African American Lives offers up-to-date, authoritative biographies of some 600 noteworthy African Americans. These 1,000-3,000 word biographies, selected from over five thousand entries in the forthcoming eight-volume African American National Biography, illuminate African-American historythrough the immediacy of individual experience. From Esteban, the earliest known African to set foot in North America in 1528, right up to the continuing careers of Venus and Serena Williams, these stories of the renowned and the near forgotten give us a new view of American history. Our past isrevealed from personal perspectives that in turn inspire, move, entertain, and even infuriate the reader. Subjects include slaves and abolitionists, writers, politicians, and business people, musicians and dancers, artists and athletes, victims of injustice and the lawyers, journalists, and civilrights leaders who gave them a voice. Their experiences and accomplishments combine to expose the complexity of race as an overriding issue in America's past and present. African American Lives features frequent cross-references among related entries, over 300 illustrations, and a general index, supplemented by indexes organized by chronology, occupation or area of renown, and winners of particular honors such as the Spingarn Medal, Nobel Prize, and PulitzerPrize.
This substantial compilation offers thorough, accessible biographies of 611 African-Americans over more than four centuries, beginning with Esteban, the first African known to have set foot in North America, up through writers, academics, artists, activists and more of today. A few of these profiles have been written by notable names-Gerald Early on Muhammad Ali, Clayborne Carson on Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, John Szwed on Miles Davis-though most are by lesser-known contributors. Usefully, the biographies contain multiple cross-references to others in the book and list sources at the end. The 1,000-3,000-word entries are generally well-written, even lyrical, and balanced, for example assessing controversies regarding O.J. Simpson or preacher Daddy Grace. This achievement has flaws. Some biographies include unnecessary lists of awards and cheerleading: why tell us of Condoleezza Rice being honored by the NAACP but not of her role in the Iraq war? Wasn't Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. a tyrant as well as a genius? Former energy secretary Hazel O'Leary is described as "strikingly attractive and warm" while academic Cornel West embodies a "profound love for and faith in humanity." Some 257 of the entries have been reprinted from American National Biography (Oxford, 1999); Gates and Higginbotham's volume is part of the African-American National Biography project, which will include 6,000 profiles. While this book has resurrected numerous figures-Onesimus, slave and medical pioneer; Daniel Coker, a founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church; etc.-it undoubtedly will inspire debate about more contemporary choices. Why Tupac Shakur but not Russell Simmons (or anyone else from the rap world)? Why Suzan-Lori Parks but not George C. Wolfe? Why Sharon Pratt Kelly, the first African-American female mayor of a major city, but not her more controversial predecessor, Marion Barry? Oh, and if his former colleague West is included, where's editor Gates himself? Despite such quibbles, this documenting of major power and achievement will undoubtedly be a standard reference work. Agent, Lynn Nesbit. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
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Oxford University Press, Incorporated
April 29, 2004
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