This has been a stellar year for audiobooks that enrich our understanding of and appreciation for Black history, related in voices and styles that range from comprehensive sagas to authoritative deep dives and candid personal explorations.
On the more epic end of things, there is the justly celebrated “The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story,” which like last year’s “Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019” presents a sweeping multivoiced survey of a tragically cyclical history dating back to the arrival of America’s first enslaved Blacks in 1619, here arranged in longer thematic sections rather than chronologically. Seventeen extended chapters written and (mostly) read by an impressive array of scholars and authors offer a multifaceted exploration of such topics as democracy by 1619 Project originator and editor Nikole Hannah-Jones; politics by Jamelle Bouie; capitalism by Matthew Desmond; music by Wesley Morris; the Black church by Anthea Butler; and mass incarceration by Bryan Stevenson. (Listeners intrigued by Tiya Miles’ chapter on Native Americans and slavery may want to listen to Kyle T. Mays’ incisive “An Afro-Indigenous History of the United States,” narrated by actor and Blackfeet tribal member Shaun Taylor Corbett, which sheds light on the parallels and conflicts between Black and Indigenous peoples.) These consistently stimulating and thoughtful pieces are alternated with complementary historical tags and shorter poems and prose by Claudia Rankine, Darryl Pinckney, Tracy K. Smith, Rita Dove, Yaa Gyasi and many more. Replete with eye-opening links of past to present, the resulting mosaic feels less like a history lesson than like bingeing a truly great podcast.
Engaged listeners will find a captivating sequel in Jelani Cobb’s wide-ranging anthology of historical and contemporary race-related writings from The New Yorker, “The Matter of Black Lives,” which includes pieces by Toni Morrison, Zadie Smith, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Rebecca West and others, anchored by James Baldwin’s 1962 landmark essay “Letter from a Region in My Mind,” and read by an ensemble cast of seasoned narrators. Listeners stirred by Ibram X. Kendi’s call in “The 1619 Project” for a “third Reconstruction” can deepen their knowledge of the first Reconstruction era with “Make Good the Promises: Reclaiming Reconstruction and Its Legacies,” a powerful collection of thematic pieces assembled and edited by Kinshasha Holman Conwill and Paul Gardullo as a companion volume to a current exhibit in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, and expertly read with persuasive authority and emotive passion by Karen Chilton. Contemporary echoes of Reconstruction’s progressive agenda and the virulent racist backlash it inspired are all too evident today.
Readers seeking a deeper dive into the cold realities of the once booming industry that has been termed America’s “original sin” will be well served by Joshua D. Rothman’s harrowing “The Ledger and the Chain: How Domestic Slave Traders Shaped America,” which gets a sensitive and impassioned reading by Leon Nixon. The 1808 ban on the trans-Atlantic trade in enslaved people opened the floodgates for cash-poor Virginia tobacco planters to sell off their human chattel to the Deep South, deals brokered with ruthless efficiency — at the industry’s peak, a human being was sold every 3.5 minutes — by ambitious entrepreneurs such as Isaac Franklin, John Armfield and Rice Ballard, who together ran the largest and most lucrative human trafficking business in the United States. With merciless specificity, Rothman ushers us into the intricacies of this diabolical business and the network of capitalists, North and South, who made their fortunes by it. Like Edward Baptist’s 2014 book “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism,” narrated with crisp authority by Ron Butler, Rothman’s searing reportage makes it glaringly clear just how pervasive and profound the legacy of slavery has been and is to the American way of life.
This history is literally grounded in Clint Smith’s fascinating travel memoir “How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America,” in which the author takes us to significant historical sites ranging from Thomas Jefferson’s slave plantation Monticello to a Virginia cemetery for Confederate war dead to Angola prison, built on the site of one of Isaac Franklin’s plantations and for much of its history run along similar lines. Smith evokes the physical locales and trappings of slavery, gently examines changing attitudes and steadfast beliefs among the people he meets, and thoughtfully interrogates how our framing of historical monuments and locations is evolving, epitomized by Louisiana’s Whitney plantation, a site unique among Southern slave plantations in centering the stories of the enslaved. Smith narrates his own experiences with resonant poetic cadences and sincere curiosity, drawing us along on his journey of discovery.