A Tribute to Ira Berlin

By Sara Clemens | June 21 2018 | Humanities & Social Sciences

Ira Berlin, a historian whose research and acclaimed books helped reveal the complexities of American slavery and its aftermath, died early this month in Washington. He was 77.

The New York Times writes:

In books like “Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South” (1974) and “Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America” (1998), Dr. Berlin, a longtime professor at the University of Maryland, upended simplistic notions of how slavery was practiced and what happened after it ended.

His masterpiece was “Many Thousands Gone,” Joshua D. Rothman, history department chairman at the University of Alabama, said by email. That book recounted the first two centuries of slavery in North America and stressed “how the institution varied and was experienced differently by enslaved people over time and across space,” Professor Rothman said.

“It’s impossible to finish that book and come away with the same stereotypes and preconceptions about slavery that you began it with,” he continued. “Yet even as Berlin centered the story on the struggles of people in bondage to make their own diverse worlds, he never let the reader lose sight of slavery’s fundamental cruelty. The level of difficulty in holding so much together in a coherent narrative is tremendous, and he managed it with elegant prose to boot.”

Ira Berlin was the author of the Penguin title The Making of African America and wrote the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a SlaveMany Thousands Gone is a winner of the Bancroft Prize and finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Read the rest of the NYT tribute below.



The Making of African America
The Four Great Migrations
An award-winning historian's sweeping new interpretation of the African American experience. In this masterful account, Ira Berlin, one of the nation's most distinguished historians, offers a revolutionary-and sure to be controversial-new view of African American history. In The Making of African America, Berlin challenges the traditional presentation of a linear, progressive history from slavery to freedom. Instead, he puts forth the idea that four great migrations, between the seventeenth and twenty-first centuries, lie at the heart of black American culture and its development. With an engrossing, accessible narrative, Berlin traces the transit from Africa to America, Virginia to Alabama, Biloxi to Chicago, Lagos to the Bronx, and in the process finds the essence of black American life.
$17.00 US
Dec 28, 2010
320 Pages
Penguin Books

Twelve Years a Slave
Perhaps the best written of all the slave narratives, Twelve Years a Slave is a harrowing memoir about one of the darkest periods in American history. It recounts how Solomon Northup, born a free man in New York, was lured to Washington, D.C., in 1841 with the promise of fast money, then drugged and beaten and sold into slavery. He spent the next twelve years of his life in captivity on a Louisiana cotton plantation.
$18.00 US
Jul 31, 2012
304 Pages
Penguin Classics