If you picked up a black newspaper from the 1940s through the 1970s you likely would have encountered a profile of an important person or event from African-American history. Series such as “Facts About the Negro” by Joel Rogers in the Pittsburgh Courier and Chicago Defender; “Our People: Pages from History” by Melvin Tapley in the New York Amsterdam News; and the syndicated “Interesting People” by George L. Lee, delved beyond the familiar icons like Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Booker T. Washington, and Harriet Tubman, to offer profiles of less well-known African-American inventors, entertainers, activists, athletes, and business leaders.
Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s “100 Amazing Facts About the Negro,” draws its inspiration and title from these popular takes on African-American history. Gates, director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University and the host of PBS’s “Finding Your Roots,” opens his book by praising Rogers who self-published his volume, “100 Amazing Facts About the Negro with Complete Proof,” in 1957 — a compendium billed as a “Negro ‘Believe It or Not.’ ’’ “Rogers’s little book was priceless because he was delivering enlightenment and pride, steeped in historical research, to a people too long starved on the lie that they were worth nothing because their ancestors had contributed nothing to world civilization,” he writes. “For African Americans of the Jim Crow era, Rogers was their first black history teacher.” Like Rogers, Gates writes to educate and surprise. And, luckily for him and us, now seems a particularly fitting time for such a project.
Reading “100 Amazing Facts About the Negro” is like taking a tour of black history with a very erudite and accessible guide. This project started at TheRoot.com, an online magazine of African-American culture launched by Gates, in 2013, and the book maintains the brisk and informal style of blog posts. The book is organized as a series of short (two-to-four page) essays, in which Gates answers questions such as, “Who was the first black American woman to be a self-made millionaire?”; “Who were the black passengers on the doomed Titanic voyage?”; and “What is Juneteenth?” The chapters are not organized thematically or chronologically, so readers go from learning about Basil Biggs, who buried war dead at Gettysburg in 1863, to Malcolm X’s debate at Oxford University a century later. Gates likely has hundreds of other historical anecdotes in his files, and it is not always clear why certain “amazing facts” were selected over others. The book’s structure can be disorienting, but it also highlights the vastness and complexity of African-American history.
Gates’s embrace of a retro book title and structure is particularly interesting in our contemporary moment. He offers an unorthodox approach to learning about African-American history in the era of Black Lives Matter and the Trump presidency. Rather than offering a story of historical progress or a story of tragedy and triumph, Gates curates an array of interesting and sometimes odd snapshots. Rather than surveying historical examples that may reflect on contemporary news — such as Ida B. Wells’s anti-lynching campaign, the murder of Emmett Till, or the black power demonstration by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics — Gates foregrounds examples designed to pique readers’ curiosity. As Gates notes in praising Rogers’s book from five decades ago, “he consistently and tantalizingly raised questions about history that stimulated others to dig deeper.”
Gates’s tone throughout “100 Amazing Facts About the Negro” is more playful than ironic. He has long been interested in black language rituals and verbal play, and the entries here are meant to be talked about and shared not just via social media, but the old fashioned way, at family gatherings, cookouts, barbershops, and church. “Very few black people are not conscious, at some level, of peculiarly black texts of being,” Gates wrote in his 1988 landmark book, The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism. “These are our texts, to be delighted in, enjoyed, contemplated, explicated, and willed through repetition to our daughters and to our sons.” Although, clearly he envisions this work being read by a more diverse audience, with all the attendant irony therein. Readers will come away from Gates’s new book knowing a lot more facts about African-American history, but they are also asked to embrace a mode of historical inquiry that emphasizes play, exploration, and amazement over narrative coherence.
Regarding the merits of this type of history I am reminded of “The Black Book.’’ This 1974 collection of letters, photographs, newspaper clippings, advertising cards, and ephemera was put together by collectors Middleton Harris, Morris Levitt, Roger Furman, and Ernest Smith, as well as Toni Morrison, who was then an editor at Random House. Morrison described the project emerging from “an intense love of black expression” and said the book was built “item by item, page by page . . . it was more like planting a crop than making a book.” Like “The Black Book,” “100 Amazing Facts About the Negro” offers seeds that may grow among readers into a deeper appreciation of African-American history, one that may render another homage to Rogers unnecessary.
100 AMAZING FACTS
ABOUT THE NEGRO
By Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Pantheon, 496 pp., illustrated, $40Matthew Delmont is a professor of history at Arizona State University and the author of three books, including “Making Roots: A Nation Captivated’’ and “Why Busing Failed: Race, Media, and the National Resistance to School Desegregation.’’ You can reach him on Twitter at @mattdelmont