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In Their Own Words: A History of the…

In Their Own Words: A History of the American Negro, 1865-1916

by Milton Meltzer

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This is a collection of primary documents with extensive introductory comments by the editor, Milton Meltzer, who has written much material on African-American history for film, radio, tv, magazines, and books. It is the second part of a volume, and this book focuses particularly on the period of Reconstruction, though follows important elements in Black thought that succeeded it, to a little after the start of World War I. One particularly important source of documents is testimony to Congress when investigations were conducted relating to racial issues.

On the frontispiece is a list of acknowledgements as to where documents and illustrations were obtained. Each selection is followed by a statement of its source, and the remarks that precede each selection give an idea of its general purpose and melieu as well as where, when, and by whom is was given. There are few illustrations, mainly of important persons in the narrative. One of the strengths of the book is the range of speakers who are represented. Some are from oral histories, such as an autobiographical history given by a 40 year old man forced by his land owner to become a prison laborer in post-Civil War Georgia from the aptly titled "The Life Stories of Undistinguished Americans as Told by Themselves (Hamilton Holt, 1906)." Also included are speeches and writings by Frederick Douglas, Ida B. Wells, W. E. B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, and lesser-known but important figures such as U.S. Reps. Robert B. Elliott and Jefferson Long. The book ends with a year-by-year timeline of important events in Black history over the time, as well as demographic information. A further reading section and index is also provided.
This book has many strengths. One is the range of voice, which spans not only the spectrum of dialect (which would be of interest to a teacher with African-American students), but also from the geographic spread of the voices. Many come from the South, including testimony concerning the July 30, 1866 police-supported race riot leading to a massacre at the Mechanical Institute in New Orleans, but others refer to events in Kansas, Illinois, etc., so students throughout the country would find material relevant to them.
The sourcing of the material and organization of the book is very thorough and very impressive considering the book was written in 1965, though it seems a little shallow when next to some comparable works from today, especially with regard to the organization of congressional testimony which is not clearly explained. With not too much work some provenience can be found for everything in the book.
In terms of tone, a few issues must be considered, especially with regard to balance. The title of the book should make clear that there is no balance of races in the book, since the guiding principle is using African-American testimony. This leads to the predictable imbalance that there are no anti-Civil Rights voices in the selections, though Meltzer does a fine job of conveying some of these perspectives in the preceding summaries of the selected primary testimony.
Meltzer's writing could be followed by many middle schoolers, I believe, though a fair knowledge of American history is presupposed. Much of this testimony is of the sort that a student without much historical knowledge could understand enough of what is said to be motivated to find out more of the background history, which I think is one of the purposes of the book. A history teacher could have a field day with this book, though attention must be paid to making sure students can understand context (for example, one article does not mean much if the reader does not know who Eugence V. Debs is), and several of the articles describe such horrific realities, of a graphic or sexually violent nature, that a teacher may want to be prepared. ( )
  KeithMaddox | Mar 21, 2012 |
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