If you only know Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. as the engaging host of the PBS series “Finding Your Roots,” you might at first be perplexed by what he calls “the retro title” of his new work. It was, in fact, chosen in homage to a 1957 book by Joel Augustus Rogers entitled 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro with Complete Proof, which was billed at the time as a sort of Ripley’s Believe It or Not! about black history.
If Rogers was a black history teacher for the 20th century, Gates is certainly one for ours. Like Rogers, Gates aspires “to be ever curious, open, and alive,” and his writing here showcases those qualities. Rogers based his book on his newspaper columns. Likewise, Gates’ selections first appeared as essays in his online magazine The Root.
A series of 100 questions with short answers, the book is a freewheeling exploration of black history. Gates takes on questions such as “Who was the first black saint?” as well as “Who was the first black person to see the baby Jesus?” and “What happened to Argentina’s black population?” An essay about the first black fighter pilot is followed by a question about slave ownership. Topics range from sports to civil rights and the slave trade, the Civil War, piracy and even the Salem witch trials.
Gates is a historian, but he is also a consummate teacher. And one of the charms of the volume is that the essays appear in no particular order, making it ideal for dipping into at will or keeping on a bedside table to pick up before bed. But be forewarned: In the hands of a skilled storyteller like Gates, this fascinating history will definitely not put you to sleep.