Saying what Nathan Huggins’s new book on the Afro-American experience is not may help to define what it is. It is not sociology, psychology, or anthropology, though there are significant insights gleaned from these disciplines, and large sections of the book read much like the more successful popular works in those fields. Black Odyssey is not a novel nor is it poetry, but the passion of its language suggests the freedom and personal involvement of those arts. Black Odyssey, by a black historian who teaches at Columbia, is a history of the enslavement of Africans and their experience as slaves in America, but it definitely reflects a new approach to the subject. What is one to make of a work of history without footnotes, with no direct quotations, few specific names of individuals, and fewer dates and specific deeds? What is one to make of a work on American slavery under 250 pages?
Black Odyssey works as history, however, and may be best described as an essay in explanation, even justification. The deepest hard questions we ask about the slave experience are elemental, after all, like those we may have concerning birth and death, suffering and injustice, and are best answered in consultation with the verities of human nature as it must have existed in some specific historical setting. What was it really like to have been a slave? What emotions and feelings would we have had, had we been there? Huggins is helpful here. “Onward the road turned, meeting rivers that flowed further still. At some moment, all one’s imprecations, all one’s pleas to ancestors, all one’s evoking of spirits, sound in the ears as the hollowness of one’s own voice. At such a moment, he [the captive] would sense the most dreadful meaning in what had happened. He was alone, abandoned by all he knew that could have given him support and anchor: village, family, and even his gods.” By such means Huggins endeavors to bring his readers within the emotion of the experience he describes.
Such identification in thought and feeling has been difficult for historians to achieve with more orthodox means than Huggins has employed, and there are few works similarly successful and equally honest to the facts of human experience. Oscar Handlin’s classic The Uprooted, deservedly famous for its compassionate reconstruction through their letters of the experience of America’s immigrants in transit from their European peasant communities, comes promptly to mind. There are few others. One may wish for Huggins’s work the readers Handlin’s has had, for Black Odyssey is, like The Uprooted, an honest achievement in the popularization of history. It explains difficult matters with art and economy, and helps to fill an obligation that professional scholars have often neglected.
Most popular history deserves the bad name it has with serious scholars, for it follows the popular perception of truth to where it already stands, put there often enough by novels or semi-fictionalized works, rather than helping to direct that perception to a…
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