Gates delivers a rich, illustrated history of black America

Center (from left): Dr. Benjamin Spock, Martin Luther King Jr., Monsignor Charles Rice, and Cleveland Robinson march arm in arm during an antiwar demonstration in New York on April 17, 1967.
Center (from left): Dr. Benjamin Spock, Martin Luther King Jr., Monsignor Charles Rice, and Cleveland Robinson march arm in arm during an antiwar demonstration in New York on April 17, 1967. –LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

In this coffee table book, Henry Louis Gates Jr. promises and delivers “a collective visual history of persons of African descent in America since their arrival,’’ with more than 750 photographs illustrating almost 500 pages.

The distinguished Harvard professor provides more than pictures. His short essays reflect his considerable ability as a cultural historian by offering interpretive gems that convey the significance of individuals, events, and trends, even if familiar.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott, led by a young Alabama preacher named Martin Luther King Jr., lasted 381 days and stands as “the longest mass-action protest in American history.’’ Early members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People decided to use “colored’’ instead of “Negro’’ in its name to “emphasize their international focus.’’

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The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s 1850 decision in Roberts v. City of Boston upholding school segregation was cited in the US Supreme Court’s notorious ruling in Plessey v. Ferguson that established the separate but equal doctrine. Gates’s interpretation of that legal sequence stings: “While ‘Jim Crow’ is customarily associated with the South’s institutionalization of segregation, it was actually born in Boston.’’

The words and images are not limited to the black struggle for freedom and equality. Gates chronicles the evolution of black thought and culture, particularly literature and music. He gives pop culture its due, too.

The dance show “Soul Train’’ aired for more than three decades and “shaped the tastes of popular American culture in a way that no single program has done before or since.’’ It was also the “longest-running syndicated television program in history.’’

Gates makes a grand claim about the significance of hip-hop music: “With the exception of the Internet, hip-hop is arguably the most far-reaching cultural phenomenon in the world over the past thirty years’’ because “it has manifestations on every continent and in virtually every country in the world.’’

The first sections focus on the arrival of the first Africans in what is now America. The very first was not a slave, but “the free black conquistador Juan Garrido’’ who “accompanied Ponce de Leon on his first expedition to Florida’’ in 1513, a century before the first slaves arrived in Virginia in 1619

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Gates puts the American slave trade into an international context. More African captives were shipped to Mexico, Cuba, and Haiti than to the United States, where 450,000 landed. But he does not explain why the current black populations of those countries are smaller than America’s.

His interpretive skills falter when he asserts, as he has in The New York Times, that “African elites’’ share responsibility for the trans-Atlantic trade’s origins “equally’’ because other researchers estimate 90 percent of the 12.5 million Africans transported to the New World were captured by those elites and sold to Europeans.

Those Europeans dominated the trade and, as the middlemen, profited the most. They introduced the market demand and supplied the investment capital and means of distribution. The African elites did not even know where the New World was.

Some notable photos convey new information. In a disturbing one, four white Chicago police officers smile as they carry out the body of Black Panther Fred Hampton after an alleged shootout.

The most informative picture may be the one of armed black soldiers entering a French village four days after D-Day. Gates notes it is an image not seen in the numerous movies about the invasion, which 500 black troops joined.

“Life Upon These Shores’’ is a coffee table book to flip through – and read.

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