Shelf Life




Rescue Effort: Fifty years after importing slaves to the U.S. was made illegal, the last slave ship set sail. The year was 1858, and the vessel was the Wanderer, an elegantly appointed pleasure craft when it left Charleston harbor. But when it arrived back in the U.S. at Jekyll Island, Georgia, its luxurious appointments had been stripped to accommodate a crowded human cargo of 480 Africans. Many of them didn't survive the six-week journey across the Atlantic, but the men behind this enterprise were satisfied: The voyage of the Wanderer and the trial that followed helped to provoke their desire for Civil War.

The story is little remembered, but it's better known now with the publication of The Wanderer: The Last American Slave Ship and the Conspiracy That Set Its Sails (St. Martin's Press) by Erik Calonius, former London-based correspondent for The Wall Street Journal and former Miami bureau chief for Newsweek. (From 1977 to 1980, Calonius was also managing editor of Memphis magazine.)

The author's professional travels have served him well, because The Wanderer is all over the map: from Savannah's upper-crust to members of the New York Yacht Club; from the Congo River to London and Washington, D.C. But it's also a rescue effort: a headline story in its day restored, today, as a piece of pivotal American history.

*****

Up from Slavery: Blanche Bruce was born a slave in 1841 on a plantation in Virginia. In 1874, he was elected the first black to serve a full term in the U.S. Senate for Mississippi. He then went on to serve four U.S. presidents, and as register of the U.S. Treasury, he was the first black to have his name printed on U.S. currency. The story, however, doesn't stop there.

In Lawrence Otis Graham's The Senator and the Socialite: The True Story of America's First Black Dynasty (HarperCollins), Bruce's son Roscoe goes from Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard to serving as superintendent of Washington, D.C.'s black public schools; Roscoe's wife Clara goes from Radcliffe to Boston University Law School, where she was the first woman anywhere to edit a law review. By the third generation, however, the fortunes of the Bruce family had taken a turn: The white business and academic leaders who'd once supported them abandoned them, and charges of embezzlement were leveled against Roscoe Jr., resulting in the family's bankruptcy.

Lawrence Otis Graham (Princeton, Harvard Law School) knows this territory well. He authored Our Kind of People: Inside America's Black Upper Class and Member of the Club, his undercover experience as a witness to racism at an all-white Connecticut country club. The rise of an American family, in the face of racism, and the fall of an American family, due to individual failings, is what readers witness in The Senator and the Socialite.

*****

On the Line: Growing up in Memphis, he was one of 13 black children born to a mother addicted to crack. He did not know his father's name, the date of his own birthday, or how, basically, to read or write. But he's on his way to becoming one of the highest paid professional football players in the country. He is Michael Jerome Oher: left tackle today for Ole Miss and the focus of The Blind Side (Norton) by Michael Lewis, author of Liar's Poker and Moneyball.

Lewis subtitles his latest book Evolution of a Game, and by "evolution" he's referring to the strategy on the gridiron that calls for the quarterback to be protected at all costs.

You need protecting? Michael Oher would be your man: At 6 foot 6 inches and 322 pounds, he has the speed and agility to make him one of the top offensive linemen in the country. But The Blind Side is more: a book that traces Oher's years on the street, his adoption by a white evangelical family in Memphis, his education at Briarcrest High School, and his introduction to athletics.

Then follow in general the history of America's black sports figures in The Strange Career of the Black Athlete (Praeger) by Russell Wigginton, who teaches and works in community relations at Rhodes College. The book not only charts the breaking of the color line. It tells of sports stars on and off the field who risked their careers by joining the fight for social, political, and economic justice.

Add your comment: