Accent on the positive

When photojournalist Don West was growing up in Brookline in the 1940s, his family was one of three African-American households in town. He picked up a camera as a hobby. It grew into a career, one in which he was frequently on assignment for The Bay State Banner. Over the years, he made it a point “to capture affirmative images of people of color, to offset the habitual, negative bias of the mainstream media,” he writes in “Portraits of Purpose: A Tribute to Leadership” (Three Bean).

“Portraits” is a joint project; West’s photographs of 127 African-American leaders and their allies are paired with profiles by Kenneth J. Cooper, a journalist who was part of a team at The Boston Globe that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1984 for a series that examined racism in Boston.


Besides such luminaries as James Baldwin and Nina Simone, the book highlights dozens of lesser-known figures. Katherine Dunham founded the first black modern dance company in 1937. Milton Benjamin was instrumental in financing hundreds of housing units in Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan, and elsewhere. John D. O’Bryant, the first African-American elected to the Boston School Committee, pushed the superintendent to seek minority applicants for jobs. Tulaine Montgomery designed innovative programs to serve middle and high school students in the Boston area.

Cooper’s compact profiles are richly detailed, presenting a symphony of triumphs and setbacks. He heralds Dianne Wilkerson’s accomplishments as a state senator fighting to protect society’s most vulnerable citizens, but doesn’t overlook her legal troubles and the time she served in prison.

Many profiles examine the “aha” moment that changes lives. Horace Seldon, who grew up in Haverhill, says James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time,” in which he calls on whites to take responsibility for their racism, helped set his course in life. “I really felt like he was writing to me,” Seldon says. “It just went right into my heart, and it’s been there since and will die with me.”


In 1968, Seldon founded the nonprofit Community Change, which, Cooper writes, “combats racism by educating white people about its origins and persistent ill effects on people of color.”

“Portraits of Purpose” grew out of an exhibit West developed for the Museum of African American History. Twenty-five portraits are on display at Roxbury Community College through Feb. 27. A reception and book signing will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Feb. 12 in the Resnikoff Gallery at the college’s media center.

Celebrating Lazo

“Cuba in Splinters: New Fiction from Generation Zero,” a festival at Brown University Feb. 4-5, will feature bilingual readings by Cuban writers, the screening of a Cuban-Spanish zombie thriller, and a discussion about Cuban literature. The festival honors the work of Cuban writer and political activist Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo, a fellow this year at Brown who is editor of “Cuba in Splinters: Eleven Stories From the New Cuba” (OR), translated by Hillary Gulley.

Coming out

 “Love Again: The Wisdom of Unexpected Romance” by Eve Pell (Ballantine)

 “ISIS: The State of Terror” by Jessica Stern and J. M. Berger (Ecco)

 “Private Vegas” by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro (Little, Brown)

Pick of the Week

Meagan Albin of Breakwater Books in Guilford, Conn., recommends “The Magician’s Lie” by Greer Macallister (Sourcebooks): “This debut novel is historical fiction that blends magic, mystery, and romance. In turn-of-the-century America at the height of stage magic’s popularity, the renowned female illusionist Amazing Arden must convince a young police officer, Virgil Holt, of her innocence in a murder that looks suspiciously like one of her most famous illusions gone wrong.”


Jan Gardner can be reached at JanLGardner@yahoo.com.