Reviewed by Leslie Dunbar
Vol. 15, No. 3, 1993, pp. 35-36
Willie Mae, by Elizabeth Kytle, has been re-issued again, this time by the University of Georgia Press. First published in 1958, an earlier re-release of this book about a black domestic worker was reviewed in these pages in September 1991 (by Jane Maguire Abram). That edition and this one had a foreword by Joyce Ladner—scholar and black advocate—which amidst other praise said, “Now, at a time when there is much talk about a ‘permanent’ underclass, Willie Mae challenges us to dismiss notions of permanence and inevitability.” Barbara Carney of Durham’s Baobab Source Bookstore read the book, and said, “I never even once heard this white woman’s voice [i.e. E.K.’s] in it at all.” Strong commendation, for a 1950s book. William Pickens published the first part of his autobiography (under the title of The Heir of Slaves) in 1911, and an expanded version, Bursting Bonds, now reissued by the Indiana University Press, in 1923. It is scarcely a complete autobiography, for Pickens lived until 1954; nor does the editor’s introduction add enough detail to support his claim that Pickens, academician and NAACP staffer, was “one of the half-dozen best known black men of his time.” It is an interesting story, though one leaves it hardly understanding the extravagant statements that Henry Louis Gates and some others have made as to its importance.
Henrietta Buckmaster’s powerful Let My People Go as been re-issued, with a new introduction by Darlene Clark Hine, by the University of South Carolina Press. First published in 1941, it has ever since importantly brought forward, as promised in its sub-title, “The Story of the Underground Railroad and the Growth of the Abolition Movement.”
Frank Tannenbaum was a great and versatile scholar until his death in 1969. His learning took in many subjects: Latin America, American labor history, race. His Slave and Citizen—128 pages of text, 245 footnotes—came out in 1946, Beacon Press has now re-published it—is a fascinating comparison between the status of slaves and later of black people in Latin America on the one hand and in the United States on the other. The differences, derived from differing religious and legal traditions, ever profound and, in point of human dignity, all in favor of
Latin America, though today’s reporting from Brazil, for example, does not confirm that. Perhaps Tannenbaum anticipated even that, for after 166 pages delineating fundamental distinctions, he suddenly, and astonishingly, announced that in “end result” the two systems have “proved to be the same.”
It is likely always worthwhile to see ourselves through others’ eyes. Americans read what Americans write about other people, but too seldom, apart from the classics that began when de Tocqueville wrote, do we read what foreign commentators say about us. Cracking the Ike Age: Aspects of Fifties America comes from Denmark, published by the Aarhus University Press. One chapter, on “Black Protest in the Fifties and Forties” by a British scholar, Peter Ling, illustrates the strength and weakness often to be found in cross-cultural literature. Foreign observers, including us, quite often see that which natives tend to look away from, as does Ling when he perceives that when labor unions found themselves embattled by the Eisenhower administration, blacks were forced to depend more and more on themselves, less and less on labor, for the direction and resources of their movement; labor would have to follow in the ranks, not lead as co-pace setter. At the same time, foreign observers may take overly seriously some persons and points of view which they run across.
Leslie Dunbar, now a resident of Durham, N. C, is the former book review editor of Southern Changes and a life fellow of the Southern Regional Council.