Black History Lives Between Covers, From Douglass to Obama

By Stuart Mitchner

My only problem with “Black History Month” is in the way “history” implicitly detracts from the ongoing immediacy of the African American experience. “Lives” in my title can be read both as a reference to the lives of people and to the force that lives in the present, which happens when we listen to Charlie Parker or Billie Holiday, read James Baldwin or Frederick Douglass, admire a painting by Jacob Lawrence or a photograph by Gordon Parks, or go online to watch First Lady Michelle Obama’s stirring speech at the 2016 Democratic Convention.

The good news is that millions of people have been reading Obama’s memoir, Becoming (Crown $32.50), and David W. Blight’s Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (Simon and Schuster $37.50).

Blight’s landmark biography begins with President Barack Obama’s September 24, 2016 dedication speech at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, in which he delivered “a clear-eyed view” of the “tragic and triumphant” experience of “black Americans in the United States.” After referring to “the infinite depths of Shakespeare and scripture” in black history, Obama paid tribute to “the fight for our freedom … a lifetime of struggle and progress and enlightenment … etched in Frederick Douglass’s mighty leonine gaze.”

The face on the cover of Prophet of Freedom commands attention with a force reflected in the book’s primary epigraph, Douglass’s declaration, “There is a prophet within us, forever whispering that behind the seen lies the immeasurable unseen.”

Blight brings Douglass and Obama together again on the occasion of the 11th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination, April 14, 1876, when the former slave spoke before an audience including President Ulysses S. Grant and leaders from every branch of government; according to Blight, “No African American speaker had ever faced this kind of captive audience, composed of all the leadership of the federal government in one place and no such speaker would ever again until Obama was inaugurated in January 2009.”

“Becoming”

Michelle Obama’s “When they go low, we go high” moment at the Philadelphia convention, where she charmed her audience even as she challenged it, resonates in the down to earth style of the opening pages of Becoming. For her, the White House is “where our two girls played ball in the hallways and climbed trees on the South Lawn,” where “Barack sat up late at night, poring over briefings and drafts of speeches in the Treaty Room, and “where, Sunny, one of our dogs, sometimes pooped on the rug.” Reviewing Becoming in the New York Times, Isabel Wilkerson says, “In finally telling her story, Obama is doing several things with this book. She is taking the country by the hand on an intimate tour of everyday African American life and ambition, while recounting her rise from modest origins to the closest this country has to nobility.”

“A Child’s Story for Adults”

Little Man, Little Man (Duke Univ. Press $22.95) is a book James Baldwin (1924-1987) wrote expressly for his nephew TJ, aka Tejan Karefa-Smart, who notes in his foreword how the book, first published in 1976, has “managed to travel with me through those childhood years and into my adult life.” Referring to “the very real people, places, circumstances, and life events that TJ encounters in this story of childhood,” Karefa-Smart says the “everyday ‘Music up and down the street,’ has become for me the rhythm of my own movement through a colorful, wild world.”

Nicholas Boggs and Jennifer DeVere Brody’s introduction discusses Baldwin’s friendship with the illustrator Yoran Cazac as well as tracing the highlights of black children’s literature from W.E.B. Du Bois’s monthly children’s magazine, The Brownie Book (1920-21) and Langston Hughes’s The Pasteboard Bandit (1935) to Toni Morrison’s The Big Box (1999). What makes Little Man, Little Man “so noteworthy for its time is its self-aware presentation as a ‘child’s story for adults’ that tackles such mature themes as poverty, police brutality, crime, intergenerational relations, addiction, racism, and social marginality through the voice and vision of a black child.”

The Black Model

Exhibition curator Denise Murrell’s Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today (Yale Univ Press $50) examines the legacy of Édouard Manet’s Olympia (1863), arguing that this “radical painting marked a fitfully evolving shift toward modernist portrayals of the black figure as an active participant in everyday life rather than as an exotic ‘other.’” Exploring the little-known interfaces between the avant-gardists of 19th-century Paris and the post-abolition community of free black Parisians, Murrell “traces the impact of Manet’s reconsideration of the black model into the twentieth century and across the Atlantic, where Henri Matisse visited Harlem jazz clubs and later produced transformative portraits of black dancers as icons of modern beauty.” Also discussed is the urbane “New Negro” portraiture style by which Harlem Renaissance artists like Charles Alston and Laura Wheeler Waring “defied racial stereotypes.” The book concludes with an observation of the ways Manet’s and Matisse’s depictions influenced Romare Bearden and continue to resonate in the work of such global contemporary artists as Faith Ringgold, Aimé Mpane, Maud Sulter, and Mickalene Thomas.

Depicting the Color Line

W.E.B. Du Bois’s Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America by Whitney Battle-Baptiste and Britt Rusert (Princeton Architectural Press $29.95) collects the colorful charts, graphs, and maps DuBois presented at the 1900 Paris Exposition, offering a view into the lives of black Americans, by conveying a literal and figurative representation of “the color line.” As Maria Popova has observed, these data portraits shaped how “Du Bois himself thought about sociology, informing the ideas with which he set the world ablaze three years later in The Souls of Black Folk.”

Early Gordon Parks

Philip Brookman’s Gordon Parks: The New Tide: Early Work: 1940-1950 (Steidl/Gordon Parks Foundation/National Gallery of Art $48) examines Gordon Parks’s transformation in the decade preceding his tenure as the first black staff photographer at Life magazine. Born into poverty and segregation in Fort Scott, Kansas in 1912, Parks worked as a brothel pianist and railcar porter, among other jobs, before buying a camera at a pawnshop, training himself, and becoming a photographer. Beginning as a photographer for the Farm Security Administration, Parks also eventually found success as a film director, writer, and composer. He received numerous awards, including the National Medal of Arts, and more than 50 honorary degrees.

The book was timed to accompany the recent Gordon Parks exhibit at the National Gallery, which was curated by Brookman; there are additional essays by Sarah Lewis, Deborah Willis, Richard J. Powell, and Maurice Berger.

Freedom Everywhere

In Baltimore, Frederick Douglass, then a 12-year-old slave named Frederick Bailey, found “the book that changed his life.” The Columbian Orator was a compendium of prose, verse, plays, and political speeches by famous orators from Cicero and Socrates to John Milton, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin. The used copy he bought with the 50 cents he’d earned doing odd jobs around the shipyard at Fells Point became “a noble acquisition” and was his “constant companion and sole worldly possession” when at the age of 20 he escaped to freedom, finally achieving the objective he envisions in the 1845 Narrative: “I saw nothing without seeing it, I heard nothing without hearing it, and felt nothing without feeling it. It looked from every star, it smiled in every calm, breathed in every wind, and moved in every storm.”

Like Douglass’s “noble acquisition,” books born of the African American experience can change lives, transcend history, bridge divides, and break down walls.