Author: Henry Louis Gates Jr., Hollis Robbins
Source: from publisher for review
Links: Indiebound |Goodreads
Summary: I loved far more of these pieces than in most collections, I loved learning from them, and I found some of them disturbingly timely.
I don’t read many older books and the ones I’m aware of are pretty exclusively classics by dead, white men. Many of the classics I’ve not read are those that don’t appeal to me and I don’t see much value in reading more books by white men just because they’re classics. They’ve already been such a large part of my education. On the other hand, I was thrilled to see this collection of older essays, poems, speeches, and novel excerpts by African American women, because perspectives on this time by these people are entirely missing from my previous reading. I found it incredibly valuable and enjoyable to learn about the experiences of African American women immediately before and after emancipation.
One critique that could be made about this collection and my choice to pick it up is that it was based purely on the identity of the authors. Does this, some may ask, mean that quality was not a criteria? The first thing I’d like to do is to assure you that is not the case. One or two longer, printed speeches weren’t as gripping and one of the fiction pieces didn’t appeal to me. However, these are women who were incredibly well-regarded in their time and it’s clear why. There were far more sentences I wanted to underline for their beauty or insight than in almost anything else I’ve read. I typically avoid collections that include multiple authors because they’re so hit or miss for me, but out of dozens of pieces, only a handful of these didn’t engage and impress me.
Another reason to pick this up is because the issues of race and gender are, unfortunately, ones we’re still grappling with today. This made it a bit heartbreaking to read the more optimistic essays by authors who believed simply striving to become more accomplished and educated would win over all those who discriminated against them. It also meant that many essays in this collection still felt timely. Discussions of chain-gangs echo current discourse about ‘the new Jim Crow’. Essays about the relationships between men and women critiqued the ‘boys will be boys’ double standard that is still so pervasive today. Every single essay provided valuable information from a too often forgotten perspective about US history and how we got to where we are today.
There were a few essays that really showed their age. Even women in the nineteenth century were not always free of sexist beliefs about women’s natural roles. Racism, particularly against Native Americans, was not uncommon. Religious themes throughout were obviously not problematic the way past prejudices were, but they did jump out me as something you would see less of today. None of the religious essays felt like they were preaching at me though, so even as someone who is not religious, I found the religious themes historically interesting without being alienating.
This collection contained many varied forms of writing and was such a fantastic learning experience, I’d recommend it to anyone. However, given the time period of the pieces, I expect this would most appeal to people who enjoy the classics. Each of these essays had the same feel as the classics I’ve read previously and this book has more than earned its place in the Penguin Classics collection.