Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

Arc of Justice

with 3 comments

by nems81

I recently came across Kevin Boyle’s review of Ira Berlin’s short new book, The Making of African America: the Four Great Migrations. While the Berlin book sounds fantastic (and I recommend the review), the byline reminded me of how much I appreciated Boyle’s own work, Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age.

Arc of Justice is one of my favorite examples of the kind of history that takes the life of one relatively unknown individual to illustrate broad themes about the period in which the person lived (for other great examples, see here, here, and here.) In this case, Boyle recounts the story of Ossian Sweet, an African-American doctor who risks his life by attempting to move his family into a home in an all white Detroit neighborhood in the 1920s. During the course of Ossian’s story, the audience learns about the social history of the great migration, class divisions within the African-American community, developments in black higher education, legal strategy within the NAACP, and the racially motivated violence that plagued northern cities in the years immediately following World War I. The book also reads like a suspenseful novel, includes an amazing courtroom scene featuring Clarence Darrow, and contributes to a growing scholarship on the “long civil rights movement” and struggles for racial equality in the North. This is popular history at its best.

While beautifully written, the book is tough to skim. I once served as an instructor for a class that read Arc of Justice as part of a Twentieth Century American history survey.  The professor included a bonus question on the final exam asking what major event happens to Ossian Sweet at the end of the book. Nearly every student wrote that he kept his home and prospered. Without giving too much away, they did not get the bonus point.


Written by Julian Nemeth

March 23, 2010 at 15:29

3 Responses

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  1. I agree the book is a great read and effectively “illustrates broad themes.” But I also recall that when when Wiz and I read it in class, we had trouble ascertaining what the argument was. Is there an argument? Does there have to be one? Or, particularly with narrative history, is illustrating broad themes enough?


    March 24, 2010 at 14:35

  2. Great question Weiner. For popular history, I think illustrating broad themes, especially ones that have contemporary relevance and are not widely known among the general public, is more than enough. This is especially the case when the work in question is steeped in primary research and illustrates connections between events like Reconstruction, the Great Migration, and racial strife in 1920s Detroit.

    Arc of Justice also holds the added bonus of reflecting research trends in its field (which many popular histories don’t). You see this in Boyle’s focus on civil rights struggles in the North and especially in his attention to the long history of African American “armed resistance” that preceded Black Power. I also liked how the book established ties to Reconstruction by focusing on the political activism of Ossian’s great-grandparents.

    Still, I’ve wrestled with this question about microhistory and argument myself. These books are often incredibly readable and illustrative (which why I think Arc of Justice makes an excellent choice for undergraduates, especially if you can get them to read the whole thing), but risk sacrificing analytical rigor for the telling of yarns. I also understand the concern that they might not do enough to advance the creation of knowledge within a given subfield. Still, I think Boyle’s work avoids many of the genre’s pitfalls and exhibits many of its strengths.


    March 24, 2010 at 17:11

  3. This is very much becoming an intra-CaNaRd conversation, but I did want to say:

    “but risk sacrificing analytical rigor for the telling of yarns”

    was very well said indeed. I’m currently teaching Alistair Horne’s A Savage War Of Peace (1977), which is still regarded as the definitive language-of-Shakespeare account of the French-Algerian war (1954-62). It’s a hell of a yarn, and Horne quite the raconteur, but I even had some students object there was too much extraneous and distracting “colour” (one called it “fluff,” which I thought was a tad uncharitable). But I wonder which books manage to square this circle – the rigorous yarn? – most successfully. Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest comes to mind, though I suppose he does err on the yarny side. But what a read that one is. I don’t think its insights will ever go out of style.


    March 24, 2010 at 21:05

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