Local Author Writes About Black America

Linda Tarrant-Reid's book can be enjoyed by children and adults.


The cover of Linda Tarrant-Reid's new book is striking. Among the things the eye first focuses on, besides the photograph of President Barack Obama, is a magnifying glass highlighting a black man rowing at the knee of General George Washington in the iconic painting "Washington Crossing the Delaware" by Emanuel Leutze.

The man is thought to be Prince Whipple, whose owner was an aide to Washington. But it is documented that there was a black man on the boat during the crossing.

Tarrant-Reid agreed with a comment that the viewer will never look at that painting again without noticing the person of African descent. 

And that comment seems to have been the point of Tarrant-Reid's book Discovering Black America: From the Age of Exploration to the Twenty-first Century (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2012, $29.95).

"I enjoyed the discovery," she said. "I enjoyed learning things I did not know."

Tarrant-Reid said she always had tremendous respect for her ancestors, but working on the book gave her a chance to see their stories in context.

"There were so many great people who contributed to the history of African-Americans," she said, "that I wanted young people to really understand the story."

Tarrant-Reid, a New Rochelle resident who is active in numerous community events, is an editor, journalist and photographer who has written on the history and culture of African-Americans in the New York metropolitan area for the New York Daily News.

She was the managing editor of The Million Man March, contributor and researcher of The Family of Black America, co-editor of Black Star Power: BET Celebrating 20 years and the author of Discovering Black New York.

The book contract was signed in 2006, Tarrant-Reid said, and the due date was set for 2008.

However, continuing research pushed the delivery date forward, which turned out to be a fortunate happenstance.

"Everytime I would approach a different period of American history, I would find new stuff about the contributions of African-Americans," Tarrant-Reid said. "I couldn't rush that."

Besides, a 2008 completion date could well have precluded mentioning the election of the first African-American.

"That would have been problematic," Tarrant-Reid said. "Barack Obama had not yet become president."

The result, she said, is a book that begins and ends with historical bookends: the 15th century exploration of the Americas and coastal Africa along with the subsequent enslavement of its citizens by Europeans and the 2008 election of Barack Obama as president.

Tarrant-Reid said, throughout history, slavery was an accepted practice in war.

"When a marauding group of soldiers won, they captured the people and they enslaved them," she said, adding that in ancient times, enslaved people were treated as family members and given property.

"Their job was to work for the rich person," Tarrant-Reid said. "Then they could go back to their homes."

That changed, she said, during the 17th-century British colonization of North America with the institutionalization of "chattel slavery."

"The cruelty, the abuse, the murders, the raping," Tarrant-Reid said. "That was different."

Slaves were property that could be bought, sold and mortgaged.

"The reason they did that was they wanted cheap labor," Tarrant-Reid said, in addition to choosing people of a different skin color so that they could immediately be seen as apart from the landowners and business men.

Part of her process in working on the book, Tarrant-Reid said, was to mine the research for tidbits that weren't so well known and illustrations that weren't the ones everyone else used.

While the book was published under Abrams Books' imprint for young people, she said there is plenty for parents and other adults to gain from reading it.

"Once the book was in-house, (the publisher) could see it has a wide appeal," Tarrant-Reid said. "Parents are going to read it, and it's written very directly, with a no-frills kind of investigatory style."

"My goal was that anybody could open it up at any section, and it was self-contained," she said. "You could learn stuff you might not necessarily know."

An example was Allan Pinkerton, the white Chicago detective, who was chief of intelligence during the Civil War under the Union's Major General George B. McClellan.

Tarrant-Reid said Pinkerton used black spies to gather information.

They included John Scobell, a former Mississippi slave, who assumed different identities and roles to infiltrate enemy ranks.

Another was riverboat worker W.H. Ringgold, who, while forced to help Confederates move troop supplies in Virginia, was able to give Pinkerton information about Rebel fortifications, number of troops and artillery locations.

"I thought that was a fabulous connection," Tarrant-Reid said. "I didn't know (Pinkerton) had gotten his start working for the government in intelligence. Those were the kind of detours I made."

She takes readers through the post-Civil War years, two World Wars, the rise of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and racial unrest to Obama's election.

Part of understanding of what came before, Tarrant-Reid said, is understanding Obama.

"When young people really look at someone like Barack Obama, who is combination of many cultures, having lived in all these different places," she said, "he is a 21st-century person."

"And for this group of children coming up, the world looks more like Barack Obama than anybody else," Tarrant-Reid said.

"In order to be successful, you have to understand their stories," she said. "Hopefully the kids and their parents will be inspired to learn about themselves."


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