February 2003

A month full of milestones in Black History

By Juan Williams
By Ann Hagedorn
By Stephan Talty
By Simone Schwarz-Bart
Review by
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This year marks the 77th anniversary of America's Black History celebration, a memorial that began in 1926 as Black History Week and has since expanded into a month-long tribute to African-American culture and heritage. The idea for this time of remembrance originated with Carter G. Woodson, a black scholar and Harvard graduate who chose February as a time for commemoration because two important figures in African-American history, Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, celebrated birthdays during that month. The creation of the NAACP and the death of Malcolm X also occurred in February, making the time an especially appropriate one. Woodson would be pleased with the variety of titles published this year in honor of the celebration he initiated.

This Far By Faith: Stories From the African American Religious Experience, the companion volume to the PBS television series airing in June, explores the role of religion in black culture. Written by Emmy Award-winner Juan Williams, author of Eyes on the Prize, and Quinton Dixie, the book blends research, interviews and input from noted contemporary religious figures with unforgettable photographs and archival material. The book contains fascinating tales of people on fire with faith, like Sojourner Truth, whose absolute trust in God allowed her to walk away from an unjust owner and campaign for the rights of women and African Americans. We read of the establishment of the storefront church as blacks migrated north, the indispensability of the largely Protestant church in the Civil Rights movement and the rise of the controversial Nation of Islam. This Far By Faith is a wonderfully comprehensive evaluation of the ways in which African Americans have worshiped, as well as a moving tribute to the life of the spirit.

The path to freedom

As Ann Hagedorn's novelistic Beyond the River: The Untold Story of the Heroes of the Underground Railroad demonstrates, Harriet Tubman wasn't the only guide on the clandestine path to freedom. The book begins long before Tubman takes up her courageous, dangerous cause and focuses on the brave white abolitionists around the town of Ripley, Ohio, one of the railroad's first and most notorious stations. Hagedorn recounts in thrilling detail the risks these men and women took by helping desperate slaves escape to freedom. Reverend Elijah Lovejoy was the first white abolitionist to be murdered for the cause in 1837, but the book's real protagonist is John Rankin, who dedicated much of his life to the freeing of fugitive slaves and lived to see the Emancipation Proclamation. Tubman herself became active in the 1850s, joining courageous figures like John Parker as one of the few black conductors who actually went South to guide people out. Beyond the River is full of compelling stories of narrow escapes, near-misses, stunning acts of bravery and eventual vindication.

At the crossroads

The focus of Stephan Talty's provocative book Mulatto America: At the Crossroads of Black and White Culture: A Social History is the tumultuous intermingling between blacks and whites in this country a social phenomenon that gave rise to pioneers like Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson, who stepped into arenas previously restricted to whites and brought them to new levels of brilliance. Covering miscegenation, both literally and figuratively, from the years before the Civil War to contemporary times, the book is an insightful study of American cross-culturalization.

While the volume examines the impact of light-skinned entertainers such as Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge, as well as sexy, silky-voiced crooners Nat King Cole, Sam Cooke and other black notables who used the blending of black and white to their own advantage, Mulatto America also documents the adaptation of black culture by whites a social appropriation that has given rise to modern icons like Eminem. Talty, a journalist who has written for The New York Times Magazine and the Chicago Review, delivers an intelligent and accessible analysis of race in this country with Mulatto America.

Glimpses of history

Freedom: A Photographic History of the African American Struggle, with text by scholars Manning Marable and Leith Mullings, presents a vivid overview of the African-American experience from 1840 to the present. The visuals, edited by noted photographer Sophie Spencer-Wood, depict just about every aspect of black American life, with photos that range from early shots of slaves to the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Divided into five sections, each with an introduction, the book includes class photos, pictures of lynchings, shots of literary lights like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston and images of ordinary people working at ordinary jobs. We see the heroes of the Civil Rights movement, including Rosa Parks being fingerprinted after her arrest, and Martin Luther King Jr. posing with calm dignity for his mug shot. Tellingly enough, one of the last photos in this beautiful volume is of a bored-looking Condi Rice at a policy meeting with Colin Powell and President Bush. Freedom is a groundbreaking book.

Remembering the ladies

In Praise of Black Women by Simone Schwarz-Bart is the second entry in a four-volume series that pays homage to remarkable African-American females in history. Focusing on the slavery era, this generously illustrated book features folk tales, history and personal writings, and spans four centuries, beginning with the 1400s. From the Congo to the French West Indies, from Canada to Boston, In Praise of Black Women shares the stories of unforgettable figures like poet Phillis Wheatley; Anastasia, the patron saint of Brazil's black population; and escaped slave Ellen Craft. Full of rare photos and historical documents, this book is a wonderful tribute to the female spirit.

Arlene McKanic is a writer in Jamaica, New York.

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