PBS documentaries such as "Vietnam" and "Eyes on the Prize" have been accompanied by first-rate companion volumes. Unfortunately, the book version of "Africans in America : America's Journey Through Slavery" falls considerably short of that standard (starts Oct. 19).
This book uncomfortably mixes ex-Boston Globe columnist Patricia Smith's narrative of African-American slaves' experiences in Anglo-America with novelist Charles Johnson's fictional vignettes of slave life. The result is a muddle of mediocre history and unilluminating storytelling.
Smith's narrative is frustratingly shallow. She draws little distinction between regions or time periods - slavery in Boston in 1760 seems much the same as slavery in South Carolina in 1850. She offers simplistic explanations for complex situations. Thomas Jefferson, perhaps the most complicated figure of the American Revolution, is dismissed by Smith as "a Negrophobic southern planter whose solution to the country's most pressing problem was avoidance."
Charles Johnson's vignettes, interspersed throughout, are curiously bland and didactic. The first of them also contains an uncomfortable whiff of anti-scholarly Afrocentrism.
The subject matter of "Africans in America" is vitally important. Unfortunately, Smith and Johnson have not done it justice in their collaboration.