In the abolitionist Frederick Douglass’s 1866 essay “Reconstruction,” he dissects how the enterprise of slavery could not be righted without devising a plan that accounted for the danger in giving states too much autonomy. Douglass was keen to the way the institution of slavery could linger if not reckoned with honestly and ended definitively. Many inconsistent or inaccurate perceptions of American history still persist, obscuring the realities of systemic injustice. Many writers, such as Douglass, have worked to pull away those veneers and help the public truly understand how our democracy works.
Supreme Inequality, by the journalist Adam Cohen, explores the pivotal role of the Supreme Court in shaping American life and debunking the perception that its justices are always stewards of fairness and objectivity. Candacy Taylor’s Overground Railroad reorients the narrative of allure surrounding Route 66 in order to account for the grim reality of the violence that black people faced on that old American road.
The author Robert Stone’s stories reside in eras of great American discord, such as the civil-rights movement and the Vietnam War. Stone casts an unsparing eye toward America as a conflicted and often ugly place. Claude McKay’s novel Amiable With Big Teeth, discovered 70 years after it was written, is set in Harlem, where he constructs an anecdote scrutinizing how Americans discuss and understand political involvement in foreign countries and how that relates to racism in their own country.
Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas.
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A novelist’s ambition to define America
“[Robert] Stone’s America is a dark place, but its failures are commensurate with the scale of its aspirations. … His prose, with its potent mix of hard-boiled irony, romantic excess, and violent dissolution, can render the mood of a whole period instantly indelible.”