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Collecting Tales by Black Americans

July 12, 1998|BOB SIPCHEN

A STRANGER IN THE VILLAGE, Two Centuries of African American Travel Writing edited by Farah Jasmine Griffin and Cheryl Fish (Beacon Press, $24, hardback).

The tragic Middle Passage of Africans to America shaped the world and a people's sensibilities. But from the beginning of slavery in what is now the U.S., there have been blacks who managed to escape figurative and literal chains through travel, and to reshape society by writing about what they've seen and done.

This book attests to the stamp that peripatetic black Americans have made as adventurers, missionaries, activists, statesmen, scholars, journalists and tourists. The volume contains 47 excerpts in seven categories, each preceded by a brief biography of the author, and the breadth and depth of the selections will explode any lingering notions that travel writing is a white man's game.

Some writers, such as seaman Harry Dean, almost make their encounters with raw human bigotry seem a part of the grand adventure, on a par with the hailstorms nature hurls at them.

Other entries are painful for displaying what, in hindsight, seems an absurdly conflicted blend of humility and pride. In 1909, Matthew A. Henson, Navy Lt. Robert E. Peary and four Eskimo guides became the first men to reach the North Pole. "Another world's accomplishment was done and finished," writes the heroic but long-neglected Henson, "and as in the past, from the beginning of history, wherever the world's work was done by a white man, he had been accompanied by a colored man."

In fact, black women also are integral to this collection. The works of Gwendolyn Brooks, June Jordan and Ntozake Shange are interspersed with pieces by James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright and Martin Luther King Jr. Naturally, most of the entries reflect on race. What a fine new world it will be when the selections in an African American travel anthology focus more intently on people and places encountered than questions of color--better yet, when travel anthologies routinely include so many African American writers that race-specific anthologies become redundant.

This excellent book is a small step toward that destination.

*

THE SMITHSONIAN GUIDES TO HISTORIC AMERICA various authors (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $19.95 each, paper).

This series' narrative ranges from compelling to plodding, depending on which author from the series' stable is writing. Uniform throughout all 12 volumes, though, is solid history in geographic context and an exhaustive compilation of tidbits meant to give travelers background on every Revolutionary War nook and Gold Rush cranny. The series' best asset, though, is the many dozens if not hundreds of photos, most in full color, that anchor each book.

Volume 4, on northern New England, for example, offers shots of quilts, Edward Hopper paintings and Native American petroglyphs and a beautiful photo of America's first marble quarry. Volume 11, on Texas and the Arkansas River Valley, features such images as a folk artist's painting of a San Antonio plaza and an Erwin Smith photo of cowboys around a campfire. And Volume 7, on the Pacific states, features Alaskan totem poles, black-and-white shots of California gold miners and some of the most stunning landscapes this side of coffee-table tomes.

Luckily these books are portable, so consider lugging the appropriate volume as a companion reference to standard guidebooks.

Quick trips

ISRAEL HANDBOOK, with the Palestinian Authority Areas by Dave Winter and John Matthews (Passport Books, $21.95, hardback).

As sacred ground to the world's three great monotheistic religions, Jerusalem is widely viewed as the navel of the Earth. But it's also as fine a tourist destination as you're likely to find, the authors write. So they offer fine capsule summaries of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and floor plans of such sites as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. But they also discuss skiing, hiking, bird-watching and tips on swimming in the Dead Sea ("Because of the high salt content, the water causes agony in every minute scratch and cut. . .").

THE TRAVELER'S GUIDE TO JEWISH GERMANY by Billie Ann Lopez and Peter Hirsch (Pelican Publishing Co., $22.50, paper).

"No country in the world, outside of Israel itself, contains more Jewish historical sites of importance," the authors write. With dozens of color photographs, this volume leads readers through those sites.

Books to Go appears twice a month.

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