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Book Beat: Slavery in America: New Books from Harcourt Brace, New Press
Calvin Reid -- 7/27/98
Look for two major books on American slavery that will arrive this fall from the New Press and from Harcourt Brace. The books feature new historical perspectives, unusual archival material and collaborative input from public broadcasting -- not to mention, in Harcourt's case, a somewhat tarnished and potentially embarrassing coauthor.
The tarnished author happens to be p t and former Boston Globe columnist Patricia Smith, who was fired after she admitted inventing characters and quotes in her newspaper column. Happily for Harcourt, her coauthor happens to be National Book Award-winning novelist Charles Johnson, and their book, Africans in America: America's Journey Through Slavery ($30), is an unusual combination of short fiction by Johnson and a nonfiction narrative by Smith that examines the tangled history of American slavery from the viewpoint of the slaves. The initial printing is 125,000.

Ten years in the making, the book and film project was initiated and researched by WGBH, the Boston public broadcasting affiliate, and its series research team. The accompanying documentary was produced by award-winning filmmaker Orlando Bagwell (Eyes on the Prize) and will air in four episodes beginning October 19.

Dori Weintraub, Harcourt publicity director, told PW that despite the recent "controversies," Smith has rendered WGBH's research into "wonderful prose." But she was also quick to note that the book has been "well vetted by a team of scholars. We're not concerned." But don't look for Smith on the eight-city author tour, Weintraub said. "She won't be promoting the book."

Johnson wrote 12 short stories that comment on the historical narrative of each chapter, and HB executive editor Jane Isay told PW that "they add an emotional and mythical force to the book." Isay emphasized that the book would present "a radical new reading of the period from Jamestown to the Civil War."

Former Slaves Speak

In October the New Press will publish Remembering Slavery: African Americans Talk About Their Personal Experiences of Slavery and Freedom, edited by Ira Berlin, Marc Favreau and Steven F. Miller ($49), a boxed book-and-audiotape set featuring restored 1930s voice recordings of interviews with former slaves discussing their lives, along with new recordings of stars such as James Earl Jones and Melba Moore performing readings of the book's transcripts.

New Press editor J Wood told PW that press director Andre Schiffren happened across the recordings while "looking though WPA stuff at the Library of Congress." The press quickly approached distinguished slavery historian (and previous New Press author) Ira Berlin to produce a book of transcripts and commentary on the recordings.

But as the project progressed, said Wood, "we were having technical problems." Hundreds of former slaves were interviewed and recorded with primitive equipment in the 1930s by people like John Lomax and Zora Neale Hurston as part of the Federal Writers Project. But the interviews, Wood said, were often inaudible and "hard to follow."

The press caught a break, however. Unbeknownst to the New Press, Smithsonian Productions and Public Radio International, using state-of-the-art technology, had remastered and restored the recordings' intelligibility for their own broadcast project. "It was all unplanned, but we decided to work together," said Wood. National Public Radio will broadcast a program featuring the primary and celebrity recordings in October.

The book project includes a comprehensive essay on slavery written by Berlin and 40 vintage black-and-white photographs from the Library of Congress. The initial print run will be 25,000.
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