From the beginning: a history of black life

The author, Henry Louis Gates Jr., updates black history with recent scholarly research, giving the lavishly illustrated book intellectual heft.
The author, Henry Louis Gates Jr., updates black history with recent scholarly research, giving the lavishly illustrated book intellectual heft. (STEVEN SENNE / Associated Press)

A history by scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. surveys black life in America through photos and essays ranging from the slave trade to the importance of hip-hop.

Posted: November 22, 2011

Coffee-table books are supposed to be heavy, on photos and in pounds. This latest history of black life in America by Henry Louis Gates Jr. is both, with more than 750 photos on nearly 500 pages.

But it offers something more: The distinguished Harvard University professor packs intellectual heft around the pictures. His book updates black history with recent scholarly research, from detailed estimates of the human cargo during the Atlantic slave trade to the DNA test proving almost conclusively that Thomas Jefferson fathered at least one child by his slave Sally Hemings. Interpretive gems are sprinkled throughout.

Besides cataloging achievements, Gates traces the evolution of black thought, activism, and culture, particularly literature and music. The TV dance show Soul Train, he writes, "shaped the tastes of popular American culture in a way that no single program has done before or since."

Gates makes a grander claim about hip-hop music: "With the exception of the Internet, hip-hop is arguably the most important 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."

His introduction extols "the sheer diversity of African American expression throughout our nation's history - how there has never been only one way to be black, religiously, politically, socially, artistically, professionally, sexually, or socially."

This perspective has grown popular since the national emergence of President Obama, the biracial Hawaiian who both surfs and plays hoops and had no ancestors enslaved "upon these shores."

In the antebellum period, Gates spotlights a number of free blacks, including an ancestor of his who fought in the Revolutionary War. He concludes that the early financial support of wealthy Philadelphian James Forten "made possible the publication of William Lloyd Garrison's Liberator," the preeminent abolitionist newspaper that circulated from Boston. The founders in 1824 of the first black newspaper, John Russwurm and Samuel Cornish, disagreed on plans in that era for free blacks to return to Africa.

The diversity of experience and thought has long been evident, despite the stifling calls beginning in the 1960s for black unity and consensus that really meant unanimity. But before the Civil War, the preponderance of black experience was slavery, which Gates covers mainly by retelling the well-known stories of the relatively few who staged revolts or managed to escape for good.

The fact is that there are not enough unbiased accounts to document the lives of the many who suffered to work and die as slaves. That is why their story remains a rich domain for fiction and film.

Gates does put the American slave trade into a broader international perspective. The largest number of African captives was shipped to Brazil, but more were exported to Mexico, Cuba, and Haiti than to the United States, where 450,000 landed. A little more explanation of why the black populations of those three countries are smaller than this one's would have been illuminating.

Recent immigrants from the Caribbean and Africa have taken to asserting that they have an ethnic identity distinct from native-born blacks and, in some cases, reject the label "African American" or even "black."

Both groups of immigrants should note Gates' report that 45 percent of descendants of slaves in the Caribbean and North and South America can trace their ancestry to west-central Africa between Gabon in the north and Namibia in the south. That region is where nearly half of the transatlantic slaves came from.

Gates cites research that 90 percent of all the 12.5 million captives who were transported to the New World had been "captured by African elites and sold into slavery to Europeans." He concludes that "responsibility for the trade's origins" therefore "lies equally at the doorsteps of European traders and African elites."

Equally? Europeans introduced the market demand and supplied the investment capital and means of distribution. Without seaworthy ships, convertible currency, or even knowledge of the New World, African elites could not have carried out the trade on their own. Few economists would agree with Gates.

Upon These Shores is a coffee-table book and does contain notable photographs. One shows an armed platoon of black soldiers entering a French village four days after D-Day in 1944, an image not seen in the numerous movies about the invasion, which Gates notes 500 black troops joined.

Another, of Mildred and Richard Loving seated on a couch, humanizes the Virginia couple whose Supreme Court case struck down state bans on interracial marriage. A disturbing photo shows four white Chicago police officers smiling as they cart away the body of Black Panther Fred Hampton after an alleged shootout.

This is not a book to plunk on the coffee table and flip through on occasion. It deserves to be read and read closely, short essay by short essay.

Life Upon These Shores

Looking at African American History, 1513-2008

By Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Alfred A. Knopf. 496 pp. $50

Kenneth J. Cooper, a Pulitzer Prize winner in journalism and former fellow at the Harvard University Institute of Politics, has been a newspaper reporter and editor for nearly 30 years, specializing in government, politics, and social policy.

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