Presenter of the National Book Awards

The Book That Changed My Life

Woody Holton

Woody Holton was a 2007 National Book Award Finalist in Nonfiction for Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution.

Peter H. Wood, Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 Through the Stono Rebellion (New York: Knopf, 1973), a National Book Award Finalist, 1975.

The only reason I only checked the box marked "Ph.D." on my graduate school application was that I had heard that was the only way to get a fellowship. At the University of Virginia, I majored in activism, and by my senior year I was regretting never having actually been a student, so I figured I would grab a Master's degree in Twentieth Century U.S. History at Duke and then start a career (in activism). The summer before heading to Durham, I read a book by one of my future teachers, and it convinced me that teachers and writers can be activists.

The book was Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 Through the Stono Rebellion by Peter H. Wood. In 1973, when it was published, growing numbers of people were becoming interested in both Early American History and African American history. But hardly anyone thought it was possible to write the history of early African Americans. The closest anyone had come was to describe white colonists' attitudes toward the Africans they claimed to own. Even black-history scholars studying the better-documented 19th century tended to organize their books topically rather than chronologically, depriving African Americans of the one quality that makes history, history: the ability to change over time. Wood's chronological account of black South Carolinians contained other surprises as well. There was, for instance, the very fact that in South Carolina, this group so often euphemized as "minority" was actually the majority. Most crucially for me, Wood dispelled the myth of African American ignorance. His subjects earned his sympathy but also his respect. For instance, he showed that Africans, who had considerably more experience with rice cultivation than Europeans, played a crucial role in introducing colonial South Carolina's major crop. (In my view, a recent attempt to overturn Wood's "Black Labor, White Rice" thesis proved wholly unconvincing.)

Wood also challenged what my elementary school teachers had taught me about slaves being contented or at least apathetic. Black Majority ends in 1739, with an unsuccessful but epochal slave insurrection. Participants in the so-called Stono Rebellion were trying to do what many black South Carolinians had already done: reach St. Augustine, Florida, where the Spanish governor had promised to free any British colonial slave who could reach him.

Scanning the History table at Barnes and Noble, you might think there are no new discoveries to be made in American History. I thought that before reading Black Majority. I don't anymore.


—Woody Holton