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12. From Slave Ship to Harvard: Yarrow Mamout and the History of an African American Family, James H. Johnston


I have been reading this in a browser-only ebook (why. whyyyyyyyyyyyyy*) for approximately a million months, and finally finished it today, after reading about it in the Harvard magazine approximately two million months ago. Ahem. Gotta crank these out if I want to get anywhere near my goal of 50 books!

This is a fascinating genealogy and deftly researched family history that starts with one literate Muslim slave from West Africa who was sold into the slave trade, and continues through his extraordinary life (he signed a document in Arabic! he became free and owned property well before the Civil War!) to his extraordinary heirs, one of whom eventually graduated as one of the earliest black matriculates of Harvard.

Yarrow himself was a pretty amazing person, and part of the reason we know so much about him is that he was famous even in his time, somewhat, without being famous for being rich or anything like that (famous in the sense that he was well-known within his community and managed to get into the historical record pretty solidly), and had his portrait painted twice. One of them is not as good and not very famous, the other is pretty extraordinary and featured on this book's cover -- a portrait sometimes described as the most sensitive early portrait of an African American. It is pretty neat just how much the author was able to dig up on his family and relations, his owners and his owners' relations, and in the process Johnston constructs a rich portrait of the intricately intertwined communities of early Maryland, following his struggles in slavery and life afterward, following his descendants into battle, emancipation, early education, and beyond (the Harvard part is great but not quite as interesting as Yarrow's story was, to me).

Anyway. Reading this book with several other related titles this year gave me some better context on the history and trends glimpsed through Yarrow's six-generation story (for instance former slave narratives give context of the larger fraught process for former slaves and Civil War veterans of color obtaining pensions, the Faust book on death and the Civil War for context on black soldiers, slaves, and bystander communities), which gave me the feeling that I'm finally getting to the stage of studying this period where I can knit it together to get an idea of the whole, as opposed to reading piecemeal stories and feeling like I'm missing something bigger. I still feel a big gap where the whole "Reconstruction and the Black experience" should go (doesn't that sound like a book that should exist? I could just read the famous WEB DuBois one but what I really want is a more critical modern perspective, and what I find are articles or journals or courses, not actual books) so perhaps my searches will turn up something to fill that gap soon.


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* I am sure there is some way to get it onto mobile/Kindle and in fact the service claims this is a selling point but damned if I could find any tools within the reader screen that allowed me to do anything more than print-to-PDF that was page-limited to 68 pages. Agonized moan gnash teeth rage grrr etc.
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