Discover more from Sharon's Anti-Racism Newsletter
Review: The Humanity Archive by Jermaine Fowler
Surfacing hidden histories
Here’s my review of The Humanity Archive by Jermaine Fowler - the book version of an Instagram account I’ve been following for a while. I’ll start with my Amazon review, before digging a little deeper.
The Humanity Archive: My Amazon Review
I was excited to read my advance review copy of The Humanity Archive by Jerome Fowler. As a long time follower of the Instagram account of the same name, I had a pretty good idea what to expect: previously hidden facts on Black historical figures as well as completely new insights on some historical events.
That’s exactly what I got.
A self-taught historian, Fowler has presented a well-researched and highly readable chronicle of Black history in the USA. He skims over eras that are already well documented in favour of giving more nuance to tales that are less well-known. In doing so, he highlights what people of all hues are missing by having only part of the picture on our shared history and humanity. This book is well worth your time.
The Humanity Archive - A Deeper Dive
When Jermaine Fowler offered me the chance to read an advance copy of his book, I jumped right on it because I'd been following his excellent Instagram account for a while and I was excited about the chance to learn even more about untold stories of Black history. An email he sent just before publication set out some of his intentions:
“By shedding light on lesser-known stories and figures, I seek to challenge the dominant narratives that shape our understanding of history and culture…But this book is not just a collection of forgotten stories. It is a call to action for all of us to re-examine our understanding of history and to actively work towards a more inclusive and accurate representation of the past.”
In achieving the author’s purpose, the Humanity Archive book did not disappoint. It’s divided into four sections:
Part 1: Buried Truth (4 chapters)
Part 2: Foundational Presence (4 chapters)
Part 3: Anti-Black American History (5 chapters)
Part 4: Let’s Speak of Possibilities (3 chapters)
In reading the book I learned that Fowler is a self-taught historian, who’s been unearthing the hidden and forgotten histories of Black people in the USA.
I use the term “histories” deliberately, because it’s clear from the book that even with the stories we think we know, there’s much more than the usual narrative. For example, when we think about Rosa Parks, we know the story of the bus, but how many of us know the rest of her story of activism? As Fowler points out “Far from a singular moment, Parks’s life embodies a journey made for a great cause.”
Fowler bemoans the lack of nuance in the usual telling of Black history, stating that often it is “reduced to a panorama of caricatures and marketing slogans”, And he talks about Carter G Woodson’s view that it is better to study Black people in history rather than Black history.
His aim with this book is to recover stories and show the humanity of Black people. It’s an aim he largely succeeds in. And he does so with nuance, not shying away from hard truths, but also situating them within their proper context, rather than the “whitewashing and elisions” that are common when stories of Black people are told in American history.
The four sections of the book aim to explore truths that have been hidden and their relation to our identity and our concept of truth,; to identify the contribution of Black people to the development of the world; to chart the movement from being enslaved to being “free” (quote marks are mine); and the see how people’s thoughts, beliefs and actions have helped them make meaning in and change the world.
In this he deliberately omits the Civil Rights Movement, which has been well covered, in favour of other eras and stories that may be less well known. And he successfully weaves together historical facts and the humanity of the participants throughout.
One of my favourite features is the quotes by many of the leading Black thinkers (including one of my favourites Franz Fanon) in exploring the literal whitewashing of history and the erasure of contributions by Black folks. And Fowler also identifies the gaps in knowledge where histories have been lost, in some cases deliberately.
As a non-American, this book was useful in providing more detail on some of the moments of US history I was already aware of. It reinforced things I already knew, like the significant contribution of Black people to global history. Even better, it helped me learn more, like the shocking legal precedent in Boston that became the basis for Jim Crow laws.
Throughout, Fowler also examines the cost to people of all hues of privileging one set of stories over another. As he points out: “If history is a set of stories scattered with facts, then you need to hear from more than one storyteller.”
In creating this book, Fowler allows us to do just that. Have a read; you’re guaranteed to get some new perspectives.
10 Standout Quotes
Here are some of the quotes that stood out to me as I was reading:
“The omissions of Black history have been used in service of white power.”
“The dehumanizing ideas of a whitewashed history still exist. After centuries, they have hardened into dangerous assumptionns, laws, social norms, and government policies against Black people all over the globe.”
“I’m totally for discovering everyone’s history; I just don’t think we can do it from one textbook.”
“From the beginning, Black people have been told that they have created nothing of consequnce. As a result, our dreams have been kept secret from us.”
“If you are Black, a descendant of the enslaved, and turn your eye to the past, you will likely never know your true origin.”
“To maintain power in a more colorful America, the rules of whiteness changed.”
“Oppression results in a sort of mutually assured spiritual destruction between one who is dominating and the other who is dominated.” (Fanon)
“The principle of humanity is our best chance of winning. If the goal is democracy, to be ourselves together, we need to connect not around identity, which in the end is too fickle, but our underlying values and shared interests.”
“When we read everyone’s history, no-one’s history will be lost.”
“The centuries-long effort to censor this history still far outweighs the time and effort it will take to integrate it.”
Thanks for reading,
© Sharon Hurley Hall, 2023. All Rights Reserved.