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Paying heed

African American Lives, Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Brooks, Higginbotham, Oxford University Press: 1,026 pp., $55

September 12, 2004|Julius Lester | Julius Lester is professor emeritus of Judaic and Near Eastern studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, author of "Black Folktales," "To Be a Slave" and the forthcoming novel, "The Autobiography of God."

It was in the late 1960s and early '70s that black studies was born as an academic discipline. On some campuses, black studies departments were organized hastily, more to appease white guilt in the wake of the 1968 assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. than from any conviction that U.S. intellectual life would benefit from a sustained and rigorous study of the presence of blacks in America. Many such programs became victims of their ill-conceived beginnings.

Harvard University's black studies program was failing until it hired Henry Louis Gates Jr. as chairman. Although his academic training was in literature, Gates developed a vision of what black studies should do: "record, codify, and disseminate" knowledge about African and African American cultures. Doing so, he believed, would institutionalize that knowledge and make it in an integral part of American and Western history.

Building on the work and vision of earlier black intellectuals like W.E.B. Du Bois and Carter Woodson, Gates has used his positions as Harvard's W.E.B. Du Bois professor of humanities and director of its Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research to inspire and mobilize a generation of black and white scholars to unearth the hidden histories of African and American blacks.

"African American Lives" is the successor volume to "Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience," which Gates co-edited with Kwame Anthony Appiah in 1999. That 600-page volume brought together in one place information about the cultural, political, economic and social dimensions of the Pan-African experience from Africa, the Caribbean and the United States.

The focus of this second book is individuals. It offers 611 biographies in more than 1,000 pages of what eventually will be eight volumes of about 6,000 biographies. Familiar and unfamiliar names are included, reflecting Gates' and co-editor Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham's belief that "[l]arge events and small ones are brought about by ordinary people ... while the least of us ... may have a profound effect on the course of world events."

Almost any prominent black person one could think of is here, including reformers and activists Du Bois, King, Booker T. Washington and Stokely Carmichael; athletes Tiger Woods, Jackie Robinson and Florence Griffith-Joyner; writers James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker; and entertainers Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington and Josephine Baker.

The lives and accomplishments of many others are brought here to wide attention for the first time. There is the slave Cesar, born in 1682, who was known for his "pharmaceutical prowess" and was mentioned in the 1749 journal of the South Carolina Commons House of Assembly for having "cured several of the Inhabitants of this Province who had been poisoned by Slaves." Also profiled are Alice Coachman, who set the world record in the women's high jump at the 1948 Olympic Games and became the first black woman to win an Olympic gold medal; Major Taylor, a cyclist during the first decade of the 20th century who became the first black athletic superstar; Onesimus, a slave who taught his master, Puritan minister Cotton Mather, how to inoculate people against smallpox; Louisiana shoemaker Homer Plessy of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Plessy vs. Ferguson that promulgated the doctrine of "separate but equal" in 1896; fur trapper Edward Rose, one of the first black frontiersmen; and English professor Jo Ann Robinson, whose crucial role in organizing the 1955 bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala., is not as widely known and remembered as it should be.

Decisions about whom to include are subjective, but in the main, the majority of people who should be included in such a volume are. One who should not have been omitted is legendary Mississippi blues man Eddie James "Son" House, although he is referred to briefly in the book's treatments of Charley Patton, Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters.

The biographies are not sketches but substantive essays, some written by scholars. The pieces on King, his associate Ralph Abernathy and Malcolm X were written by Clayborne Carson, editor of King's papers. Kathleen N. Cleaver, a former leader in the Black Panther Party, writes a surprisingly balanced account of the life of party co-founder Huey P. Newton. Essayist Gerald Early writes about Muhammad Ali and baseball greats Curt Flood and Rube Foster; historian John Hope Franklin writes about 19th century historian George Washington Williams; historian and biographer Nell Irvin Painter writes about Sojourner Truth; biographer Hazel Rowley writes about Richard Wright; and author Stephen J. Whitfield contributed the essay on Emmett Till.

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