COLLECTIVE AMNESIA is a big book that covers a lot of ground: from the institutionalization of chattel slavery in the American colonies in the 1600s, by virtue of which African Americans acquired the status of personal property; to the critical role played by some 180,000 highly motivated black soldiers in the Civil War, whose participation, the author argues, tipped the balance in favor of the Union Army; to the violent re-entrenchment of racist policies and practices during the postbellum period, enabled in part by the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and related groups; to the humiliating return to racial hatred, political disenfranchisement, and everyday discrimination that black soldiers experienced after risking their lives in twentieth-century American wars; to the landmark legislative achievements in the struggle for civil rights in the 1960s, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as well the sometimes violent pushback these achievements triggered; to the War on Drugs initiated by Nixon and escalated by Reagan, with its disproportionately harsh consequences for the African American community; to the widespread rioting in Los Angles in 1992, after the acquittal of police officers accused in the videotaped beating of Rodney King; to Congress’s failure to make lynching a federal crime until 2018; to the whipsaw presidential elections that ushered in America’s first black president and then a president whose own rhetoric aligns him with white supremacist groups.
Throughout, author Eugene DeFriest Bétit, writing in a clear, accessible style, provides extensive documentation in the form of illustrations, notes, and direct quotations from key sources. The eBook version of the text also features hyperlinked names, terms, and phrases, further enhancing the book’s usefulness as a teaching aid or reference work. Appendices include a 2016 report, with policy recommendations, by the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, and an account of an attempted coverup, in 1932, of a lynching in Fauquier County, Virginia. Although the chapters are organized chronologically, they are autonomous wholes and can be read on their own by readers interested in specific episodes within the four-hundred year history of African Americans in North America.
Himself a veteran of the US Army, the author provides a particularly detailed and vivid account of African Americans’ indispensable contributions in wars fought by the US military. Bétit offers a devastating chronicle of how, despite such service and sacrifice by their black compatriots, white Americans have repeatedly sought to make racist ideologies the law of the land.
This comprehensive, richly documented history of African Americans’ experiences in America is not just an eye-opening investigation of the violent oppression to which black people have been subjected for centuries, but also a compelling call to consciousness raising, political action, and institutional reform.
~David Herman for IndieReader