Also, this book developed out of a rap song by Clipping which you can find here)
Title: King Leopold’s Ghost:
A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa
Author: Adam Hochschild
Pages: 306 (plus citations, etc.)
Rating: 4.5 of 5
In the mid-1800’s, Leopold II, King of the Belgians, claimed a massive chunk of central Africa. With the help of trading companies and their armed “sentries” he brutally exploited the people in it for his own personal enrichment while convincing the world that he was a great humanitarian. King Leopold’s Ghost examines the sordid history of the Belgian Congo, the land that inspired Joseph Conrad’s bleak Heart of Darkness.
Hochschild covers everything from the early exploration of central Africa to the results of the international protest movement spearheaded by journalists and Protestant missionaries and all the horror in between. Reading about exploitation, mutilation, and death on such a massive scale is not easy, but is crucial to understanding the history of European colonialism in Africa and its continuing impact.
The author definitely “has it out” for Leopold, but I’m not sure how you would be completely dispassionate about someone responsible for deaths on a scale similar to Hitler or Stalin. Africans are presented in a balanced manner, emphasizing their victimization without falling into the idealized “noble savage” mindset or ignoring the complicity of some in the slave trade. Europeans and Americans working against the cruelties of Leopold’s rule are portrayed sympathetically without glossing over their blind spots, weaknesses, and limited impact.
I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the history of Africa and/or European Colonialism. The overall style is a very readable “popular level” but features high quality primary-source research.
(Also, this is my sixth book read for the 2019 TBR Pile Challenge).
Title: Our Man in Charleston:
Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South
Author: Christopher Dickey
Genre: History (American Civil War)
Rating: 4 of 5
This book provides a unique Brit’s-eye view of the American Civil War. Even though “Secret Agent” appears in the subtitle, don’t expect a convoluted spy yarn. This is the story of British consul Robert Bunch whose tireless activities mostly involved schmoozing politicians and sending his superiors reports on the society and goings-on in Charleston (and the South in general).
Bunch’s disgust for slavery and the cruel, pompous hypocrisy of Charlestonians high society filled his reports as he kept his superiors abreast of the political developments up to and beyond South Carolina’s secession. With his Southern friends and acquaintances he hid his disdain well enough that none of them realized how much he abhorred their “peculiar institution” and how foolish he found the “fire eater” secessionists. According to the author, Bunch’s reports on slavery in the South and the possible revival of the African slave trade contributed heavily to Britain’s refusal to fully recognize the Confederacy (good man!).
Besides offering Bunch’s point of view, the book gives a decent overview of the national political maneuvering before and during the war. This includes both the jockeying to preserve slavery that led to secession* and relations between Britain and both the USA and CSA. The political maneuverings involving Britain and the African slave trade were something with which I had only a passing acquaintance from previous study, so I found them particularly interesting.
The one major weakness that I found with the book is that the author almost always paraphrases or summarizes Bunch’s reports rather than quoting them at any length. I’m not sure if there are any direct quotes that are longer than a sentence in the entire book, and precious few of even that length. Maybe it’s just me, but this seems a bit sparse and interpretive even for a popular level history book.
Overall, I enjoyed the book and appreciated reading about the Civil War from a different perspective.
* The “lost cause” narrative of the Civil War that portrays slavery as a red herring is unsustainable in light of primary source material (e.g. secession documents) even if you ignore Bunch’s eyewitness accounts