64 pages 2 hours read

Michael Harriot

Black AF History: The Un-Whitewashed Story of America

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2023

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Black AF History, by celebrated journalist, author, and cultural critic Michael Harriot, is a satirical, creative revisioning of Black American history, focusing on systemically neglected and suppressed Black narratives in America. Published in September 2023, this book playfully subverts the standard format of historical nonfiction. Using satire and literary devices like chapter quizzes, asides, and sidebar passages, Black AF History nonetheless uses meticulous research and primary sources to provide an expert account of American history, refocused to center the Black experience. The impacts of systemic racism on the Black community are manifold, but Harriot’s focus on Black resilience and creativity in the face of oppression is a hopeful take on troubled American history.

This guide refers to the first edition, published in 2023.

Content Warning: This book includes examples of racist language from outside sources. It also discusses violence, sexual abuse, slavery, and human trafficking.

Summary

Harriot uncovers neglected aspects of American history, notably centering the Black experience by giving thorough attention to African American history, especially the Pan-African diaspora via the American slave trade. Many accounts of the American slave trade decry the practice but continue a traditional narrative that treats enslaved people as passive commodities. Harriot’s account turns that assumption on its head. Enslaved people not only acted to improve their own lives through escape and resistance, they were instrumental in shaping key aspects of American culture. For example, West African enslaved people brought their expertise in growing rice, which became America’s first edible cash crop and saved the economy of the Carolinas.

Harriot further explores the genius and resilience of enslaved Black people through histories of enslaved people’s resistance. Through unpacking the pseudo-scientific term “drapetomania,” a false medical condition used to pathologize enslaved people’s desire to be free, Harriot provides a slew of examples of enslaved Black people resisting both their status and their enslavers. Most notably, he discusses entire swaths of the South in which self-emancipated people called “maroons” lived in remote self-run colonies in the wilderness. These maroons helped other enslaved people escape and set up self-reliant colonies in the swamps of the Carolinas and Florida.

After Emancipation, Black people in the South made rapid and impressive strides to accumulate political power. The Black population constituted a majority in states like South Carolina, leading to the state’s first Black secretary of state in 1868, only three years after the Civil War. Though those political victories were quickly undercut by racist and exclusionary policies like literacy tests for Black voters, the political power amassed by formerly enslaved Black people clearly threatened to topple existing structures of white supremacy. This political redistribution of power led to violent reactions from white supremacists, including gun violence meant to dissuade Black voters from exercising their new rights. Policies of cultural violence and political exclusion continue to affect Black people’s access to their democratic rights today.

Though Harriot uses humor to paint a vivid and memorable portrait of Black American history, he does not whitewash the brutality that Black people, both free and enslaved, faced and continue to face in America. Harriot also utilizes tongue-in-cheek literary devices like end-of-chapter quizzes and insets with relevant tangential information, mimicking the style of elementary school history textbooks.

Meanwhile, Harriot’s tone inflects the groundbreaking historical information with his trademark wit. He also uses personal stories from his own family history to impart an emotional aspect to his narrative. These personal stories emphasize the continuation of the effects of institutionalized racism in modern-day America, refuting the claims of more conservative Americans that racism ended with the Emancipation Proclamation, the 1964 civil rights movement, or the election of President Barack Obama. Black AF History is an entertaining, information-packed, and timely refutation of traditional American histories, presented by an expert in the field of Black American history.

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