Black history told in images, essays

Jan 29 2012 - 4:48pm

Images

"LIFE UPON THESE SHORES: LOOKING AT AFRICAN AMERICAN HISTORY 1513-2008." By Henry Louis Gates Jr. Knopf. $50.

222The great strength of "Life Upon These Shores" is the "abundance of images" that Gates, the editor-curator, and his team of associates have woven into this book. with more than 700 photos, maps, illustrations, posters and cartoons.

The book's short essays cover both familiar topics -- the Amistad, Harriet Tubman, Dred Scott, Marcus Garvey, the Tuskegee Airmen, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X -- and lesser-known ones, including black cowboys and women activists of the 1970s. Gates and company also write about sports, literary, cultural and musical figures, including the Fisk University Jubilee Singers, boxer Jack Johnson, singer-actor Paul Robeson, baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson, tennis star Arthur Ashe and radio star Tom Joyner, to name only a few.

Given the wide-ranging kind of survey book it is, anyone can find fault with it. For a book that tries to point out African-American cultural highlights, there's not enough jazz in it for me, especially in the decades after Duke Ellington: nothing about Charlie Parker and only incidental mentions of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Yet it finds room for an essay on Quincy Jones, a significant producer but hardly the equal of Parker, Coltrane or Davis.

Gates rightly gives President Obama's historic election its due, but a separate short essay on Obama as a senator is superfluous. He's not famous for his short-lived term in the Senate.

Nonetheless, "Life Upon These Shores" is a good starting point for a perusal of African-American history. It would make an excellent addition to a home or school. In fact, if you're feeling generous this season, pick one up and donate it to the middle-school library nearest you.

-- Jim Higgins

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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