Black History Month Review of “Lest We Forget: The Passage from Africa into the Twenty-First Century” by Velma Maia Thomas

This outstanding collection of accounts about notable people and events characterizing the history of African Americans in the United States, which includes facsimiles of original documents, is based on the Black Holocaust Exhibit in Atlanta, Georgia, which was curated by the author. The book has over 200 images and twelve pieces of interactive memorabilia – that is, pieces of history one can open, feel, and hold. For example, there is a copy of a folded Deed of Emancipation from December 28, 1838 that belonged to Robert Green of Missouri, who was set free by his slaveholder. Another replica is of deposit book for a savings account at the the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company, chartered by Congress in 1865 to help newly freed blacks get established in society. A list of rules for sit-ins by John Lewis, now a U.S. Congressman battling cancer, is also reproduced. Occasional maps help illuminate the areas of the country under discussion. A large accordion fold-out with a timeline is at the back of the book.

The quality of the photos in the book is excellent. The portrait of the founders of the National Negro Business League, one of whom was Booker T. Washington, looks so real, one feels that the subjects could be in the room with you.

But it is the historical information covered that makes this book so valuable. And unlike many history books, this one does not give only a cameo role to women. As the author writes in the section on suffrage (each historical event is covered thoroughly but succinctly in a two-page spread):

“Black women would not be still. They would not be silent, could not be bought nor frightened. The black woman possessed a certain strength, a spiritual force that had to be reckoned with. She held together homes, communities, churches, businesses, and schools.”

Today, not much has changed with respect to the power and strength of black women, and their ability to see through the web of empty or broken promises and manipulative attempts to claim black is white (double entendre definitely intended). Indeed, a number of political pundits have opined that the 2020 election will be decided by that constituency, such as in articles here and here.

African Americans have gained political astuteness through a long history of struggling to push America to live up to her promise as outlined in the Declaration of Independence, written in 1776:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

As Lincoln pointed out in 1857:

“They [the Founding Fathers] did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet, that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact they had no power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit. They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.”

John Bingham, author of the Fourteenth Amendment ratified by Congress in 1868, which extended the liberties and rights granted by the Bill of Rights to former slaves, agreed, averring:

“You will search in vain in the Constitution of the United States … for that word white, it is not there . . . The omission of this word — this phrase of caste — from our national charter, was not accidental, but intentional.”

The standard advocated by Lincoln and articulated for the Constitution by Bingham has not yet been met, but the hope that it will be motivates those who believe in its promise to keep fighting for it. The author observes in her concluding chapter:

“The war for freedom is not over – it has not yet been won. As long as there is injustice, my people will rally protest, organize, vote, and demand. The methods will vary; the roads will not always be the same. But years upon years of struggle in America have taught my people to persevere, even in the darkest hours. We will lean on each other, gather strength from our ancestors. Firmly planted, deeply rooted, we shall not be moved.”

Evaluation: The tales of courage, steadfastness, and indefatigability in this book can be dipped into and savored in segments, although one gets a better sense of the enormity of the spirit of persistence if the book is approached chronologically. The artifacts seem like a gift rather than a gimmick; the book truly echoes a museum experience. What a gift for those who can’t make a trip to see these exhibits!

I strongly feel this book should be a part of every classroom, and every home with a commitment to knowledge and to equal treatment for all people regardless of color, creed, religion or gender.

Rating: 5/5

Published by becker&mayer!, a member of The Quarto Group, 2019

About rhapsodyinbooks

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2 Responses to Black History Month Review of “Lest We Forget: The Passage from Africa into the Twenty-First Century” by Velma Maia Thomas

  1. BermudaOnion says:

    This looks like a must read! Unfortunately, African Americans still have to be brave. The best commercial during last night’s Super Bowl was about Anquan Boldin’s cousin being killed by an off-duty police officer and the organization Boldin helped start because of it but I bet there won’t be any conversation about it today.

  2. stacybuckeye says:

    This looks incredible! I love the look at the suffragettes.

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