ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes


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Laboring as field hands on tobacco and rice plantations, as skilled artisans in port cities,

or soldiers along the frontier, generation after generation of African Americans

struggled to create a world of their own in circumstances not of their own making



Books by Ira Berlin

Slaves without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South  / Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation

Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in Mainland North America  /  Slaves without Masters / Free at Last

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Many Thousands Gone
The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America

By Ira Berlin 


Recipient of the 1999 Bancroft Prize from Columbia University

1999 Gustavus Myers Outstanding Book Award Honorable Mention, sponsored by the Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights in North America

Winner of the 1999 Elliott Rudwick Prize of the Organization of American Historians

Winner of the 1999 Frederick Douglass Prize for the Best Book on Slavery Sponsored by the Gilder Lehrman Center at Yale University

Winner, Association of American Publishers 1998 Professional/Scholarly Publishing Annual Award in the Category of History

Finalist, 1998 National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction

Co-winner of the Southern Historical Association's Frank L. and Harriet C. Owsley Award for 1999

Today most Americans, black and white, identify slavery with cotton, the deep South, and the African-American church. But at the beginning of the nineteenth century, after almost two hundred years of African-American life in mainland North America, few slaves grew cotton, lived in the deep South, or embraced Christianity. Many Thousands Gone traces the evolution of black society from the first arrivals in the early seventeenth century through the Revolution. In telling their story, Ira Berlin, a leading historian of southern and African-American life, reintegrates slaves into the history of the American working class and into the tapestry of our nation.

Laboring as field hands on tobacco and rice plantations, as skilled artisans in port cities, or soldiers along the frontier, generation after generation of African Americans struggled to create a world of their own in circumstances not of their own making. In a panoramic view that stretches from the North to the Chesapeake Bay and Carolina lowcountry to the Mississippi Valley, Many Thousands Gone reveals the diverse forms that slavery and freedom assumed before cotton was king. We witness the transformation that occurred as the first generations of creole slaves--who worked alongside their owners, free blacks, and indentured whites--gave way to the plantation generations, whose back-breaking labor was the sole engine of their society and whose physical and linguistic isolation sustained African traditions on American soil.

As the nature of the slaves' labor changed with place and time, so did the relationship between slave and master, and between slave and society. In this fresh and vivid interpretation, Berlin demonstrates that the meaning of slavery and of race itself was continually renegotiated and redefined, as the nation lurched toward political and economic independence and grappled with the Enlightenment ideals that had inspired its birth.

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Berlin, who has already contributed significantly to the literature, here brings together in a magisterial synthesis much of what has now been learned about slave life during its first two centuries within the present United States.

--Edmund S. Morgan, New York Review of Books

In [Many Thousands Gone], Berlin emphasizes that slavery, too often treated by historians as a static institution, was in fact constantly changing. The range of subjects is impressive--from work patterns to family life, naming practices, religions, race relations and modes of resistance. But by organizing his account along the axes of space and time, berlin gives coherence to what would otherwise have been an account overwhelming by its detail and complexity. In this masterly work, Ira Berlin has demonstrated that earlier North American slavery had many different forms and meanings that varied over time and from place to place. Slavery and race did not have a fixed character that endured for centuries but were constantly being constructed or reconstructed in response to changing historical circumstances. many Thousands Gone illuminates the first 200 years of African-American history more effectively than any previous study.

--George Frederickson, New York Times Book Review

Many Thousands Gone is likely to remain for years to come the standard account of the first two centuries of slavery in the area that became the United States.

--Eric Foner, London Review of Books

Many Thousands Gone will challenge just about everything you thought you knew about slavery, especially its dawning. . . . Through this honest and responsible work, perhaps we can begin decoding our Pavlovian responses to the buried racial and experiential triggers we dare not analyze.

--Debra Dickerson, Village Voice

This meticulous schoarly study demonstrates how and why slavery took different forms at different times in different colonies and states, and describes the kinds of autonomy that slaves were able to wrest from their master under each variant of the system. Berlin also stresses slaves' skills and acumen, not to palliate the evil of slavery but to show slaves as something other than victims--as competent, often exceptionally able, men and women.

--New Yorker

The result is the best general history we now have of the 'peculiar institution' during its first 200 years. . . . Many thousands Gone is a remarkable book, one that beautifully integrates two centuries of history over a wide geographical area. it is a benchmark study from which students will learn and with which scholars will grapple for many years to come.

--Peter Kolchin, Los Angeles Times Book Review

Source: Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in Mainland North America (cover) 


Ira Berlin

Distinguished University Professor
Ph.D. University of Wisconsin, 1970
US History, African-American History, Slavery

Ira Berlin has written broadly on the history of slavery and emancipation in the United States and the larger Atlantic world. His first book, Slaves without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South (1975) won the Best First Book Prize awarded by the National Historical Society. Berlin is the founder of the Freedmen and Southern Society Project, which he directed until 1991. The project's multi-volume Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation (1982, 1985, 1990, 1993) has twice been awarded the Thomas Jefferson Prize of the Society for History in the Federal Government as well as the J. Franklin Jameson Prize of the American Historical Association for outstanding editorial achievement, and the Abraham Lincoln Prize for excellence in Civil-War studies. 

In 1999, his study of African-American life between 1619 and 1819 entitled Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in Mainland North America was published by Harvard University Press was awarded the Bancroft Prize for the best book in American history by Columbia University; Frederick Douglass Prize by the Gilder-Lehrman Institute; Owsley Prize by the Southern Historical Association, and the Rudwick Prize by the Organization of American Historians. That same year, the Humanities Council of Washington named Ira Berlin Outstanding Public Humanities Scholar of the Year. He is currently president of the Organization of American Historians.

Professor Berlin has published a monograph, an edition of his own essays, several editions of articles, and three co-edited volumes of documents in the Freedman and Southern Society Project. His monograph, Slaves without Masters, won the Best First Book Prize of the National Historical Society. The Wartime Genesis of Slavery and The Destruction of Slavery both won the Founders Award of the Valentine Museum in Richmond and the Jefferson Prize of the Society for History in the Federal Government. The Black Military Experience won the J. Franklin Jameson Prize of the American Historical Association. Free at Last won the prestigious Lincoln Prize. Professor Berlin has also written numerous articles and chapters in scholarly works. He sits on a number of editorial boards, has consulted for programs like Ken Burns' Civil War, and has held office in national historical organizations. He has held an NEH Junior Fellowship, has been a Fulbright Senior Scholar in France, and lectured as a Ford Foundation Fellow. He has also served as Dean of Undergraduate Studies and Acting Dean of the College of Arts and Humanities.

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The Great Divergence

America's Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do about It

By Timothy Noah

For the past three decades, America has steadily become a nation of haves and have-nots. Our incomes are increasingly drastically unequal: the top 1% of Americans collect almost 20% of the nation’s income—more than double their share in 1973. We have less equality of income than Venezuela, Kenya, or Yemen. What economics Nobelist Paul Krugman terms "the Great Divergence" has until now been treated as little more than a talking point, a club to be wielded in ideological battles. But it may be the most important change in this country during our lifetimes—a sharp, fundamental shift in the character of American society, and not at all for the better. The income gap has been blamed on everything from computers to immigration, but its causes and consequences call for a patient, non-partisan exploration.

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The Gardens of Democracy: A New American Story

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The White Masters of the World

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W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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update 17 May 2012




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Related files:  Generations of Captivity Reviews   Charles B. Dew Review  Many Thousands Gone