“Life Upon These Shores: Looking at African American History 1513-2008” by Henry Louis Gates Jr. (Knopf, 512 pages, $50)
“In ‘Life Upon These Shores,’ ” Henry Louis Gates Jr. writes, “I set out to picture African-American history, to find a new way of looking at its full sweep. I imagined a book with an abundance of images of the great and small events and significant individuals who shaped the heritage of the African-American people and the history of our nation.”
The great strength of “Life Upon These Shores” is the “abundance of images” that Gates, the editor-curator, and his team of associates have woven into this book. More than 700 photos, maps, illustrations, posters and cartoons dot the book, from a 1579 illustration of Juan Garrido, a black man who was part of Hernando Cortes’ 1519 expedition to Mexico, to the requisite photos of President Barack Obama’s inauguration.
The book’s short essays cover both familiar topics — the Amistad, Harriet Tubman, Dred Scott, Marcus Garvey, the Tuskegee Airmen, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X — and lesser-known ones, including black cowboys and women activists of the 1970s. Gates and company also write about sports, literary, cultural and musical figures, including the Fisk University Jubilee Singers, boxer Jack Johnson, singer-actor Paul Robeson, baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson, tennis star Arthur Ashe and radio star Tom Joyner, to name only a few.
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Given the wide-ranging kind of survey book it is, anyone can find fault with it. For a book that tries to point out African-American cultural highlights, there’s not enough jazz in it for me, especially in the decades after Duke Ellington: nothing about Charlie Parker and only incidental mentions of Miles Davis and John Coltrane (whose significance as a black icon transcends his great musical accomplishments). Yet it finds room for an essay on Quincy Jones, a significant producer but hardly the equal of Parker, Coltrane or Davis, and the popular but minor singer Billy Eckstine.
Gates rightly gives President Obama’s historic election its due, but a separate short essay on Obama as a senator is superfluous. He’s not famous for his short-lived term in the Senate.
Nonetheless, “Life Upon These Shores” is a good starting point for a perusal of African-American history. It would make an excellent addition to a home or school. In fact, if you’re feeling generous this season, pick one up and donate it to the middle-school library nearest you.