Recommending a book that anticipated the 1619 project by more than 50 years

This week in North Philly Notes, William Cross, author of Black Identity Viewed from a Barber’s Chair, recommends a lost classic of African American writing. (That was alas, not published by Tempe University Press).

For those interested in the African American experience, I want to recommend Lerone Bennett, Jr’s generally overlooked masterpiece: Before the Mayflower, a History of the Negro in America 1619-1962I read it, at a much younger age, and although at the time, my consciousness was evolving; it was, nevertheless, too limited to fully appreciate that Bennettconsidered merely a historian who popularized history—evidenced what in fact was a level of historical consciousness the likes of DuBois, Herbert Guttman and others. 

As shown by the title, his book, published in 1966, anticipated the ongoing 1619 project by 56 years! Like the 1619 Project, Bennett’s narrative anchors the beginning of Africana within American history much sooner than is often argued. He links the accumulation of wealth from slavery that made it possible to capitalize the beginnings of industrialization in America as well as Europe. Bennett, much as anyone, captures in great detail, Abraham Lincoln’s tortured ambivalence and conflicting attitudes about race, Lincoln’s thoughts on the solution of the race problem through colonization, and the pressure put on Lincoln to sign the Emancipation proclamation. 

Bennett’s unique chapter on miscegenation interrogates the outrageous sexual lust and hypocrisy of the founding fathers that should be required reading in any contemporary history course. Most of the chapters are exciting to read because of his detailed, nuanced, elaborate, and telescopic narratives, as his words and phrases stimulate—within the mind of the reader—rich, colorful, dark as well brilliant images.  Time and again the writing creates in the mind of the reader, actions, verbal exchanges, and vivid descriptions that emote. Frankly, sections reflect the compositional style of an accomplished novelist. 

Ironically, he wrote to educate the average reader; but for those who are well informed, the book is an unexpected delight. Bennett helps one revisit familiar information and ideas and plays it back the way Miles Davis could transform a jazz standard. Given the disjuncture between how Bennett envisioned and narrated black history from what at the time was considered settled-history, the word that captures a great deal of the book is “daring.” 

History tends to favor “looking back” but Bennett’s narrative grounded the reader in the present, made it possible to understand the past in such a way as to make the future less surprising. Before the Mayflower is a hidden gem.

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