Friday, February 7, 2020

Freeform Friday - Lest We Forget: The Passage from Africa into the 21st Century by Velma Maia Thomas (A Book Spotlight & Review)

In honor of Black History Month, I wanted to highlight a book that has helped me, personally, have a greater understanding of African American history and the black community's struggle for equality.  Read on, and then pick up a copy at your local bookstore or nearest library and immerse yourself in an important part of history you may or may not be familiar with.

About this book: Lest We Forget: The Passage from Africa into the Twenty-first Century is an elegant bind-up of three collectible books by Velma Maia Thomas, which includes Lest We Forget, Freedom's Children, and We Shall Not Be Moved.  This collection offers an intimate look at black history in America through the lens of a passionate historian committed to preserving these important accounts. The history comes to life through five interactive items attached onto the page throughout, along with an attached envelope containing ten additional pieces of removable memorabilia -- including Rosa Parks's fingerprints, a slave receipt, FBI poster for one of the most high-profile cases of the civil rights movement, a telegram to the White House from famed baseball player and activist Jackie Robinson, a newspaper from 1857, a Black Panther Party poster, and more.

Based on material from the nationally acclaimed Black Holocaust Exhibit, Lest We Forget documents the plight of an estimated 100 million Africans, from rich pre-slavery culture to their enslavement in a foreign land.  This is a collection of stirring historic papers, memoirs, personal effects, and photographs brought to life, chronicling the unyielding strength of a people who refused to be broken.

Taste the sweetness of freedom and the bitter struggle for equality through the documents that impacted the lives of an entire race.  Freedom's Children brings to life the heart-wrenching and inspiring account of freedmen and freedwomen during Reconstruction and into the twentieth century.

Through the twentieth century, African Americans would trouble the waters of America -- agitating, challenging, and defying the status quo.  We Shall Not Be Moved illuminates the struggles and triumps of African Americans leading up to and during the Civil Rights Movement.  Feel the strength of those entrenched in the fight for justice up through the twenty-first century.  ("About this book" is taken from the back of the book - Cover image from amazon.com - Other images taken by reviewer - This book was given to me for free in exchange for an honest review.)

Before I weigh in...

A few words from Velma Maia Thomas, creator and curator of the Black Holocaust Exhibit and author of Lest We Forget: The Passage from Africa into the 21st Century
"I am often asked why I developed the Black Holocaust Exhibit and how I conceived of the idea. Relating the pain of my people was never a part of my 'career' plans. I never sat down and said, “let me build a collection that speaks to the treatment Africans received under slavery.” It was more as though I was being called by the ancestors to tell their stories. Countless instances guided me to this project: documents I hesitated to purchase, I bought; reference books were purchased and forgotten, and then reappeared; people who could offer insight came into my life just when I needed them. These repeated occurrences made me feel that this was a special project, one foretold by the ancestors generations ago. It was a resurrection of the stories that the enslaved wanted to be told, only awaiting a vessel through which they could speak. Lest We Forget is a tribute to those whose lives are told through the documents you’ve seen and read."  
My Review:  At first glance, Lest We Forget: The Passage from Africa into the Twenty-First Century is a gorgeous book filled with engaging text, a diverse collection of high-quality images, and fascinating interactive and removable media.  On further examination, it is an unforgettable compendium of the African American experience and the most heart-wrenching book I have read in a very long time.  It was obvious the author devoted a massive amount of time and effort to the project.  It is incredibly well-researched, thoughtfully compiled, and enriched with a varied assortment of  historical documents that both complement the text and lend tremendous weight to the author's words. 

Even though Lest We Forget seems to be written more for an African American audience, I found exceptional value in reading it as a white woman. Growing up in small town Idaho, I didn't receive the most comprehensive education on black history; my high school history books often glossed over or straight up ignored the historical contributions of many black Americans.  Even now, living where I live, my experience with the black community has been rather limited.  While I acknowledge I will never fully comprehend or appreciate the depth and breadth of the African American experience, I want to at least try to gain a greater awareness of the struggles they have and continue to face, which is the primary reason I accept this book for review.

Lest We Forget provided me with the perfect jumping off point in my quest for understanding and would be a great read for someone seeking a detailed overview of black history.  The book is organized into three parts, brimming with information and dedicated to a specific time period with subsections that address a variety of relevant issues.  Each page has something interesting to examine, as well as read, which should appeal to all learning styles -- diagrams, old photographs, letters (some of which unfold), ship manifests, drawings, artifacts, newspaper articles, etc.  I especially appreciated the transcripts of the more hard-to-decipher documents, the fold-out chronology of black history, and the removable memorabilia located towards the back of the book.  There is just something incredibly intense about holding Rosa Parks fingerprint card, the receipt of sale for a one-year-old girl, or a slave manifest in your hand that resonates on a soul-level, like you are holding a piece of history...or a facsimile of it, anyway (see below).

Lest We Forget was easy-to-follow, but difficult to process (if that makes any sense) and forced me to confront a lot of uncomfortable truths about our nation's past. There are many aspects of our country I admire, but our participation in slavery and our  treatment of black citizens is utterly indefensible.  Full stop. I was sickened to discover that an estimated fifty million people died on slave ships during transport.  I'm assuming that estimate also includes those who were to sick to make it the whole way and thrown (yes, thrown) into the ocean so their shipowners could collect the insurance money.  That's fifty million men, women, and children who never even made it off the slave ships.  That number is staggering and inexcusable.

If there is one thing I learned from Lest We Forget, it's that I have so much more to learn about black history.  While reading, I came across several names I recognized -- the well-known one's you would expect -- but there was a startling number of equally significant historical figures and events that I had never heard of before. The reality of the situation is far more complex than I ever imagined.   The struggle for basic freedoms was a slippery, uphill climb, where new laws often caused new problems, and white politicians learned to circumvent justice with increasingly unfair policies. I discovered that laws I thought legally 'ended' slavery or revoked 'separate but equal' weren't always followed or even enforced, and the 'freedoms' given weren't bestowed as freely as I thought.  Ultimately, I feel a profound sorrow for the lives lost (and forever altered) by slavery and racism, and deeply naive for assuming that the Civil Rights Act was the final solution to a problem that has plagued our nation for centuries.  I now realize there is so much more work to be done.

The author's text is evocative, eye-opening, and even (at times) inspirational.  My favorite quote from the book comes near the very end.  It is hopeful, but determined:

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 American 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.(p. 110)

Lest We Forget is not one of those one-and-done books that I'll give to a thrift store when I'm finished with this review.  It an absolute 'keeper' and a book that I would recommend to anyone of any ethnicity who wants a to cultivate a better understanding of our nation's past and a more mindful awareness of issues facing the black community.

My Rating: 5 Stars. Absolutely stunning.

For the sensitive reader: The subject matter is incredibly important but often violent and shameful. A few drawings show indigenous people without clothing, but the images are not detailed and rather small.  An image showing a man's scarred back.

For more information Velma Maia Thomas and her other books, visit her website.

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