Saturday, February 16, 2008

The African American National Biography

I went to the New York Historical Society last Thursday to hear Henry Louis Gates, Jr. on the launch of the AANB he co-edited with Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. I didn't know anything about Gates, Jr., except that he is a prominent black scholar, the writer of the preface to the edition of Their Eyes Were Watching God I use in my teaching. He is a short but compact man, jolly and bluff in his self-presentation, quite unlike my studious image of a Harvard scholar. He seemed to thrive in the pre-talk conviviality, expertly receiving the congratulations of many people who came up to him, and introducing some to others in so smooth a manner that he seemed to be the host, rather than the guest, of the event. I had seen him earlier, I realized. He was the man washing his hands in the restroom, to whom another guy was pitching talk (and dropping the fact that he himself was Oxford educated) about some high-flier who is retiring in his forties after amassing a fortune.

Gates, Jr. began by talking about the origin of his fascination with biography. After his grandfather's funeral, his father looked through the contents of the dead man's trunk, and found a newspaper obituary of the dead man's mother, Gates, Jr.'s great-grandmother. The woman was a much sought after midwife. Gates, Jr. pointed out how remarkable it was for a black woman's death to be noticed in a white newspaper of that time.

After that personal anecdote, he launched into a Powerpoint presentation, giving us a series of mini-biographies of people featured in the AANB. There were prominent black civil rights activists, writers, musicians, athletes, ministers--the usual suspects--but there were also a black pioneer in the New World of the seventeenth century, black soldiers who fought in the Revolution, black slave-owners, and a black cross-dressing entertainer. Evelyn Higginbotham, in her talk, gave more examples, this time of people related to New York. The impression given was one of variety of life, recovery from obscurity, delight in idiosyncracy, but not--perhaps due to the format of the talks--of complexity of relations.

In the Q&A that followed, someone asked if the slaveowners are cross-indexed as slaves, as the case might be. The answer was no. Another questioner, a Creole woman from South Carolina, asked the editors how they defined "black." To which Gates, Jr. replied that they followed the standard governmental definition (Did I correctly hear him say, a drop of blood from the last one hundred years?), before saying that being black is as much "a state of mind" as skin color. I found myself wishing the editors had given a clearer insight into their deliberations over these matters. But the event was more celebratory in nature than scholarly, and the presentation ended with the award of the Du Bois medals to the three financiers of the research project, all great friends of Gates, Jr., two of whom his family vacations regularly with in Jamaica.

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