Esteemed historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. has built a formidable reputation (and a considerable personal brand) by bringing African-American studies, once considered a backwater academic discipline, into the mainstream — largely by making it accessible and interesting to white people.
Having created a powerhouse institute of black studies at Harvard University and a hit PBS series on genealogy, Gates brings his one-man crusade to a bookstore near you with his new book, “100 Amazing Facts About the Negro.” Part Encyclopedia Africana, part advanced black studies course, the book unearths little known, often surprising truths about the complex history of the worldwide black diaspora, serving up a sweeping concept in bite-sized chapters.
It’s also serendipitous: “100 Amazing Facts” comes as the nation grapples — again — with the scourge of white nationalism, a misguided yet persistent philosophy based on the belief that white men built Western civilization by themselves.
In this context, the professor’s meticulously researched book, written in his signature avuncular style, is something of a history smackdown: Gates proves that men and women of African descent influenced world history, shaped modern cultures on nearly every continent and made America great, in many cases without, or in spite of, the white man.
Russian czar Peter the Great, Gates tells us, had a black foster son whom he cherished. A black acolyte in Germany was canonized as a Christian saint. An English aristocrat’s daughter had a beautiful black foster sister who got an allowance, too. A Georgia teenager left home, became an acrobat in Europe, then fought for France as a legendary World War I combat pilot — honors ignored when he returned to the U.S.
There are historical oddities (a slave mailing himself to freedom, the surprising percentage of American whites with African ancestry, Alexander Pushkin’s black grandfather, a black Titanic survivor) and fresh angles on current issues — including the origin of “the talented tenth” leadership class and how to make schools’ black history curriculum meaningful, not perfunctory.
Still, the overarching theme of “100 Amazing Facts” is America’s original sin — slavery — and its not-so-silent partners, rape, rebellion and bloodshed. Gates unflinchingly tells bitter, warts-and-all tales: the staggering magnitude of the global slave trade, the hidden back story of Plessy v. Ferguson, a debate between a black man and Thomas Jefferson over the Constitution (and its slave-owning author’s hypocrisy), turncoats who foiled slave rebellions, how the son of a slave and a British slave trader made a fortune in the family business.
The title itself is Gates’ salute to the late Joel A. Rogers, an African-American newspaper columnist who single-handedly fought Jim Crow in the 1950s with nuggets of believe-it-or-not black history under the “Amazing Facts” headline. The unsung Rogers clearly was Gates’ inspiration: The opening chapter tells Rogers’ remarkable story.
“Thank you,” Gates concludes his homage. “Because of you, the field of black history has never been stronger.”
As Rogers might reply to Gates: Back atcha, brother.
Joseph Williams, a former assistant managing editor at the Star Tribune, is now a senior editor for U.S. News & World Report in Washington, D.C. He covers the Supreme Court and national politics.
100 Amazing Facts About the Negro
By: Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Publisher: Pantheon, 476 pages, $40.