book reviews

In an ongoing attempt to remain an integral part of the scholarly and cultural conversations that literature can evoke, throughout my career thus far, I have published book reviews in several scholarly journals. Each review examines a text (or series of texts) that probes a historical or literary subject in the scope of U.S. and/or African-American literature and culture. For those interested in reading the review, select the journal title for access to the publication page; note, however, that many of these journals require a subscription in order to read the review. Access is also often available via the library databases for those affiliated with a college or university.

Review of Making Freedom: The Underground Railroad and the Politics of Slavery by R.J.M. Blackett

published with New York History, vol. 94, no. 3-4, 2013, pp. 356-357.

Review Excerpt

Built around his contention that existing scholarship on the Underground Railroad (UGRR) has “largely excluded the contributions of African Americans, enslaved and free, to the struggle of freedom,” in Making Freedom: The Underground Railroad and the Politics of Slavery, R. J. M. Blackett explores the shifting political and social landscape of the United States in response to the controversial 1850 Fugitive Slave Act (100). More importantly, he also examines the role slaves and free blacks played in achieving their own liberty. This study, thus, relies on the individual stories of these underacknowledged “political actors . . . who have largely been lost to history” and whose efforts to obtain freedom had a resounding effect on the political climate of the time (5). Making Freedom foregrounds the stories that Blackett has uncovered—through extensive research into numerous letters, personal records, and newspaper editorials—as an essential yet under-represented component of American history.

Review of Transcending Blackness: From the New Millennium Mulatta to the Exceptional Multiracial by Ralina L. Joseph

published with Media International Australia, vol. 153, no. 1, 2014, p. 169.

Review Excerpt

In light of the 2008 groundbreaking election of President Barack Obama and the resulting suggestion (popular in the U.S. cultural imagination) that the United States is now somehow a post-racial society, Ralina Joseph’s critical work, Transcending Blackness: From the New Millennium Mulatta to the Exceptional Multiracial traces and problematizes the notion that blackness is an obstacle that must be transcended in the twenty-first century. Building, in part, upon the concept of the tragic mulatto defined in Sterling A. Brown’s 1982 “Negro Character As Seen by White Authors,” Joseph challenges the social and literary tradition that depicts the mulatta as deeply mired in pain, desperate to transcend her blackness but unable to escape the confines of her race.

Review of Reflections of the 1965 Freedom March from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama by Susan Jans-Thomas
published with Africology: The Journal of Pan African Studies, vol. 6, no. 10, 2014, pp. 277-279.

Review Excerpt

Centered on the struggle for racial equality throughout the American South, Reflections of the 1965 Freedom March from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama by Dr. Susan Jans-Thomas retraces the author’s journey to discover this rich and troubled history of a not so distant past. The memoir maneuvers swiftly across historical spaces from President Andrew Jackson’s family plantation in Nashville to the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham—site of the infamous 1963 bombing—to the Bridge Crossing in Montgomery, symbolic of the transformation from a time of racial oppression to one of acceptance and increased understanding. The words that fill these pages, though ill-conceived at times, therefore reflect Jans-Thomas’ interests in Southern race relations and civil rights history as Associate Professor of Research and Advanced Studies  at the University of West Florida and her firm belief that history is more than just the stories of an era’s most noted figures. Here, instead, what Dr. Jans-Thomas emphasizes is the necessary and continual engagement with history, “shar[ing] stories so others would make future journeys” and actively discover that history (both political and social) for themselves (p. 20). Each chapter then offers a momentary glimpse into the people and places of the past too often lost amidst the larger struggle for civil rights or buried within the pages of old textbooks where individuals are largely forgotten, their personal struggles rarely told.

Review of Crossings: Africa, the Americas, and the Atlantic Slave Trade by James Walvin

published with African Studies Quarterly, vol. 14, no. 4, 2014, pp. 109-111.

Review Excerpt

Foregrounding the notion that “the story of slavery in the Americas is [predominantly] the story of Africans and their descendants coping with and resisting the enslavement that trapped them,” in Crossings: Africa, the Americas and the Atlantic Slave Trade, James Walvin examines across ten chapters the unsettling experiences of the African slave (10). Here he focuses particularly on those encounters along the Middle Passage, from the spread of disease in overcrowded cargo holds to the use of thumbscrews and iron masks to the atmosphere of overwhelming dejection and distress among desperate slaves who starved themselves or leapt to their deaths in fear of their unknown fates. Interwoven into this narrative, however, is also an examination of the integral role that Britain played in the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade. Once the fiercest transporter of slaves in the eighteenth century, in the nineteenth Britain had become “the pre-eminent force for abolition,” using its political strength to bring an end to this crippling and controversial trade (10).

Review of Lines of Descent: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Emergence of Identity by Kwame Anthony Appiah

published with African Studies Quarterly, vol. 15, no. 1, 2015, pp. 160-161.

Review Excerpt

Part of a current resurgence in interest in arguably one of the most important African-American figures of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Kwame Anthony Appiah’s most study of Du Bois’ intellectual engagement traces the multiplicity of historical, political, philosophical, and cultural influences that invariably shaped Du Bois’s lifelong “project of reclaiming and redefining ‘the race concept’” at home and abroad (p. 6). In Lines of Descent: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Emergence of Identity, Appiah examines the intersecting intellectual “matri[ces] from which Du Bois drew and to which he contributed” in a thoughtful attempt to better place Du Bois within a larger critical framework. In this small book of just five chapters, Appiah probes Du Bois’ most seminal works and the global ideologies that contributed to his own philosophy of history, constructed and reconstructed from the 1899 sociological study, The Philadelphia Negro, to his 1940 Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept and beyond. 

Review of A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life by Allyson Hobbs

published with 49th Parallel: An Interdisciplinary Journal of North American Studies, vol. 37, 2015, pp. 66-68.

Review Excerpt

In the racial climate across the United States, racial passing was and is most often an attempt to obtain what Cheryl L. Harris terms “whiteness as property” as a result of the very limited opportunities and restricted social mobility afforded to Blacks. Scholarship tracing this phenomenon provides insight into the historical function of passing and the ways in which the passing novel brings to the forefront of the U.S. consciousness an increased awareness of its changing socio-racial landscape. In her  work, appropriately titled, A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life, Allyson Hobbs seeks to add a new dimension to this existing conversation, her book “an effort to recover those lives” lost in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as “countless African Americans [knowingly] passed as white, leaving behind families, friends, and communities without any available avenue for return” (4). 

Review of W.E.B. Du Bois and The Souls of Black Folk by Stephanie J. Shaw

published with The Journal of the North Carolina Association of Historians, vol. 23, 2016, pp. 65-68.

Review Excerpt

Noted in the past few years has been a resurgence in interest in the intellectual life of the Harlem Renaissance—a resurgence evident, for instance, in Robert Gooding-Williams’s In the Shadow of Du Bois: Afro-Modern Political Thought in America. While each of these scholars has attempted to probe the impact of thinkers like Du Bois on the burgeoning African-American intellectual tradition, still few have corrected the “general failure of scholars fully to consider Du Bois’ engaging metaphysics”—a failure that “has resulted in the most significant misunderstandings and misrepresentations of Souls and a major gap in analyses of it” (7). Stephanie J. Shaw’s 2013 critical text, W.E.B. Du Bois and The Souls of Black Folk is one such exception. Moving beyond traditional discussions of the color line, double consciousness, and the veil that have consistently captivated the attention of scholars across time, Shaw instead traces the intellectual underpinnings of Du Bois’s most widely discussed text. In doing so, she offers a deeper examination into the philosophical, religious, and intellectual aims that have received unfortunately only minimal attention in scholarship past. 

Review of A Dancer in the Revolution: Stretch Johnson, Harlem Communist at the Cotton Club by Howard E. Johnson

published with New York History, vol. 96, no. 2, 2016, pp. 410-412.

Review Excerpt

Tracing his experiences from the burgeoning Harlem Renaissance of the early to mid-1900s through the Cold War and his subsequent separation from the Communist Party in the U.S., Howard “Stretch” Johnson’s memoir, A Dancer in the Revolution, provides a unique vantage point for examining the African-American experience at a time of heightened racial tension as U.S. citizens tried to come to terms with the changing racial landscape of the post-Reconstruction age. An entertainer, Communist, and activist in the perpetual fight for increased civil rights for blacks, Johnson long held “romantic notions about being a deviant, an outcast, a revolutionary, unbound by the prescriptions of a bourgeois and decadent society” (3). His memoir therefore illustrates a life both politically and culturally conscious, challenging the misconceived notion of a black community contented with the very real racial hierarchy set in place in Jim Crow society.

Review of Selected Letters of Langston Hughes, edited by Arnold Rampersad and David Roessel

published with South Atlantic Review, vol. 83, no. 1, 2018, pp. 94-96.

Review Excerpt

Langston Hughes is celebrated as a pillar of the African-American literary tradition who ultimately used his words to cultivate our understanding of the racial imaginary at work in the United States. His poems, after all, speak to a history of segregation and racial violence that was paralytic for American society at large, and thus, his poetry often served as a platform to highlight the very real social terror that blacks faced during the Jim Crow era and beyond. Scholars of Hughes’s work, however, have a tendency to privilege his poetry, at times ignoring the important work that Hughes produced across genres, including the masses upon masses of letters that Hughes composed and received in one of the most extensive dialogues on African-American literature and culture of the twentieth century. Those letters—a historical archive of life during the Harlem Renaissance and beyond—are the subject of the collection Selected Letters of Langston Hughes, edited by Arnold Rampersad and David Roessel. Together, they offer readers an important addition to the constantly growing library of scholarship on Hughes—“a continuously fresh perspective” but also “an epistolary companion to [his] life story” (xxvii).

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"I will have my voice . . . 
I will overcome the tradition of silence."

—Gloria Anzaldúa

"There is no greater agony 
than bearing an untold story inside you."

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Contact Dr. Varlack directly via E-mail at cavarlack@gmail.com for inquiries regarding speaking engagements and more.