February 2001

Tales of African-American history inspire and enlighten

By Langston Hughes
By Lynne Olson
By Donald Bogle
By Ayana Byrd
By David Levering Lewis
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In time for Black History Month, publishers are honoring a community that has enriched the American social, cultural and political landscapes. While many of the books featured here chronicle the African-American fight for freedom and equality, others address the challenges that have produced a unique sense of determination and strength of will in the black community. The exceptional titles listed below explorations of both well-known and neglected chapters of African-American history are the perfect ways for readers to celebrate this special month. An impressive range of viewpoints is collected in Voices in Our Blood, an anthology of pieces, written by novelists, poets, critics and journalists, that explore aspects of the civil rights movement. Some of the most important authors and thinkers of the 20th century are featured in this fascinating book, including Richard Wright, John Lewis, Eudora Welty, Robert Penn Warren, Taylor Branch and James Baldwin. Included here are essays, reportage and memoir, along with classic pieces like Alex Haley's 1963 interview of Malcolm X for Playboy. Compiled by John Meacham, managing editor at Newsweek, Voices in Our Blood spans five decades, providing a kaleidoscopic look at the movement that changed the face of the nation.

The lengthy, complex relationship between two of the most vital figures of the Harlem Renaissance is immortalized in Remember Me to Harlem: The Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten, 1925-1964. Following the pair of literary giants over a period of nearly four decades, this engrossing collection documents an unconventional friendship. Van Vechten, a noted white writer, acted as mentor to the younger black poet, helping Hughes get his first book published. Their correspondence is collected here for the first time, and the exchange between these great minds makes for fascinating reading. Hughes and Van Vechten comment knowledgeably on culture, art and politics, and both share gossip about common acquaintances like Zora Neale Hurston, H. L. Mencken and James Baldwin. Edited by Emily Bernard, assistant professor of African-American studies at Smith College, this collection provides new insight into the genius of two icons of the printed word.

History has never sufficiently recognized the achievements of heroic black women like Ida B. Wells, Rosa Parks and Fannie Loy Hamer. With her pioneering new book, Freedom's Daughters: The Unsung Heroines of the Civil Rights Movement From 1830 to 1970, journalist Lynne Olson sets out to right this oversight. A comprehensive look at the females black and white who helped engineer the fight for civil rights, Freedom's Daughters traces the movement from its beginnings in the 1800s, when women worked to abolish lynching, to contemporary times, when they organized history-making protests. A moving tribute to female freedom fighters that also examines the women's rights movement, Olson's provocative book demands that we take a second look at the contributions made by these courageous individuals.

With Primetime Blues: African Americans on Network Television, scholar and media expert Donald Bogle gives readers the first exhaustive account of blacks on network television. Covering the programs that featured African-American performers, from cartoonish 1950s hits like Amos n' Andy and Beulah to the wild, racy programming on WB and the Fox Network in the 1990s, Bogle dissects racial and cultural stereotypes in this compelling and informative book. Great scholarship and lively writing make Primetime Blues a must for anyone interested in the history of the tube and its effect on American race relations.

An engaging look at what has become a major status symbol among African Americans, Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in Americaexamines the cultural and political significance of hair among black women. Written by Ayana Byrd, a former research chief for Vibe, and Lori L. Tharps, a reporter for Entertainment Weekly, Hair Story chronicles the history of black hair, from afros to braids, dreadlocks to weaves. The evolution and import of all the major styles are included here, along with interviews with women who have worn them. An entertaining study that also covers milestones in the history of black hair, profiling important figures like hair care industry giant Madame C. J. Walker, this is an impressive work of cultural history.

Finally, mention must be made of another recent book, W. E. B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919-1963by David Levering Lewis. A companion volume to his earlier work, W. E. B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919, Lewis' latest book opens with Du Bois' tenure as the editor of the NAACP publication The Crisis during the Red Summer of 1919, when racial violence was at an all-time high. Lewis, a Pulitzer Prize-winning scholar and historian, vividly chronicles Du Bois' life, from his work at the magazine to his emergence as a worldwide leader in the struggle to end racism and colonialism. A balanced, well-researched narrative, this important book is full of revelations about a complex, aristocratic black figure.

Robert Fleming is the author of The African American Writers Handbook (Ballantine).

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