I'm reading Phillip Dray's rather incredible history of Reconstruction, Capitol Men, told from the perspective of the nation's first black Congressmen. I'm only 90 pages in, but I'm immediately reminded of why I love great books about history. Probably out of necessity, history is taught to us in a utilitarian form--a list of facts, dates, names and ultimate results. But a great book doesn't go from event to event, and it's not over-interested in getting to the end. This is sort of an extension of my comments about plot and character, and the problems of Black History Month.
Capitol Men is, in many ways, a sad book. But that isn't the point. The point is Robert
Charles Smalls, a biracial black man born into slavery, who plots with his fellow slaves to steal a Confederate ship, and upon reaching Union lines exclaims to his black brethren, "We're all free niggers now!" The point is the rather mystical, and likely fraudulent, Robert Brown Elliot, who was trilingual and had this mysterious past--almost literally hailing from parts unknown. In 1869, Elliot accused a Union vet of trying to woo his wife, then whipped him in the middle of Columbia, South Carolina. The next day the local paper ran the following headline--"A Negro From Massachusetts Cowhides a White Carpetbagger." The point is Elias Hill--a 50-year old black preacher and dwarf who was beaten by the Klan, and immediately left, with his congregation in tow, for Liberia.
The point is people, people, people. We should never presume to know too much of them. They always surprise us. Anyway, it's a great book.
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