“100 Amazing Facts About the Negro” by Henry Louis Gates, Pantheon, 476 pages, $40.
There is what Hollywood would call a “backstory” here. In 1957, a journalist with the Pittsburgh Courier named Joel A. Rogers published a book called “100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof.” Distinguished intellectual and historian Henry Louis Gates now says “students weren’t being taught anything about black people at school” at the time which meant that “Joel A. Rogers was just about the only source of black history that a few generations had.”
Rogers’ book was called “A Negro Believe It Nor Not.” “Rogers’ 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.”
So here, 60 years later, one of the great living American intellectuals and historians gives us a revised corrective version of Rogers’ endeavor to answer such basic queries about black history as “who was the first African to arrive in America” (Before slavery, Juan Garrido “a black conquistador” arrived at Hispaniola in the 16th century and ultimately settled in Puerto Rico) and “How Were Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela Linked?” (“At one point in April 1963, Mandela and King were both in jail at the same time: Mandela in Pretoria; and King, a Baptist preacher, in Birmingham. Both too were suspected of Communist ties, real or imagined.”)
Before the book is over, its 100 subjects have included Alexander Pushkin’s African roots, the importance of Juneteenth; “Did Lincoln really free the slaves?”; the first black actor to play Shakespeare’s “Othello”; the African roots of Alexander Dumas, pere; and more.
Yes, it’s early but surely this beautifully illustrated book is a truly great candidate for Christmas giving.
You’ll remember that Gates is the Harvard Professor who, after a trip, came home to find his house boarded up and when he tried to gain entrance was arrested by a Cambridge, Mass. cop. The upshot was President Obama inviting Gates and the cop to share some beers with him.