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  • Mike Martinez

Coming For To Carry Me Home, Part III

It is December 15, 2011, and I am in much better shape than I was a year ago. My book Coming for to Carry Me Home: Race in America from Abolitionism to Jim Crow was published today.

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Faithful readers of my blog know it has been a long, arduous journey from the original idea for the book to publication. Recall that my editor, Mr. X, had expressed interest in the manuscript, but when I followed up, I discovered that he had departed without explanation. After all my trials and tribulations, I was uncertain about the fate of this work, the finest manuscript I had ever produced.

Someone from my publisher, Rowman & Littlefield, sent an email informing me that my new contact would be an associate editor of American history named Carrie Broadwell-Tkach. Later that same day, Ms. Broadwell-Tkach fired off an email: “Dear Mike,” she wrote. “Mr. X has left R&L, and I have recently been named the new American history editor so your message was forwarded to me. I'll be taking over management of On American Soil [the original title of The Swords of Wicked Men] so I am glad to hear that you are making progress! I'll be looking forward to seeing it in November.”

As for my other project, “I haven't heard about your Lincoln proposal before, so I’ve been looking through the files to see what I can find. I do have a copy of your manuscript, and it looks like Mr. X had sent it out to be reviewed. I'm not sure if the review has come back yet, so I'm looking into that now. I'll be back in touch with you soon. If you have any questions for me, please feel free to contact me — my information is below (please note that I am working out of the Boulder office). I am excited to be working with you! Best, Carrie.”

Uh-oh. It is never a good sign when the new editor has never heard of a manuscript. Deciding to take the bull by the horns, on June 10, 2011, I went “old school” and called Ms. Broadwell-Tkach on the telephone to introduce myself. The conversation went very well. She promised to look into the issue and get back with me as soon as possible.

True to her word, Carrie sent me a thrilling email 11 days later: “I just heard back from the reviewer of your manuscript — I’m not sure if Mr. X told you who he had sent it to, so these comments come from Steve Woodworth, the editor of our American Crisis: Books on the Civil War Era series (and author of, most recently, This Great Struggle, which we published a few months ago). As you'll see below, Steve had some very good things to say about the manuscript, though he does point out what you’ve already mentioned: this is not groundbreaking scholarship. But as I said before, I think that's okay. Steve and I agree that this book would be a good fit for the American Crisis series, which is intended for college-educated general readers who fall somewhere between PhDs and college freshmen. I think that the book could certainly be used in an undergraduate course, but that would be a secondary market. He had just one minor criticism, which he admits is more of a personal bias than a serious complaint. If you would like to revise the manuscript to address his concern, that would be great. But I wouldn’t absolutely insist on it.

"Based on Steve's comments and my own reading of the manuscript, I'd like to propose this book to our editorial board for inclusion in the American Crisis series. If you’re interested in moving forward, please just let me know if you’d like to make any revisions and how long you think that would take. And if you have any questions, please feel free to ask. Best, Carrie.”

Dr. Woodworth’s assessment was wonderful to read: “I was very pleased with Martinez’s manuscript. It is superbly written, very polished and readable. I’m not sure I could say it really brings out anything startlingly new, but it is a pleasant and thought-provoking synthesis of the evolution of thought about the issue of race from the birth of abolitionism to the birth of Jim Crow. It tells the story of how the drive toward racial justice finally fell short of complete fulfillment.

“If I were to take issue with it in any way — and this would be a very mild complaint — it would be that I think the manuscript may follow much modern writing in selling short the great accomplishments of the Civil War generation (in abolishing slavery) because that generation and its successor did not succeed in achieving full civil rights and racial equality, as we all wish it could have. As I tried to argue in the conclusion of This Great Struggle, the abolition of slavery was a great accomplishment in itself, and a huge step on the road toward a color-blind society. I think the Civil War generation should get credit for that. The blame belongs to its successor generation, and those that followed, for not carrying on. Having said that, I will freely concede that Martinez does allow for this point. My quibble is merely a matter of emphasis. If I were going to advise him, I’d suggest that he emphasize the positive a bit more — alongside the obvious and serious negative aspects. I would leave this to his discretion.

“I think the book would fit very well in the American Crisis Series, and I would strongly recommend that R&L publish it.”

Was I interested in moving forward? Hell, yes, I was interested!

Fast forward to June 30, 2011. I was riding in the back of an automobile traveling between Mexico City, Mexico, and Atlacomulco, Mexico, on a business trip. Atlacomulco is nestled in the rugged terrain of the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt in the Anáhuac region 54 miles away from Mexico City. The car trip requires drivers to navigate through mountainous passes that occasionally interfere with cell phone reception. As I sat in the backseat, I checked my BlackBerry for messages. For a long time, I had no messages waiting. Suddenly, 17 emails arrived at once. I received the following message from Carrie: “Mike, I’m very pleased to report that our editorial board has enthusiastically approved your Lincoln manuscript! They did have a few minor comments: first, there were some concerns that the title might sound too academic for the audience that we’re trying to reach. One suggestion was to use a brief phrase from the era as the main title with a descriptive subtitle along the lines of Race in America from Abolitionism to Jim Crow. I don't have any specific suggestions for the main title — we were thinking of books like This Great Struggle: America’s Civil War as examples, but I’m open to discussing any ideas that you might have. Another small issue was the number of photos that you have proposed. Having 50+ images would bulk up the book a lot, so we’d prefer if you could select around 20 of the most important images to include.

"On a related note, I noticed that you already have source information noted for the photos that you’ve selected — can I ask if you already have copies of the images as prints or high-res files, or do you still need to request them? I ask because if you already have them, we might be able to have copies of the book in our warehouse at the end of this year, which would mean we could have the book available at the American Historical Association conference in early January. That might still be possible even if you don't already have the images, but it would be more likely if everything is ready to go right now.

“But I'm getting ahead of myself a little bit. Please let me know if you are okay with making some changes to the title and number of photos, and if so, I'll get a copy of the contract in the mail to you shortly. I’m very excited to be working with you, and please feel free to contact me if you have any questions! Best, Carrie.”

I agreed to cut the number of photographs from 52 to 30. I also proposed using a line from the old spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” as the title. These lines especially resonated with me:

I looked over Jordan, and I what did I see

Coming for to carry me home?

A band of angels coming after me

Coming for to carry me home.

If you get there before I do

Coming for to carry me home

Tell all my friends I’m coming, too,

Coming for to carry me home.

The song is open to interpretation. It is a beautiful tune, but it also exists as a coded slave song. Blacks working in the fields sang it before the Civil War as a religious expression meant to convey the idea of Jesus coming to deliver slaves from a life of bondage into heaven. During the war, it suggested deliverance via the Underground Railroad. After the war, it could be interpreted as deliverance from the oppression of racism and segregation.

I wanted to find a title familiar to most readers yet also symbolic of the racial struggles of the nineteenth century — not only with slavery, but also segregation. Just as This Great Struggle is familiar yet evocative of that book’s contents, I thought a phrase from “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” would serve the same purpose for my book. Thus, the title became Coming for to Carry Me Home: Race in America from Abolitionism to Jim Crow.

We also needed to garner endorsements for the jacket cover. We asked many scholars, but most were busy with other projects. I was pleased when we finally secured blurbs from two big names in the field of Civil War studies:

In this unflinching portrait, personalities come alive; the policies, philosophies, visions, aspirations, and foibles of political leaders provide high drama as well as compelling history. This book is an important contribution to our understanding of the history of politics during a critical half century of changing race relations. — Orville Vernon Burton, author of The Age of Lincoln

J. Michael Martinez, in Coming for to Carry Me Home, offers a sweeping yet incisive history of the politics of race in the tumultuous years between the rise of abolitionism and the advent of Jim Crow. The strength of Martinez’s narrative is the rich mixture of ways the author invites readers to feel the tensions and experience the ambiguities of known and unknown Americans who struggle with the nation’s most enduring moral dilemma. — Ronald C. White Jr., author of A. Lincoln: A Biography

The long struggle from an idea that originated in 2006 until publication occurred in 2011 has ended. I must await the verdict of the reading public.

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