Essays in African American Biography

Black Lives: Essays in African American Biography

McHenry, Ireen E

Black Lives: Essays in African American Biography, edited by James L. Conyers, Jr. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 1999. 222 pp. $19.95, paper.

Reviewed by Irene E. McHenry, Fielding Graduate Institute and Friends Council on Education.

Black Lives is a vivid, varied and remarkable collection of 15 scholars’ work, which individually and collectively makes a significant contribution to studies in African American history, culture, and literature. This collection strengthens the legacy of African American biography by providing fresh perspectives on the global impact of the Black experience and significantly adds to the literature on the contributions from the Black community in America. Edited by James Conyers, Jr. and devoted to the study of African American biography and culture from an Afrocentric perspective, this richly diverse collection evidences Conyers’ scholarly background as an educator, researcher, and author of considerable works in African American history and sociology.

The manuscripts in Black Lives are arranged in three broad categories: intellectual studies; literary studies, grouped as cultural biography; and, oral history narratives and the use of biography as a teaching tool. This three-part organization provides the reader with common themes for the otherwise diverse methods, theories, cultures of inquiry, and writing styles used by the 15 authors in conducting and writing biographical studies. Individually, each essay is a unique discourse, which examines and amplifies the critical and substantial contributions of African American lived experience within the context of world history and culture. Collectively, the essays provide a view of the diversity and complexity of the African diaspora examined by African American scholars.

Conyers authors the lead essay in the collection, introducing the section on intellectual biography with a focus on the life and work of Maulana Karenga (1941- ), one of the leading Afrocentric thinkers in the 20″ century. Conyers examines the genre of Black biography and addresses the issue of the hegemony of the Eurocentric perspective in writing biography while inviting the reader into a contextual analysis of Karenga’s philosophical contributions from a social ecological perspective. The additional essays on intellectual biography are stimulating, informative and thought provoking, particularly with regard to delineating the limitations and biases of race, class, and gender that have been overcome by the men and women whose biographies appear in this collection. Calvin McClinton’s inspirational essay examines the career of talented, hard-working Black theater director Vinnette Carrol (1922- ). While spotlighting Carrol as the creator of “the gospel song-play,” McClinton paints a deep portrait of African American life in the creative arts of music, theater, and dance in 20th’ century America. Earnest Bracey’s affable narrative on the legacy of the charismatic Daniel “Chappie” James, Jr. (1920-1978), the first African American four-star general in the United States Air Force, opens a broader discussion of Blacks in the military during World War II, the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Using journalistic evidence, Bracey deftly illustrates General James’ legendary charisma, oratorical skills, controversial activism, and tremendous contributions against racial segregation in the military. The final essay in this section is Mitchell Katchun’s provocative composition on the construction of historical memory and commemorative tradition as they relate to the shaping of the public biography of Richard Allen (1760-1831), the first bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church.

In a section on cultural biographies, five scholars review literary works of African American authors and provide new insights into their lives, careers, and writings. Gloria Randle poses an analysis of Toni Morrison’s works centering on women characters in her novels who are outlaws in their collective Black communities. Randle highlights Morrison’s genius for describing the culture of a time and place, which produces the phenomenon of outlaw women. Owen Morduant choreographs biographical information on self-made writer Bessie Head (1937-1986) in a way that illustrates a deep understanding and appreciation of her works. He discusses the sociopsychological issues (racial discrimination, caste system among “coloreds,” victimization, and oppression) and the religious and philosophical influences of her early life in South Africa, her period of exile in Botswana, and her later life as a Botswanan citizen as the context for a discussion of her opus. LaVerne Gyant uncovers fascinating information about Elizabeth Ross Haynes (1883-1953), the woman who wrote the first major study of Black domestic workers and was the first Black to serve on the National Board of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA). Gyant applauds Haynes as one of the invisible Black women leaders of the early 201 century. In Ralph Russell’s biography of William Levi Dawson (1899-1990), the culture of African American composers in the early decades of the 204 century is highlighted, particularly the use of Negro folk music and poetry to provide a story of African heritage and the Black experience in America while instilling racial pride. The public revolutionary speaking career of Maria Stewart (1803-1870) is described with enthusiasm and ample excerpts from her public lectures are provided by Ida Young. Young presents Stewart as the first African American female political writer and lecturer, revering her radical activism, as well as her Afrocentric thinking and value system.

The third section of Black Lives focuses on oral history narratives and the use of biography as a teaching tool. In “Through Trinbagonian Eyes,” Clement London provides insights into Black culture and life via portraits of life in Trinidad while referencing an eminent ethnographic study, Trinidad Village by Melville and Frances Herskovits. This essay includes a useful appendix outlining the methodology for conducting oral history interviews for research purposes. Olga Davis, in her essay “Life Ain’t Been No Crystal Stair,” makes a convincing argument for the significant contribution of Black female slave stories as a genre of autobiography and as a ground for the development of Black women’s identity. Robin Balthrope’s essay on his use of biographical profiles as teaching tools in a university level African American history course provides a model rich with details, self-reflection, and narrative excerpts from student discussion that illustrate the success of using literary biography as a teaching tool in Black history courses. Andrew Smallwood makes a case for the value of Black adult education in America through a portrait of the life of Malcolm X (1925-1965) in which he examines the contributions of Malcolm X as a cultural hero, a political activist, an historical figure, a religious leader, and contributor to the field of adult education for African Americans. Writing in traditional chronological style, Daniel Boamah-Wiafe illustrates how the Ghanian scholar James Emman Kwegyir Aggrey (1875-1927) used stories and symbolism to develop Black pride and positive race relations in America and on the African continent, particularly the Gold Coast. In a highly readable account of his metacognitive journey while researching the life of Emmett Jay Scott (1873-1957), the legendary private secretary of Booker T. Washington, Maceo Crenshaw bailey, Jr. uncovers many questions concerning race and culture, which call to be addressed. His commentary on the value of researching and writing biography amplifies the rewards of this challenging task and provides a suitable finale to this collection.

References are provided at the end of each essay and a comprehensive index provides a useful tool for readers to access the valuable data in the book. A section called “About the editor and contributors” provides practical information about the current work and scholarly history of each contributing author.

The difficulty that this collection poses for the reader is its unevenness, which comes from differences in authors’ writing style, scholarly approach, and research design. The organization of essays into three categories (intellectual, cultural, and biography as teaching tool) is not an easy one to follow. A different organizational design, such as chronological by century and/or genre, by research design, or by culture of inquiry might have made the entire book more accessible and useful as a collection. Nevertheless, the collection provides a substantial amount of information, presents stimulating and multifaceted essays, and makes a noteworthy contribution to the legacy of African American biography.

Copyright Howard University Winter 2001

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