Before the Mayflower by Lerone Bennett Jr is the ultimate book to read if you’re interested in Black History, especially American Black History. Originally published in 1962, the book covers the history of Black America from 1619 to 1962. Before the Mayflower has since been updated over the course of seven editions.
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I’ve had an interest in Black History since childhood but am only just beginning to expand to the history of the entire diaspora. So I truly appreciated that Before the Mayflower didn’t begin its history of Black people with slavery. It also doesn’t cling to Ancient Egypt. But, rather focuses on the history of the area of Africa from which enslaved Africans most likely would have been taken.
The book is split into chapters, each of which focuses on a time period or event in American Black History.
Hands down, my favorite chapter focused on the three major slave uprisings. Bennett’s recounting of the Haitian Revolution is one of the most captivating things I’ve ever read. There are lots of visual descriptions ranging from lightning flashing overhead to the ritual sacrifice of animals. These scenes gave a different perspective on a story I’d already heard. They painted a moving and exhilarating picture rather than just recounting facts. It The time spent on setting the scene for leading up to the uprising was amazing.
The Haitian Revolution is included because it resulted in many slaveholders, farmers, regular people etc fleeing to America. It also had an indirect impact on American society because it struck fear in American slave owners and inspired slave revolts.
Not to get too far off track but I really wish that Bennett had expanded this chapter and wrote a separate book on the history of Haiti. If he’d written a book along the lines of how he wrote this chapter, it would have been incredible.
As is to be expected, there’s quite a bit of time spent on Reconstruction through the Civil Rights Movement. The usual big names from that time period are profiled along with some lesser-known activists.
As with much of history, the book mostly focuses on the achievements and contributions of males. It spends little time on the contributions of females and actually downplays their prominence in various campaigns such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
I highly recommend Before the Mayflower. It contains a lot of information but isn’t formatted as an encyclopedia so it’s very easy to read. Unlike some other books, the content doesn’t delve into gruesome detail so I think it can be read to and discussed with fairly young kids. You might just have to simplify or explain some points.
It’s great for adults and would be a good resource for getting an overview of Black History but then getting ideas for people and topics to dive into more deeply.
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