Book Notes: 3 new books examine the ongoing struggle for emancipation

Courtesy of HarperCollins/Simon & Schuster

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Courtesy of HarperCollins/Simon & Schuster

And DBF hosts its Summer Reading Series in person this year.

Now that it’s a federal holiday, Juneteenth will be marked this year by more parades, church services and cookouts than ever before as folks celebrate the day that symbolizes the end of slavery in the U.S. With that in mind, this week’s Book Notes looks at three new titles that remind us although the 13th amendment was ratified 157 years ago, achieving freedom for all is an ongoing process. Also, there’s news from the AJC Decatur Book Festival presented by Emory University.

Good trouble: “The Movement Made Us: A Father, a Son, and the Legacy of a Freedom Ride” (HarperCollins, $27.99) is the story of Mississippi Freedom Rider David J. Dennis Sr., as told to his son, Atlanta journalist David J. Dennis Jr., who combines his father’s memories with additional interviews and research to flesh out this intimate story told from the perspectives of two men. One is an activist who was so embittered by survivor’s guilt that he abandoned the movement before returning to it 30 years later. The other is his son, whose childhood was shaped by a longing to connect with a father whose fight for social justice kept him distant.

For decades Dennis Sr. refused to talk about his role in the civil rights movement. He was tormented by the memories of his friends who died fighting the good fight and by the things the movement was unable to accomplish. It wasn’t until Dennis Jr. talked to Dennis Sr.’s friends that he realized what a hero his father was.

Part of what makes this hybrid memoir/biography so powerful are the revealing interstitial letters Dennis Jr. writes to his father that bring personal insight to the telling.

“(S)ometimes it feels like the fact that you survived makes you want to diminish your significant role,” writes Dennis Jr. “And that guts me. … I had to hear these stories from your friends and sift through them in documents you’ve long let slip through your fingers. … Being beaten and jailed and killed isn’t part of activist work. It’s part of white supremacy reacting to activism. And these reactions are for white folks to hold, not us. We deserve better.”

David J. Dennis Jr. will appear at the Atlanta History Center in conversation with Morehouse College professor David Wall Rice at 7 p.m. June 21. Tickets are $10; $30 including book. To purchase go to atlantahistorycenter.com.

Hidden shame: With his 2019 novel “The Nickel Boys,” Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead helped cast a national spotlight on the Dozier School for Boys, a brutal “reform school” that operated like a prison in the Florida Panhandle from 1900 to 2011.

Now hear from Erin Kimmerle, the lead forensic anthropologist whose job it was to uncover the dozens of bodies of boys who were buried on the grounds and identify them so their remains could be returned to their families. Most of the boys were Black, and many of them were in unmarked graves with no record of who they were and how they got there.

“We Carry Their Bones: The Search for Justice at the Dozier School for Boys” (HarperCollins, $27.99) is Kimmerle’s first-person account of the heroic efforts of former Dozier residents and their survivors, along with the aid of lawyers and forensic scientists, to first fight for the right to exhume the bodies, and then to ID the bodies using the latest technologies.

Kimmerle ends with a sobering observation: “(T)he Dozier school is but one institution within a system structured to define people by color and class, a system designed to accept that some people are just ‘throwaways.’”

Racism by design. Tufts University professor Kris Manjapra puts a fine point on the topic of freedom with his new book, “Black Ghost of Empire: The Long Death of Slavery and the Failure of Emancipation” (Simon & Schuster, $26.99). He analyzes multiple emancipations that took place in the 18th and 19th centuries, from the U.S. to the Caribbean to Africa, and discovers a common thread he calls the ghostline: the act of systematically ignoring a people’s history and their collective experience.

“Ghostlining … is the cunning practice, adopted by whole societies, of ‘unseeing’ the plundered parts, and ‘unhearing’ their historical demands for reparative justice,” Manjapra writes.

Blacks are still denied basic freedoms because emancipation was designed that way, he asserts.

“(T)he governments and political elites in charge of emancipation processes around the world in the 18th and 19th centuries designed laws and policies to incarcerate, deport, indebt and imperil the freedom of African people.”

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Author Joshilyn Jackson Courtesy of Wes Browning

Credit: Wes Browning

Author Joshilyn Jackson
Courtesy of Wes Browning

Credit: Wes Browning

Combined ShapeCaption
Author Joshilyn Jackson Courtesy of Wes Browning

Credit: Wes Browning

Credit: Wes Browning

Summer reads: The AJC Decatur Book Festival presented by Emory University brings back its Summer Reading Series launched two years ago as a digital event during the COVID-19 pandemic. This time it’s in person at the First Baptist Church of Decatur on Thursdays in June, starting at 7 p.m. Co-presented by the Georgia Center for the Book and curated by authors Joshilyn Jackson and Nicki Salcedo, upcoming sessions feature “In the Face of the Sun” author Denny S. Bryce on June 16; “Jackie & Me” author Louis Bayard and “By Her Own Design” author Piper Huguley on June 23; and “The Emma Project” author Sonali Dev on June 30. Tickets are free but registration is required. Go to decaturbookfestival.com. And don’t forget: The book festival moves to Oct. 1 this year.

Suzanne Van Atten is a book critic and contributing editor to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Contact her at svanatten@ajc.com, and follow her on Twitter at @svanatten.