Monday, 21 February 2022

Book Review: The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story, edited by Nikole Hannah-Jones, Caitlin Roper, Ilena Silverman and Jake Silverstein. New York, One World, 2021.

(A guest article from the writer and historian Tom Mackaman. The original article can be

An old idiom advises to never judge a book by its cover. Yet the front cover of the recently released book version of the New York Times’ 1619 Project speaks as much in a few short words as the following 600 pages of text. The Project, the over title reads, is “A New Origin Story,” which has been “Created by Nikole Hannah-Jones.” The dust jacket flap adds a touch of clairvoyance, explaining that the volume “offers a profoundly revealing vision of the American past and present.”

The Times, which wishes readers to take the 1619 Project seriously as a “reframing of American history,” has said more than it intended.Origin stories lie in the realm of myth, not history. Premodern societies produced, but did not “create,” origin stories. They were the work of whole cultures, emerging out of oral traditions that first humanized nature and then naturalized social relations. But in modern times, origin stories have indeed been created. Closely linked with nationalism in politics and irrationalism in philosophy, origin stories aim to fuse groups of people by lifting “the race” above the material class relations of history. Indeed, from the racialist vantage point, history is merely “the emanation of the race,” as Trotsky put it in words he aimed at Nazi racial mythmaking, but that serve just as well to indict the 1619 Project, which sorts actors in history into two categories: “white people” and “Black people,” and deduces motive and action from this a priori racial classification. [1]

That the 1619 Project was a racialist falsification of history was the central criticism the World Socialist Web Site leveled at it immediately after its release in August 2019, timing ostensibly chosen to commemorate the arrival of the first slaves in Virginia 400 years earlier. All of the 1619 Project’s errors, distortions, and omissions—its insinuation that slavery was a uniquely American “original sin”; its claim that the American Revolution was a counterrevolution launched to defend slavery against British abolition; its selective use of quotes to suggest that Abraham Lincoln was a racist indifferent to slavery; its censoring of the interracial character of the abolitionist, civil rights, and labor movements; its insistence that all present social problems are the fruit of slavery; its stance that historians had ignored slavery—all of this flowed from the Times’ singular effort to impose a racial myth on the past, the better to “to teach our readers to think a little bit more” in the racial way, in the leaked words of Times editor Dean Baquet. [2] 

The exposure of the 1619 Project by the WSWS, and by leading historians it interviewed, has never been met forthrightly by the Times. Instead, Hannah-Jones, the Project’s journalist-celebrity “creator,” egged on race-baiting and red-baiting social media attacks against critics, while New York Times Magazine editor Jake Silverstein demeaned them on the pages of the Times as jealous careerists, even as he surreptitiously altered the Project. All the while, backers of the 1619 Project said, “Just wait for the book. It will erase all doubts.” This drumroll lasted for two years.The mountains have labored and brought forth a mouse.

The central achievement of the book version of the 1619 Project, released in December, appears to be that it is bigger. Weighing in at two pounds and costing $23, it is probably ten times heavier than the magazine given out free by the thousands, errors and all, to cash-strapped public schools. Unfortunately for the Times, the added weight lends no new gravitas to the content, which, in spite of all the lofty rhetoric about “finally telling the truth,” “new narratives,” and “reframing,” remains unoriginal to the point of banality. The book does not inch much beyond the warmed-over racial essentialism that has long been the stock-in-trade of right-wing black nationalism, and which has always had a special purchase on the guilt feelings of wealthy liberals. The late Ebony editor, Lerone Bennett, Jr., remains unmistakably the dominant intellectual influence on Hannah-Jones and the entire project. [3]

The Times has spared no expense to keep afloat its flagship project. This much shows. The volume is handsomely presented. The book’s 18 chapters include seven new historical essays, interspersed with 36 poems and short stories, as well as 18 photographs. If anything justifies the book, it is these photographs, which alone among the contents manage to convey something truthful about American society. Yet, in their artistic depiction of everyday black men, women, and children, the photographs actually express the commonness of humanity, contradicting the 1619 Project’ racialist aims.

The rest of the volume, the poetry and fiction included, bears the fatal marks of the racialist perspective. What emerges is an even darker and more unyielding interpretation of race in America than that which came across in the magazine. The book is replete with blatantly anti-historical passages, such as: “There has never been a time in United States history when Black rebellions did not spark existential fear among white people …” (p. 101); “In the eyes of white people, Black criminality was broadly defined” (p. 281.) One could go on. Every contributor engages in this sort of crude racial reductionism. There are no immigrants, Asians, Jews, Catholics, or Muslims, and only a few pages on Native Americans. The 1619 Project sees only “white Americans” and “black Americans.” And these monoliths, undivided by class or any other material factor, had already appeared in colonial Virginia in 1619 in their present form, prepared to act out their racially defined destinies.

A new preface by Hannah-Jones attempts to motivate the book by noting that Americans know little about slavery. She points to a Southern Poverty Law Center study that found only 8 percent of high school students can cite slavery as the central cause of the Civil War. This statistic is not surprising. It would also not be surprising to learn that less than 8 percent of recent high school graduates know, even roughly, when the Vietnam War happened, or whether The Great Gatsby is a novel or a submarine sandwich. This is not the fault of students or of teachers. The public schools have been starved of funding by Republicans and Democrats alike. History and art have been especially savaged in favor of supposedly more practical “funding priorities.”

In any case, the 1619 Project will help no one understand why the Civil War happened. The book’s overriding theme is that all “white Americans” were (and are still) the beneficiaries of slavery. This makes the Civil War incomprehensible. Why was the country split apart in 1861? Why did it wage a bloody war over the next four years, fighting battles whose death tolls stunned the world? Why did 50,000 men fall dead or maimed at Gettysburg in the first three days of July 1863, a half year after Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation? Historian James McPherson, in works such as Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution and For Cause and Comrades, answers these questions. The 1619 Project cannot.

The 1619 Project’s denial of slavery’s role in the Civil War is probably clearest in the essays by Matthew Desmond, Martha S. Jones, and Ibram Kendi. Desmond’s essay, “Capitalism,” which appeared in the original version and now reappears in slightly longer form, argues that Southern slavery was the dynamic part of the antebellum economy, and that the wealth generated from it also built Northern capitalism. Desmond has it backwards. The demand for cotton in the North, and especially in Great Britain—a demand itself contingent on capitalist economic growth—gave a new impulse to Southern slavery, and not the other way around. When the slave masters seceded and launched the Civil War, among their miscalculations was to overestimate their worth in the global economy, an error Desmond repeats.

Over the years of 1861-1865 the Southern planters were destroyed as a class. Yet their clients in Britain and the North found new sources of cotton and emerged still richer. Desmond, a Princeton sociologist, was brought on by the 1619 Project to pay some attention to economics. But he winds up denying a material cause and a material effect of the Civil War. Desmond’s theory cannot explain why the war happened, why the North defeated the supposedly more advanced slave South, and why it is that today we live in a world dominated by the exploitation of wage workers, and not chattel slaves.

In her essay, entitled “Citizenship,” Martha S. Jones reduces the antebellum struggle for equality to the activity of the small free black population in the North, focusing on the Colored Conventions movement that began in 1830. She simply writes out of existence the abolitionist movement, which was majority white and eventually reached even into small towns across the North. The abolitionist movement was undoubtedly a major political factor in the expansion of civil rights to free blacks—ostensibly Jones’ subject—and in the coming of the Civil War, ultimately fusing with the anti-slavery Republican Party through figures such as Frederick Douglass. This counts for little to Jones and historians like her. They erect a wall between agitation against slavery, which they dismiss as mere cover for white racial interest, and what they call “anti-racism,” a contemporary moral-political posture they impose on history. “White Americans” of the past, even the most dedicated and egalitarian opponents of slavery, can never pass muster before these examiners.

Frederick Douglass, ca. 1879

This “immense condescension of posterity,” to borrow a phrase from the late English historian E.P. Thompson, reaches new depths in the essay by Kendi, whose career as an “anti-racist” has been so challenging to the powers-that-be that he has been showered with millions of dollars by the “white institutions” of the publishing, academic, and corporate endowment worlds. Kendi thinks he has discovered that the pioneering abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison was a patronizing hypocrite who “actually reinforced racism and slavery” (p. 430). No one in Garrison’s time, neither friend nor enemy, thought so. It should be recalled that Garrison was himself nearly lynched by a racist mob in 1835. Frederick Douglass, in his beautiful eulogy delivered in 1879, said that Garrison moved not with the tide, but against it. He rose not by the power of the Church or the State, but in bold, inflexible and defiant opposition to the mighty power of both. It was the glory of this man that he could stand alone with the truth, and calmly await the result… [L]et us guard his memory as a precious inheritance, let us teach our children the story of his life.

After tarnishing the “precious inheritance” of Garrison, Kendi moves on to Lincoln. He rehashes the thoroughly debunked claim that the Emancipation Proclamation, the greatest revolutionary document in American history after the Declaration of Independence, was a mere military tactic. In Kendi’s way of seeing things, Lincoln’s order only made it “incumbent on Black people to emancipate themselves.” He goes on, “And that is precisely what they did, running away from enslavers to Union lines…” (p. 431).

Kendi does not seem to fathom that the Emancipation Proclamation made these men and women legally free when they ran to Union line, rather than runaway slaves with the property claims of their masters still operative. But then again, Kendi does not even ask himself what the Union army was doing in the South. His essay is called “Progress.” This must be meant ironically. Kendi sees no progress in history.

The bringing in of Jones, of Johns Hopkins University, and Kendi, of Boston University, is meant to clothe the 1619 Project in immense authority. A couple of other efforts have been made along these lines. Here too, a law of diminishing returns seems to have imposed itself on the Times.

Stung by criticism that she had no sources in the original publication, Hannah-Jones has plugged in, ex post facto, 94 endnotes to her “framing essay,” which the editors have now given the title “Democracy.” Not much else has changed from the original version, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in commentary—not history—for what the prize committee charitably called Hannah-Jones’ “highly personal” style. The new footnotes lead to many URLs as well as personal conversations with historians, including Woody Holton of the University of South Carolina, who has staked his professional reputation to the 1619 Project.

Sent in to provide authority, Holton is responsible for the most clamorous new error introduced into the present volume. Hannah-Jones quotes Holton as saying that the Dunmore Proclamation of November 7, 1775, a British offer of freedom to slaves of masters already in revolt, “ignited the turn to independence” for the Virginian founding fathers George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison (p. 16), supposedly because they feared losing their human property. Unfortunately for Holton, at that point Washington was already commanding the Continental Army in war, Jefferson had drafted his tract A Declaration of the Causes & Necessity for Taking Up Arms, and Madison, then only 24, had joined a revolutionary organ, the Orange County Virginia Committee of Safety.

This is not an innocent mistake. Holton and the 1619 Project get the sequence of events wrong to support another fiction: that the true, never-before-revealed (and undocumented!) motivation of the Founding Fathers in 1776 was to defend slavery. These are fatal errors. And yet there is a still larger issue. Whatever the individual motives of Washington, Jefferson, and Madison—even if a single letter, article, or diary entry might one day be found from among their voluminous writings demonstrating that they “staked their lives and sacred honor” to defend slavery—in assessing the significance of the American Revolution much more than this must still be taken into consideration. Why was it that the great slaveless majority of colonists supported America’s second-bloodiest war for six long years? Why did thousands of free blacks enlist? And further, what was the relationship between the American Revolution and the Enlightenment, whose thought contemporaries believed that it embodied? What was its relationship to that which historian R.R. Palmer called “the age of the democratic revolution” that swept the Atlantic in its wake? What was its connection to the destruction of slavery in the US and elsewhere over the next century? How did it relate, ideologically, to subsequent anti-colonial struggles? An utter lack of curiosity about these and other critical questions characterizes the entire volume.

A few contributors manage to make certain valid historical points. Times columnist Jamelle Bouie provides treatment of the vociferous pro-slavery advocate, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina “who saw no difference between slavery and other forms of labor in the modern world” (p. 199). Khahlil Gibran Muhammad gives a useful survey of the sugar plantation system. But as a whole, and Bouie and Muhammad notwithstanding, the book’s various chapters are formulaic in the extreme. They identify present-day social, political, and cultural problems in exclusively racial terms, and then, each performing the same salto mortale, impose the present diagnosis on history.

Health care, the massive prison population, gun violence, obesity, traffic jams—these, and many more problems, the Times wishes us to believe, are rooted in “endemic” “anti-black racism” first imprinted in a national “DNA” in 1619. The Times, a multi-billion dollar corporation closely tied to Wall Street and the military-intelligence apparatus, does not want readers to consider more obvious, and much more proximate, causes for America’s social and political ills—for example, the extreme polarization of wealth that has reduced 70 percent of the population to paycheck-to-paycheck existence, while the ranks of billionaires swell, their wealth doubling with astonishing frequency.

As it turns out, it is all about wealth, and more specifically, cash, as Hannah-Jones admits in a concluding essay: “[W]hat steals opportunities is the lack of wealth … the defining feature of Black life,” she writes (p. 456). This essay is entitled “Justice.” A call for race-based reparations for blacks—any individual who can show “documentation that he or she identified as a Black person for at least ten years….” (p. 472)—it originally appeared in the New York Times Magazine on June 30, 2020, under the title “What is Owed.”

“Lack of wealth” is not the defining feature of “black life” in America. It defines life for the vast majority of the American and world population. But Hannah-Jones is not calling for any sort of class redistribution of wealth. On the contrary, if her proposal were put into effect, the federal government, which has not authored a substantial social reform since the 1960s, would inevitably direct money away from the little that remains to support students, the poor, the sick, and the elderly of all races. The proceeds would go to blacks regardless of their wealth, including to people such as herself, for whom “lack of wealth” is not a “defining feature” of life. Only recently, for instance, Hannah-Jones charged a California community college $25,000 for a one-hour, virtual engagement—this being the charitable discount rate of her speaking fees.

In putting its imprimatur on a call for race-based reparations, the Times could not have come up with an “issue” more beneficial to the Trump-led Republican Party than if it had been dreamed up by Stephen Bannon himself. Hannah-Jones, of course, claims that her proposal is not meant to pit races against each other. She simply takes it for granted that “the races” have separate and opposed interests. On this, black nationalists and white supremacists have always agreed. Indeed, Hannah-Jones appears to be completely oblivious to the dangerous implications of “the federal government,” which would distribute the money, dividing Americans up by race (p. 472). The categorization of people into races by the state has been the starting point of some of history’s worst crimes—the Third Reich’s annihilation of Germany’s Jews being only the most horrific example.

The existence of chattel slavery is also one of history’s monumental crimes. But it was a crime in an unusual, premodern way. Slavery was inherited blindly, without questioning, from the colonial past. It was the most degraded status in a world where personal dependency and unfree labor were the rule, and not the exception—a world of serfdom, indentured servitude, penal labor, corvée, and peonage. The American Revolution, for the first time in world history, raised slavery up as a historical problem —in the sense that it could now be consciously identified as such, both because its existence was obnoxious to the revolution’s assertion of human equality and because slavery stood in contradistinction to “free” wage labor, which grew rapidly in its aftermath. These contradictions breathed life into various attempts to end slavery peacefully. Such efforts came to naught. In a cruel paradox, the growth of capitalism, and its insatiable demand for cotton, nurtured the development of what historians have called a “second slavery” in the antebellum. Historical problems as deep-rooted as slavery are not given to simple solutions.English convicts—men, women, and children—chained and bound for the colony for “terms of service”

Yet, “four score and seven years” later, the Civil War, the Second American Revolution, ended American slavery, hastening its demise in Brazil and Cuba as well. In the longue durée of slavery’s history, which reaches back to the ancient world, this is a remarkably compressed period. There are many people alive today who are 87 years old, a time span that separates us from 1935. That year, the high-water mark of the social reformism of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Wagner Act was passed, securing the legal right for workers to form trade unions of their own choosing. The New Deal never did succeed in securing a national health care system, a relatively modest reform that has since been realized by many nations, but which has eluded the US for the intervening 87 years. By way of comparison, in the 87 years separating the Declaration of Independence from the Gettysburg Address, the United States destroyed slavery, an entire system of private property in man. It did so at a terrible cost. Lincoln was not far off when he said in his Second Inaugural Address that “every drop of blood drawn with the lash” might be “paid by another drawn with the sword.” Some 700,000 Americans had already died when he said those words.

Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address. He is visible in the upper left, hatless

Lincoln’s political genius lay in his unique capacity to link the enormous crisis of the Civil War to the American Revolution, and to the still larger question of human equality—that is, to extract from the maelstrom of events the true, the essential. He did this most famously at Gettysburg, when he explained that the war was a test of whether or not the founding principle “that all men are created equal … shall perish from the earth.” Lincoln knew well, as he put it in another speech, that “the occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise—with the occasion,” before quickly adding, “We cannot escape history.”

Our time is also “piled high with difficulty,” and we can no less escape history than those alive in the 1860s. Nearly 1 million Americans have now died in the COVID-19 pandemic, part of a global death toll of some 6 million, according to the official counting. There is a clear and present danger of war with nuclear-armed Russia and China. Social inequality has reached nearly unfathomable levels. Basic democratic principles are under assault. Manmade climate change threatens the ecology, and ultimately the habitability, of the planet. These are major historical problems, to say the least. It was once commonplace—and certainly not unique to Marxists, as Lincoln’s words show—to appreciate that major problems cannot even be understood, let alone acted upon, without an objective, truthful approach to history.



[1] “Leon Trotsky: What Is National Socialism? (1933).”

[2] “Inside the New York Times Town Hall.” Slate. Accessed February 8, 2022. 

[3] Hannah-Jones has repeatedly acknowledged Bennett’s influence. See Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America. Chicago, Ill.: Johnson Pub. Co., 2007; and Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream. Chicago: Johnson Pub. Co., 2007.

Sunday, 13 February 2022

Review: Monkey Boy- Francisco Goldman-336pp. Grove Press. £14.99.

 "As centuries of dictators have known, an illiterate crowd is the easiest to rule; since the craft of reading cannot be untaught once it has been acquired, the second-best recourse is to limit its scope."

— Alberto Manguel

Reading has a history. But how can we recover it?'

Robert Darnton

"For the desire to read, like all the other desires which distract our unhappy souls, is capable of analysis. It may be for good books, for bad books, or for in different books. But it is always despotic in its demands, and when it appears, at whatever hour of day or night, we must rise and slink off at its heels, only allowing ourselves to ask, as we desert the responsibilities and privileges of active life, one very important question — Why? Why, that is, this sudden passion for Pepys or Rimbaud? Why turn the house upside down to discover Macaulay's Life and Letters? Why will nothing do except Beckford's Thoughts on Hunting? Why demand first Disraeli's novels and then Dr Bentley's biography?

Virginia Woolf on Sir Thomas Browne

But who shall be the master? The writer or the reader?

 —Denis Diderot, Jacques le fataliste et son maître, 1796

"The Bishop Gerardi case, it showed Guatemalans that what they had thought was impossible and which usually is impossible could be done, that you could get justice for a crime like that in a country where - of complete impunity, where state crimes always go unpunished. And the courage of that prosecutor and the young people who investigated that day is like nothing I have ever seen or witnessed in my life. It is - it was the great honour of my life to be close to them and to work with them for so many years".

Francisco Goldman

In our country, the truth has been twisted and silenced. Discovering the truth is painful, but it is, without doubt, a healthy and liberating action.

Msgr. Juan Gerardi, Never Again, xxiv.

In his book The History of Reading, the writer Alberto Manguel makes the following pertinent and insightful comment "We all read ourselves and the world around us in order to glimpse what and where we are. We read to understand, or to begin to understand. We cannot do but read. Reading, almost as much as breathing, is our essential function".

I am sure Francisco Goldman would agree with that sentiment because his latest book is written in the spirit of that comment. Monkey Boy is not an orthodox autobiography. The author employers an alter ego, Francisco Goldberg, much like the writer Philip Roth and many others do to examine certain aspects of his or her life with great effect. This type of autobiographical novel should not be seen as a "dying genre" but is, in reality, a form of writing that seeks to make sense not only the life of a writer but their place in the world, and through his or her book, we can begin to understand our place in the world. A great man once said, "Art is the Cognition of Life.[1]

Goldman is fond of Marcel Proust, saying, "Proust wrote in his novel that a man, during the second half of his life, might become the reverse of who he was in the first." The reader should take this on board when reading this book, and it is their first clue on how to approach this excellent book.

The real narrator of "Monkey Boy" is course, Francisco Goldman. Goldman mixes fiction and fact to great effect in this novel autobiography. He is a seriously gifted and thoughtful writer, and like all high-level works of literature, his book works on many different levels. Monkey Boy is an open dialogue with its readers. The book poses the question, "who shall be the master? The writer or the reader?

Goldman believes there should be a dialectical relationship between author and reader, and the reader for him is not just a passive bystander. Goldman does his utmost to de-mystify the writing process saying, "Sometimes people want to mystify where novels come from, but often novels come from the most obvious source, simply what the writer is most persistently thinking about".

Goldman thinks about many things, and it is gratifying that in this age of instant gratification and the rise of inane videos produced by the TikTok generation, someone spends so much time trying to raise people's intellectual level.


By any stretch of the imagination, Goldman had a really bad childhood. He was the son of a Jewish father and a Guatemalan mother, and his early life was spent in the predominantly working-class area of Boston. The novel depicts his own experiences, including being physically assaulted by his dad and being physically and verbally abused at school.

The title of the book stems from these disturbing experiences. As Goldman explains, "I chose it as the title because part of the source of the book was that I wanted to go back and look at some very difficult years, my childhood and adolescence. You know, a couple of years ago, I had a fellowship at the Harvard Radcliffe Institute in Cambridge, which brought me back up to Massachusetts for the first time in years. And I got together with some of my old high school friends, people who played on that sophomore football team that you read about in the book. And one of them laughed and said to me, oh, yeah, I remember now. Everybody used to say you look like a monkey. And it sort of came back to me there, you know, that how much of my childhood and youth had been sort of shaped by these kinds of nicknames, which, you know, we can interpret in so many different ways in the course of the book".[2]

I suppose you could say that Goldman is lucky in one sense in that being such an outstanding writer, he has been able to understand his terrible childhood and, through writing about it, come to terms with it. Many people, including myself, are not that lucky. Not that I had a terrible childhood far from it, but I was on the receiving end of a bully at secondary school, much like most people are. The bully made children's lives hell until he picked on the wrong guy who battered him. His bullying days were abruptly ended. The most perverse aspect of this story is that he tried to befriend me on Friends Reunited a long while back. I was tempted to meet him and give him another beating or hire someone bigger than me to do it, but I turned him down. I am, after all, a civilised human being.

This book is an easy read primarily because Goldman is such a good writer. But it would be a mistake to believe that this is an easy book to understand. While an uninformed reader would still get a lot out of the book, you need to have at least a rudimentary understanding of the history and political situation in Latin America, particularly Guatemala, which is an important part of Goldman's life.

Guatemala is a rich and beautiful country, but it is a hell hole for most of its people. It is one of the world's unequal countries, with most of its people being socially and politically disenfranchised. As Angelina Godoy points out in her book,[3] "Guatemala has the seventh-highest degree of income inequality in the world, and the highest in Latin America … Some 83 per cent of the population – and 90 per cent of the indigenous population – lives in poverty. And although most Guatemalans are poor, regardless of their ethnicity, the socioeconomic exclusion of the country's indigenous – mostly Mayan – majority by the ladino minority has led to an especially notable disconnect between the few fairer-skinned elites who control the bulk of the county's resources and the mostly indigenous masses who toil in its fields and factories. Yet just as peasants often cultivate subsistence plots on the sides of volcanoes, the country's social and economic structure is pitched atop these unstable relations of mass exclusion. Like the land that occasionally rumbles beneath Guatemala's feet, the nation they have constructed atop this precarious social scaffolding has been prone to periodic eruptions of brutal violence".

The Art of Political Murder

Goldman's book, The Art of Political Murder, is a masterpiece of journalistic investigation and writing. Its writing and publication came close to getting him killed, and Goldman received several death threats. For much less, the Guatemalan death squads have killed many journalists and political figures.

"The Art Of Political Murder" is about the assassination of Juan Gerardi, a bishop and human rights activist. Goldman explains why he was killed "Because the army and the guerrillas in the peace accords - the army were the victors. The guerrillas were, you know, a very defeated force that was pulled into the peace accords and wanted to survive. They decided that there would be no accounting for the war's crimes, a war in which 200,000 civilians have been killed, that there be complete amnesty. And Bishop Gerardi already knew that that was not the way forward, that a country cannot have peace with that kind of incredible crimes against humanity going unaddressed and unforgiven.[4]

This search for justice for the oppressed animates Goldman's book. As he writes, " There are many reasons I wanted to go back and write about this time in my life. One is I was thinking about, you know, the kinds of hierarchies I place on myself, right? Without a doubt, the - such a formative experience, the most formative period of my life, was the time I spent in my 20s covering the wars of Central America Guatemala, writing my first novel. But, you know, being so close to that, you know, was, in fact, a genocide, a terrible, terrible war. The way that that takes centrality in your life, every time you sit down to write, you think, well, you know, really, that is the key experience. I owe that yet again to go back there and find more meaning from that.[5]

The Art of Political Murder is now a documentary film showing on HBO. It has been produced by Academy Award winners George Clooney and Grant Heslov. I have included a discussion with the author and the director shown on Youtube. Goldman fully collaborated with this excellent documentary and said, "it is kind of amazing that a prosecutor had the guts and gumption to pursue the evidence. And they convicted three members of the military for the killing, and probably those who ordered it still were never brought to justice".

According to Goldman, the exact figure of how many people were killed during this investigation is unknown. But at least ten potential witnesses were killed. The younger brother of the chief prosecution lawyer was found tortured and murdered in 2006. According to Goldman, "They had torn a leg off while he was still alive".What worries you is that they can go after people close to you. My wife loved Guatemala, but I had to tell her: 'You will never set foot there again".

Goldman believes the Guatemalan elite is drenched in the blood of hundreds of thousands of people, along with its partner in crime, Yankee imperialism. Goldman is one of the few internationally recognised writers who has written about this genocide. The indigenous population has received hundreds of years of colonial and imperialist exploitation and death. Even today, 80 per cent live under the official poverty line. The plunder of Guatemala as a platform for cheap labour and natural resources by transnational corporations continues today. The country has been turned into a militarised concentration camp to benefit Guatemalan and American capitalism.

While the book is predominantly about Goldman coming to terms with the political choices, the book delves into a lot of his personal life. Many important women play a crucial role in his personal and political development. His mother, of course, plays a central role and numerous girlfriends, most of whom seem to be beautiful and a lot younger than Goldman. He seems to have an uncanny knack for attracting beautiful young women into his life. Goldman's personal life is not without tragedy. Losing his wife Aura Estrada, who died in a bodysurfing accident in Mexico in 2007, was a devastating loss written about in the brutally honest book Say Her Name[6]. The book reminded me of Isabel Allende's book about her daughter Paula.[7]

I fully recommend this book and hope it gets the wide audience it deserves. Let us hope Hollywood does a good job when it buys the rights. The book undoubtedly gives us a deep insight into this extremely rare and gifted writer. Perhaps more importantly, it gives you a political and historical understanding of the country that is a big part of who Goldman is.



Guatemala as a National Crime Scene: Femicide and Impunity in Contemporary U.S. Detective Novels Susana S. Martínez DePaul University, Journal of Interdisciplinary Feminist Thought, Vol. 3, Iss. 1 [2008], smartine@depaul.ed


"The Divine Husband and the Creation of a Transamericana Subject." Latino Studies. Vol. 11, no. 2 (Summer): 190 – 207.


"Jewish characters, subalternity, and the rewriting of the foundational narrative in Francisco Goldman's The Divine Husband," presented at "Returning to Babel:Jewish Latin American Experiences and Representations," University of Nebraska - Lincoln; April 19.


"Discovering Her: Gender and Truth in Francisco Goldman's The Long Night ofWhite Chickens," presented at the Latin American Studies Associate Annual Congress; May 24; Chicago, IL


Understanding Francisco Goldman (Understanding Contemporary American Literature) by Ariana E. Vigil (Author) Ariana E. Vigil is an associate professor in the Department of Women's and Gender Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is the author of War Echoes: Gender and Militarisation in U.S. Latina/o Cultural Production.




About the Author

Francisco Goldman is the author of Say Her Name (2011), winner of the Prix Femina Etranger, and of The Interior Circuit: A Mexico City Chronicle 2014, was awarded the Premio Azul in Canada. His first novel, The Long Night of White Chickens, was awarded the American Academy's Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction. His novels have been finalists for several prizes, including The Pen/Faulkner and the International IMPAC Dublin literary award. The Art of Political Murder won The Index on Censorship T.R. Fyvel Book Award and The WOLA/Duke Human Rights Book Award. In December 2020, the documentary film of that book will be shown on HBO. He has received a Cullman Center Fellowship, a Guggenheim, a Berlin Prize, and was a 2018-19 Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies at Harvard. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. He was awarded a 2018 PEN Mexico Award for Literary Excellence. He co-directs the Premio Aura Estrada and teaches one semester at Trinity College in Hartford, CT. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, The New York Times, The Believer, and numerous other publications. Monkey Boy, his latest novel, is out now from Grove Atlantic. Francisco lives with his wife Jove and their daughter Azalea in Mexico City.[8]





[3] Popular Injustice: Violence, Community, and Law in Latin America Paperback – 15 May 2006 by Angelina Godoy



[6] Say Her Name Hardcover – 1 Aug. 2011-by Francisco Goldman  (Author)

[7] The Aura Estrada Prize is awarded biannually with the intention of honoring aspiring female writers like Aura who are under 35, write in Spanish, and live in either Mexico or the United States.


Thursday, 3 February 2022

Moore, Wayétu. 2018. She Would be King: A Novel. Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota. 311pp. Hardcover: $15.99. ISBN-10: 1555978177; ISBN-13: 978-1555978174

It is less of a tautology to claim that orthodox historians to this day have read the abolition of slavery, a step first taken by Britain in 1807 and followed later by other powers, as the event that ushered in a reversal of chattel slavery. Nevertheless, the end of chattel slavery for Wayétu Moore in She Would Be King (2018), underlies a regression towards wage labour, a policy deemed far worse than slavery, ensuring not only a second life of the nefarious institution but also the foundation of a system wherein workers prostitute themselves every single working day in contrast to slaves who were sold once or twice in a lifetime.

In the author’s eye, wage labour stands for that descent into the proletarization of people and communities, their systemic impoverishment through the appropriation of their labour time, amounting to civil wars and overall societal unrest. Readers may recall that Moore’s stated objective from writing the novel has been her attempt to specify the reasons that lead to Liberia’s civil war (1989-1997) during which she, a toddler (born in 1985), and her family were forced to flee the country and settle in the US. It is worth recalling that Liberia is the first nation-state in Africa. Its independence dates back to 1847, well before countries such as South Africa, Egypt or even Ethiopia. But the country has remained largely unstable and the advantage of Moore’s novel is that it promises to take its reader to the motoring principle behind that instability and violence, that is, to the foundation of wage labour system.

Moore’s early attempts in fiction writing is a children book titled: I Love Liberia (2011). She similarly champions a non-profit business adventure called ‘One Moore Book’. Note the pun in ‘Moore’, highlighting both the word ‘more’ and the author’s last name. The project aims at circulating “… culturally relevant books to children who are underrepresented and live in countries with low literacy rates.”(1) Besides, Moore’s faith in the universal extension of knowledge to unfortunate young minds underscores her initial cause of dispelling illusions and falsehoods, including those that have put Liberia on the road of misery, impoverishment and interminable wars.

Several observers and experts will keep reiterating that behind that generalized instability and descent into bloody civil wars lies the same people’s backwardness, incapacity to found an enduring social contract and endemic divisions between multiple social components. All these factors should perhaps be approached with a grain of salt because the listed ‘reasons’ subscribe more to the logics of justification, not explanations. Indeed, such arguments are culturalist in nature and all they succeed in achieving is to blame the victims and, in the meanwhile, lift the blame from the real harm-inflictors, both people and structures. The present essay underscores the need to consider the author’s approach and setting of the story, since taking that into consideration, I claim, can be conducive to register exactly what happened, and the way in which what indeed happened (not that which is fancied as what happened) had ushered in in the long term the civil war of the 1990s.

The differential between that which indeed happened and that which portends to have happened is a historiography that promises to propagate towards universal emancipation. Leaving that which triggered the author’s own exile unexamined is to remain stuck in superficialities-sold-as-histories, with the cost of ensuring that cycles of violence will not only keep emerging but those cycles’ rhythm will have to be confronted with a telling regularity.

Before detailing on wage labor, there exists the need to broach first on several social players of modern Liberia as traced by the author in She Would be King. We find at least two main components:  the first is the Vai and other indigenous communities as represented by Gbessa’s story in the early part of the novel, offering a window into precolonial life in an African village before European intrusion. Through the stigmatization of Gbessa on the ground of her ‘ill-fated’ birth date, Moore illustrates that precolonial life, that is, well before the incursion of European powers into the continent’s interiors, life in Africa was far from being either idyllic or perfect. Readers find that Gbessa is cursed simply because her birth date coincides with an event interpreted as a bad omen. Through no fault of her own, and at the age of eight, Gbessa is sentenced to die by abandoning her in the deep jungle. Her parents are ostracized for bringing a child on a ‘wrong’ day, overlooking how the wrong day is wrong only in the calendar of alienation!

The second category of social actors are returnees, victims of slavery but who found themselves obliged (like June Dey) or entreated (like Norman Aragon) to return and find peace in Monrovia. Let us recall that these last two characters are themselves descendants of enslaved Africans who do not necessarily come from Libera, or even nearby localities such as the Ivory Coast or Ghana. Throughout the decades and even the centuries, the first enslaved people died and their enslaved descendants simply retained “Africa” or its idea less as their place of origin and more as a place where they used to be free, their humanity round and unquestioned. It should be noted that places such as Cameroon, Nigeria, Tanzania or the Congo are recent inventions that come with colonial expansionist plans and labels since by the time chattel slavery become generalized, these appellations (not places) simply did not exist.

In She Would be King, we find this affinity with Africa, less as a geographical space or biological affiliation and more as an existential attachment to a promise for emancipation with Nanni, Norman’s mother. Despite having the choice to live among several Maroon communities in Jamaica, Nanni always feeds Norman, her son, the obligation to leave Jamaica and to re-join Africa. To seize on her steadfastness in bonding with Africa, readers cannot miss how she endures Callum’s pseudo-scientific whims, slavery and even rape, all for the sake of earning a boarding passage to Africa. Africa, she seizes, is both the physical territory and mental space conceptualized as existential freedom, a radical breach with the reductionism of one’s humanity that underlies her life as a slave. Nanni, Norman and June Dey, as elaborated below, are Pan-Africanists avant la lettre. Well before the foundation of the early to mid-twentieth century movement of Pan-Africanism, we read that slaves in the Americas entertained not only exalted dreams but elaborate plans to equally find and found freedom in Africa. Alternatively, freedom became synonymous with their idea of Africa. The two are intricately attached so much so that they serve as a prerogative for Africa-as-freedom and freedom-as-African.

The runaway slave June Dey similarly comes from a tobacco plantation in Virginia, named Emerson. His biological father is a slave from a neighbouring plantation who was cheaply sold to the Emersons in the hope of saving the crumbling plantation capital and helping it regain its former wealth and glory. We read that June Dey’s father, June, killed the overseer in his last incarcerating place because that overseer had killed his wife and baby. June is subsequently killed in Emerson because he dared to defend his second family, the one he founded after arriving at Emerson and from this union June Dey is born. June Dey’s biological mother, Charlottes, occupies a mixed space between a domestic and field hand. During the day she serves in the mansion but at night she sleeps in a shack with other field slaves. She too was brutally murdered soon after getting rid of June. Their baby christened Moses, was trusted to Darlene, a domestic slave and another victim of the infamous system. Even when no one dared to divulge a single word in respect to his father’s feats, June Dey or Moses truly stands to his biblical sake name. The insurrectionary spirit becomes contagious and is transferred from father to son nevertheless. He was raised as a domestic, but when Mr Emersons decides to dispense with some slaves in order to raise funds for a second nearby plantation that would plant cotton, June Dey leads the insurrection that brings the Emerson plantation and its expansionist plans all down.

Indeed, we read that the two June Dey and Norman Aragon are repatriated to Monrovia: Norman because that was his mother’s dying wish but for June Dey the trip was totally unplanned. After his spectacular fight against the masters of Emerson, the opportunity presented itself as the runway June Dey is knocked out of consciousness and finds himself in a ship, run by the famous American Colonization Society (ACS) and is bound for Africa. All over the 1840s, the ACS used to raise resources from the US Congress to secure the repatriation of both free and freed Africans to Liberia. Meanwhile, the ACS established a footing for US imperial planners during the heated race for colonies.

When knowing that even Gbessa too had been in exile as she was excommunicated from her village on the pretext of being cursed, the three characters conceive of Africa less as a place of origin and more as a promise for greater, that is, communal emancipation. This suggests how readers are invited to favour ideological affiliation, not biological association. Indeed, Norman and June Dey meet outside the Monrovia prison searching for ways of reaching Freetown which is much of a mythical land and which involves how it is less a physical territory and more of a life journey.

Why underlying the symbolic meaning of the land? Lest Africa is fetishized, the simple act of setting foot in Africa registers as just the beginning of the journey, the commencement of the arduous work, neither an end in itself nor a call for passive resignation. Moore’s vision for Africa serves the facilitation of encountering like-minded individuals to unite the efforts and beat up against intruders for collective and communal emancipation. Encountering Gbessa when she is literally on the verge of death (she has been beaten by a snake), Norman has been at that point looking for a medicinal herb (significantly, a living root—not one that is cut) to attend to June Dey’s terrible stomachache. Instead of caring for one, Norman has now to attend to two patients whom he barely knows. He could have simply abandoned them to their fate and carried out his journey alone. But he realized that a journey is meaningless without companions and fellow travellers. Once this initial task of caring for the physical well-being of committed Africans is successfully carried out, facing intruders both local and foreign is next on the agenda. The three face French soldiers as the latter are burning villages and driving the inhabitants into the slave market. Unparalleled feats of success are achieved as Norman and June Dey save the villagers and they all eventually mount a rebellion against the French enslavers. Historically, France was a latecomer in the slave trade and France grudgingly abolished slavery as late as 1848. French enslavers take Gbessa a prisoner; later, she is stabbed and is left bleeding. But Gbessa’s curse specifies that she cannot die. She stands for the undying spirit of insurrection, which explains why soon enough, we meet Gbessa in Mr Johnson’s mansion, taken care of by Maisy, a servant. Understandably, Mr Johnson plays a prominent role in the young and independent republic of Liberia.

By then, the narrative may look like it slides into insignificant preoccupations: Gbessa’s marriage with a prominent army lieutenant, Gerald Tubman, in the then newly founded Liberian army. The union starts as a marriage of convenience but eventually becomes rotating around love. The new elites of settlers badly desire peace. How else to achieve that peace and trust with the unruly tribes of the interior except through a marriage with Gbessa? The union stands as a pledge, not a testimony, that Liberia will hopefully remain a single and functional entity. June Dey and Norman are now mixing with the crowds. But the mixed marriage should not lend a superficial reading of the novel. Already, readers notice that within early Liberian high society, composed of individuals who themselves had been slaves or had experienced slavery at a close range in pre-civil war America have themselves resorted, however indirectly, to enslaving practices in the form of wage labour.

Maisy’s fate, when closely considered, speaks volumes. Kidnapped is one of the last enslaving raids, her entire tribe was annihilated. As a sole survivor, she is now a servant of Mr Johnson. The latter is presumably a popular leader of the young nation but in fact he is the spokesperson of the settlers, those now powerful people repatriated by the ACS. In a dialogue between prominent ladies, Miss. Ernestine raises the remark that in being a house servant Maisy brings unhappy reminiscences regarding the fate of domestic slaves on plantations in the antebellum United States. The snide remark is swiftly answered with a tinge of irony where Mrs Johnson points at the rumours which circulate how Miss. Ernestine could be abusing the native inhabitants in her coffee plantations, treating them like field slaves, implying that she perhaps should mind her own business before attending to others.

The conversation between the ladies, however calm in tone and seemingly casual, even friendly, remains eye-opening. What cannot be missed, however, is how these early founders of the Republic of Liberia were not only conscious of the cultural divisions between the inhabitants but were also aware of the long-term consequences of these divisions. The bombastic and celebrations attitudes of starting a social order that promises to be a rupture with the practices of the past and its institutions, such as slavery, is now increasingly challenged. The ladies, as the exchange illustrates, are in no way fooled by the promises of new or egalitarian beginnings, allowing us to fundamentally question the chances of new beginnings or how the idea of new beginnings serves as a strategy to fool idiots and simpletons. Engrossed in their thriving businesses, the founding elites were aware that they were leaving behind other social actors and that marginalization would be a time-bomb, which if not immediately addressed, social unrest and even generalized instability will transpire into the future. Nevertheless, each selfishly clanged to short term interests and business calculations. Interests and calculations turned out in the long run to be costly miscalculations.

The natives, non-educated members of the interior tribes, were treated by returnees from Jamaica, the US and other places (who were mostly enslaved) as second-class citizens. Reading the history of coups in Liberia, it is these two social players that constantly seek to undo and cancel each other. Even in the civil war that pushed the author’s own parents to leave for the US, it was Charles Tylor ousting Samuel Doe. The latter comes from the Krahn ethnic group, whereas Tylor is a descendant of the socially upscale minority, a descendant of nineteenth-century returnees from the US. The feud is more about who holds monopolies over-extraction licenses for foreign companies to mine gold and diamond. Still, the feud is exacerbated by the historical divide that goes back to Liberia’s unhappy foundation. This divide ushered in yet another cycle of violence and looting for diamonds and other valuables. Both Tylor and Doe met with a violent end and both were re-enacting the feud between on the one hand descendants of former slaves, who to this day think themselves more entitled to rule since they have been more civilized and on the other descendants of native inhabitants, who excel in selling their credentials as the eternal victims of the brain-washed former slaves!

 This brings readers back to She Would be King where lieutenant Gerald suggests at first and later instructs Gbessa not to manually work in the farm, and to call for the help of the plenty servants he is hiring so that she can lead a life of a lady. As the wife of a dignitary in the young republic, he wants her only to supervise the workers simply because Gbessa is now a society woman and her social manners should reflect the social pomp of members of the high class. Any other Gbessa’s reaction, Gerald reasons, reflects poorly on him, his social status as well as his chances of promotion. Naturally, his eye lies on more prominent roles in the leadership of the young nation. In his mind, he did not marry Gbessa to remain ‘stuck’ with a secondary role in the army or administrating the barracks. Readers may evoke how Gbessa reacts: despite the plentiful abundance of servants/slaves, she adamantly rejects and prefers to carry out domestic duties, both indoors, in the garden and the adjacent field, herself. Readers find out that Gbessa was particularly mindful not to charge the numerous servants and workers with any task, domestic or otherwise. For her, the practice however inadvertent summons slavery. No one can pretend that the fresh memory of the inhuman practice is not overshadowing people’s everyday interactions. Closely considered, the practice itself, not just its fresh memory, casts its gloomy footprints on wage labour, rendering the latter anti-egalitarian. Thus, wage labour sows the seeds of socio-political fragmentation and disharmony.

Bourgeois economics specifies that hiring aids and workers falls into the eternal norm of the division of labour where each individual works according to his or her skills set and fairly receives remuneration according to the tasks executed. Only the division of labour—through wage labour—found the basis of civilization, according to the same bourgeois theoreticians. 

But in line with Karl Marx’s elaborations on the division of labour in The German Ideology (1848), Gbessa categorically rejects this commonsensical presupposition and deems it in service of justification, not an explanation. Indeed, the system of labour does not consider the worker’s actual coercion to grudgingly accept a wage in exchange for the task performed. In addition to seeking excellent and skilled performances, the division of labour primarily shuts means of independent subsistence, of that genuine aspiration of making a living without being forced to work for some boss or a hiring institution. Thus, wage labor, Gbessa reasons fuels inequality and sows seeds of generalized instability. Readers of the novel note how Gbessa’s soulmate, Safua, raises a rebellion against the leaders of the new republic because of the communal values which the wage system has been busily destroying. The Vai community–like several in the pre-colonial setting—cherish communal freedom. The Vai resisted the appropriation of their grazing lands and fiercely rejected domestication through wage labour. Now it is Safua’s son who is in charge of resistance. 

Readers close reading Moore’s novel wherein Gbessa hopes against hope to stop the bloodbath, making sure not to pit the Vai against the settlers who are now the de facto rulers in Monrovia. Hence, the idea of Gbessa being king, as suggested in the title, should be taken as a pun: both a king and its negation, since Gbessa is a woman and the right expectation is rewarding her with the title of queen, not king, for active attempts to lift violence and foster the sense of citizenship among suspecting and uncooperative interior tribes. Indeed, Moore’s title squeezes her project as one that is radically egalitarian. In refusing to call the aid of workers and domestics, Gbessa rejects the title of king or queen. She views the title not only as the expression of an unearned or undeserved privilege but simply as the formalization of wage labour, the essence of slavery and disharmony.  




Fouad Mami

Université d’Adrar (Algeria)