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“The past is only the future with the lights on.”

What becomes of the children born from the past? This question has defined the experience of generations of African Americans since emancipation. The violent separation of a people from the Continent and the truth that becomes their lives is explored and dissected in Rochelle Riley’s The Burden: African Americans and the Continuing Impact of Slavery seeks to answer.

The book, edited by the award-winning Detroit Free Press former columnist, is a collection of essays that addresses the reality of the African American experience over the last century and half since the end of chattel slavery. Her journey carries us through the disappointment of Reconstruction, Jim Crow, racial terrorism and the unbroken quest for equal rights. Each entry navigates the burdensome weight of breaking shackles of the past that still hold us down today.

As Pulitzer Prize winning Nikole Hannah-Jones puts it in the book’s foreword, “Despite the fact that black Americans remain at the bottom of every indicator of well-being in this country—from wealth, to poverty, to health, to infant mortality, to graduation rates, to incarceration—we want to pretend that this current reality has nothing to do with the racial caste system that was legally enforced for most of the time the United States of America has existed.”

The Burden features contributions from stellar voices including actor and director Tim Reid, former Detroit News columnist Betty DeRamus, actress Aisha Hinds and T’Keyah Crystal Keymah, and writer Vann R. Newkirk.

For over 150 years, generations have sought to leave this burden behind. Riley’s resounding retort: “Slavery is a not a relic to be buried, but a wound that has not been allowed to heal. You cannot heal what you do not treat.”

Those words are more prescient than ever in this moment of pandemic racial unrest. Only time will tell if this will be the beginning of healing this nation’s oldest self-inflicted wounds.

The Burden, a start to understanding this conversation, is an essential addition to your bookshelf.