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This colorful collection of personalities includes much-loved figures such as scientist George Washington Carver, contemporary favorites such as comedian Richard Pryor and novelist Alice Walker, and even less-well-known people such as aviator Bessie Coleman. Gates and West also recognize the achievements of controversial figures such as Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and rap artist Tupac Shakur. Lively, accessible, and illustrated throughout, The African-American Century is a celebration of black achievement and a tribute to the black struggle for freedom in America that will inspire readers for years to come.
Lady Day (1915-1959)
Lady Day had her own way of singing. Saxophonist Lester "Prez" Young, the dear friend with whom Holiday shared the most profound musical empathy, used to shout out to musicians during jam sessions, "Tell your own story. Man, you can't join the throng 'til you play your own goddamn song." Ralph Ellison once described improvisational jazz movement as an art of individual assertion that occurred within and against the group. Billie Holiday's particular mode of assertion was to mimic the sounds of the band instruments in a sort of rasping, melodious voice that sometimes bordered on the mystical.
Holiday triumphed as a profound interpreter of lyrics. She could take the American popular song, the Tin Pan Alley rag, and convey an entirely new meaning. By infusing lyrics with an existential importance and simplicity, she replaced empty technical gestures in the cadence of her voice with the rich experiences of violence and pain, along with the love of living. She could reinvent the most banal of tunes by shifting its rhythm, varying her pitch.
Still, it's difficult to get past the caricature of Holiday as the tormented torch singer, the beautiful young woman with the white gladiolus behind her ear who succumbed to the ravages of heroin and alcohol addiction. What is clear is that Holiday evoked beauty in her music even when she became haggard, aged, and hardened by drugs and alcohol, even when her voice faltered and her sound was as barely recognizable as her body. She had what we might think of as a blues sensibility, though strictly speaking she was not a blues singer. Her work expressed the pathos of humor and the joy of despair. Early on, Holiday demonstrated extraordinary improvisational skill and proved that she could perform in the male world of jazz. As a result, she collaborated with and earned the respect of some of the finest names in the field. In her later years she made famous the antilynching anthem "Strange Fruit," the first blues number with overtly political content. She had the ability to take us to the soul's deepest places, paradoxically expressing the most unspeakable black angst. Her art transcended the usual categorizations of style, content, and technique, able to reach a realm described by the musicologist Gunther Schuller as not only beyond criticism, but in the deepest sense, inexplicable. Though her career ended ignominiously, Billie Holiday ranks among the small number of women who are really jazz or blues legends.
She was born Eleanora Fagan on April 7, 1915, but like many performers Holiday renamed herself in young adulthood. Her father, an itinerant musician named Clarence Holiday who later played with the Fletcher Henderson band, left her mother, Sadie Fagan, before the baby's birth. Fagan raised her daughter in Baltimore, and before she was thirteen young Holiday was participating in jam sessions in the city's jook joints and nightclubs. Relatives and friends who cared for Holiday after her mother left to work in New York recalled that she often listened to the radio and sang along with it. She devoured Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong records on the Victrola that she first heard in the brothel next door to her flat. While the vibrant musical tradition forged in whorehouses and gin joints shaped her musical gifts, the surroundings led her into prostitution. By age ten she had been raped and sent to a Catholic reformatory for wayward girls. Her mother promptly took Holiday back to New York with her.
In New York, Sadie Fagan found her daughter a temporary job as a maid in Long Branch, New Jersey, and unwittingly boarded the eleven-year-old with a woman in Harlem who turned out to be yet another madam. While she practiced her singing, young Billie worked as a prostitute for three years, until she was arrested for soliciting. At the age of fourteen, she spent four months in an adult correctional institution on the East River.
When she was fifteen, Holiday found her first professional singing job with saxophonist Kenneth Hollon at a venue called Grey Dawn, in Brooklyn. She was an immediate success. Holiday was soon hired to sing at an uptown favorite, Pod and Jerry's (also known as the Log Cabin), where she jammed with Bobby Henderson -- among other piano greats -- and joined a floor show organized by George "Pops" Foster. Audiences were entranced by her. News spread quickly about this young woman, who had taken to wearing a gladiolus behind her ear and fixed the crowd with a mature, unwavering stare.
In the 1930s, Holiday was one of the most sought after vocalists in Harlem's clubs. In 1933, white record producer John Hammond -- who would help launch the careers of Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Bob Dylan, and Aretha Franklin -- heard Holiday sing "Wouldja for a Big Red Apple" at a club called Monettes. Hammond had convinced Columbia Records' Brunswick label to do black covers of popular white songs to meet the burgeoning jukebox market in black neighborhoods. Believing he had just heard the greatest living jazz vocalist, Hammond immediately organized recording sessions for Holiday. The musicians who played in these sessions over the next few years boasted some of the finest names in the field: jazz pianist Teddy Wilson, trumpeter Roy Eldridge, Ben Webster on tenor sax, drummer Cozy Cole, bassist John Kirby, John Truehart on guitar, Benny Goodman on clarinet, and, of course, Lester Young, Holiday's platonic soulmate, on saxophone. Holiday also appeared at the Apollo Theater, where critics roared that she tore the house down with "Them There Eyes." In 1935, when only twenty years old, she appeared in Duke Ellington's Symphony in Black, a short film designed to run with newsreels. Ellington later referred to her singing as the essence of cool.
By the mid-thirties, Holiday was a star, but she attained her mature style in the late thirties and early forties. She played regularly at the artsy, politically left-of-center and racially integrated club Caf6 Society, opened by Barney Josephson in Sheridan Square in 1938. Here, night after night, she sang "Strange Fruit" tearfully at the closing of each performance to hushed and respectful audiences. Composed by Abel Meeropol, a New York schoolteacher, the ballad was unusually straightforward in describing the bitter results of southern race bigotry. Holiday used her tenderness and her knowledge of America's dark side to transform the lyrics of "Strange Fruit" into a political anthem. As performed by Holiday, "Strange Fruit" also became the expression of feminist horror of male brutality and public indifference. She recorded it with Milt Gabbler at Commodore Rare jazz Records because Columbia refused to release such a political piece. Critic Gunther Schuller wrote that "Strange Fruit" was a powerfully moving monument to Billie's artistry -- and courage. "It is also a fine unpretentious composition in B-flat minor, a key Chopin and other composers knew how to use well for their more sombre pieces....It is a mark of the depth and breadth of her artistry that, without any drastic modifications, her basic style embraced this sombre opus too."
Through the early forties, Holiday headlined with the era's major swing bands, playing with Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, the all-white Artie Shaw ensemble, and her hero, Louis Armstrong. Some of her best-known tunes were recorded during this period, such as the original "God Bless the Child," "Lover Man," and "Good Morning Heartache." Angela Davis has discerned something utopian in Holiday's love songs, the affirmation of eros as a transformative force. The ability to love deeply, if tragically, was an essential part of Holiday's phrasing.
At the peak of her vocal powers, the year 1947 marked the beginning of Holiday's personal decline. After an unsuccessful stint in a drug rehabilitation clinic, she was arrested soon after for heroin possession. In a devastating blow, New York City authorities revoked her cabaret license. Making matters worse, Decca Records, which had signed Holiday in 1944, refused to renew her contract in 1950. But Holiday kept on. Without a license she could only play concert halls and theaters. Booked into Carnegie Hall, she sang to an audience so large and enthusiastic that extra chairs had to be put behind her on the stage. From 1952 to 1957, she recorded over a hundred new songs with the Verve label. Near the end of her life, in 1957, she performed on The Sound of Jazz, a television special with Lester Young. Their performance of "Fine and Mellow" is truly memorable, and the movie has been heralded as one of the most thoughtful jazz films ever made. By the fall of 1958, alcoholism and drug addiction had overtaken her.
Since the early days of her career, Holiday had participated in Jazzs reefer culture. When she was in her midtwenties, trumpeter Joe Guy introduced her to heroin. Married twice, her husbands only encouraged her narcotics dependency. When Lester Young died in 1959, Young's wife, who disapproved of Young's jazz friends, refused to let Holiday sing at his funeral. Brokenhearted, she fell into a deep depression. Four months later, she died, forty-four years of age, leaving behind a life as tragic as her music. When Holiday collapsed into a coma, track marks were found all over her body.
Billie Holiday's ability to convey so very deeply the tragedy at the heart of the blues, while managing to appeal successfully to a broad audience, was an extraordinary testament to the integrity of her artistry. She lives today, not in the myriad of stories, films, and myths around her, but in her music.
Copyright © 2000 by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Cornel West
|W.E.B. Du Bois||1|
|T. Thomas Fortune||8|
|Henry Ossawa Tanner||23|
|Madame C.J. Walker||28|
|Booker T. Washington||32|
|Ida B. Wells Barnett||35|
|Mary McLeod Bethune||42|
|George Washington Carver||46|
|Benjamin O. Davis, Sr.||50|
|Thomas A. Dorsey||54|
|James Weldon Johnson||60|
|Jelly Roll Morton||63|
|Charles Henry Turner||66|
|Carter G. Woodson||73|
|Junius C. Austin||82|
|Ernest Everett Just||103|
|Sterling A. Brown||119|
|Charles Hamilton Houston||126|
|Zora Neale Hurston||130|
|Bill Bojangles Robinson||148|
|Charles R. Drew||152|
|Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.||178|
|A. Philip Randolph||182|
|Nat King Cole||198|
|Fannie Lou Hamer||249|
|Martin Luther King, Jr.||256|
|John Hope Franklin||320|
|A Guide to Further Reading||391|
"...Whatever else the true American is, he is also somehow black."
-- Ralph Ellison, "What America Would Be Like Without Blacks" (1970)
It was the century in which African-American life was transformed -- and the century in which African Americans changed America. And yet, when the twentieth century opened, African Americans had been "up from slavery," as Booker T. Washington would put it in his classic autobiography, for only thirtyfive years. Over the long and arduous course of the next hundred years, the achievements of our people would be nothing less than miraculous.
Remember: In 1900 blacks were systematically barred from full and equal participation in the larger society. No African American could serve in a position of authority over white soldiers, or fight by their sides; no black could participate in professional baseball, the national pastime. The classic blues and jazz had not emerged as the defining forms of American music. Black Americans were routinely lynched with impunity. "Separate but equal" was the institutional law of the South and the de facto law of the land. Racist "Sambo" images of blacks proliferated in advertisements, postcards, games, tea cozies, and a thousand other sources. The future of the race, at the turn of the century, looked rather bleak indeed.
At the dawn of the twenty-first century, by contrast, we cannot imagine a truly American culture that has not, in profound ways, been shaped by the contributions of African Americans. Who could imagine the American Century without the African-American experience at its core? When we listen to that century, there would be no Louis Armstrong. No Duke Ellington. No Billie Holiday or John Coltrane. In fact there would be no jazz. No blues. No rock and roll. When we read that century, there would be no Ralph Ellison. No James Baldwin. No Toni Morrison. When we think about what democracy means in such a century there would be no W. E. B. Du Bois, no Thurgood Marshall, no Martin Luther King, Jr. When we rent the movies of that century there would be no Bojangles Robinson. No Sidney Poitier. No Spike Lee. When we reminisce about the sports heroes of that century there would be no Jesse Owens. No Jackie Robinson or Althea Gibson. No Muhammad Ali. When we laughed about that century there would be no Bill Cosby. No Richard Pryor.
Such a century would not seem very American, would it?
Of course, the most fundamental significance of what is called the American Century was the unprecedented expansion of democratic sensibilities around the world. Nowhere were these sensibilities more apparent than in the extraordinary lives of those African Americans in this book. From American slaves to American citizens (most of whom are descendants of American slaves), these figures enact and embody the core of the democratic faith: the precious notion that ordinary individuals and everyday people possess the capacity to attain the highest levels of excellence and dignity. In this deep philosophic manner, the African-American Century sits at the center of the American Century just as black culture constitutes an essential element of American culture.
The song known as the "Negro National Anthem," penned by James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson in February 1900, expresses the essential principle of democracy: "Lift Every Voice." The ethical precondition for democracy is to allow every voice of the citizenry to be heard in the basic decisions that shape the destiny of its people. The political prerequisite for democracy is to secure the rights and liberties for every citizen, especially the most vulnerable ones. And the economic requirement for democracy is fair opportunity to every citizen. The African American Century was first and foremost the black struggle for these ethical, political, and economic conditions of democracy in the face of vicious antidemocratic practices. This struggle is one of the great historical dramas of modern times. The people in this book are major agents in this unfinished struggle and incomplete drama.
We chose these particular persons because they represent the exemplary virtue of the black struggle for respect and liberty -- namely, the courage to embody and live their respective truths in the face of overwhelming obstacles, including often the threat to their very lives. This courage was grounded in a profound commitment to enhance and elevate the deplorable plight of African Americans. As we probed into the remarkable lives of these figures we were struck by two recurrent features. First, we noticed the complex interplay of quiet despair and active hope in their diverse personalities. All of these individuals at some point in their lives were pushed to the edge of America's racist abyss. Each one of them experienced the absurd side of American life that reveals the lie of America as the land of liberty and justice for all. Second, we were brought to tears by these individuals' incredible efforts to affirm the full-fledged humanity of black people. These efforts took many forms, yet their common denominator was an unwavering selfconfidence in their astonishing aspirations to achieve and excel. Be they artist, scholar, activist, scientist, or businessperson, of whatever political persuasion, these extraordinary persons who ushered forth from a hated and hunted folk never lost their belief in themselves in their quests for betterment.
Our selections were complicated by the dominant stereotypes of black people as born entertainers and natural athletes. Needless to say, some of the greatest entertainers and athletes of the twentieth century were black. So we had to walk a thin line in acknowledging this rich cultural heritage -- owing to tremendous discipline and dedication to their crafts -- while accenting the many spheres of life from which they were often excluded owing to their skin color. This balancing act is a tricky one because the undeniable achievements in black entertainment and sports in the eyes of many (of all colors) downplay black accomplishments in other areas of American society.
Needless to say, there are many towering figures who belong in this book yet do not appear as individual essays - Arthur Ashe, Harry Belafonte, Mary Frances Berry, Jim Brown, Johnnetta Cole, Marian Wright Edelman, John Johnson, Quincy Jones, Edwin Moses, and Gordon Parks, to name but a few. It could be said that each and every one of these people are part of the great story of the African-American Century Our focus is less on individuals as isolated icons and more on individuals as part of a grand tradition that deepened democratic roots in an insufficiently democratic America. In this regard, the real heroes are the often overlooked anonymous foremothers and forefathers who loved, nurtured, and sacrificed for millions of black children.
One fundamental truth informs this book: American life is inconceivable without its black presence. The sheer intelligence and imagination of African Americans have disproportionately shaped American culture, produced wealth in the American economy, and refined notions of freedom and equality in American politics. And, on a deeper level, black reflections on the human condition in this land of sentimental aims and romantic dreams injected tragicomic sensibilities into the American experience. In other words, black people have always tried to remind America of its night side, of the barbarism lurking underneath its self-congratulatory rhetoric of universal freedom and equal opportunity. Black perceptions of American democracy are rooted in blue notes -- the inescapable realities of pain, hurt, misery, and sorrow in human life and American society. In this sense, the response to white supremacy is not only the ultimate litmus test for American democracy, but wrestling with its tragicomic realities is the primary criterion of American maturity. Hence, the lives of these twentieth-century blues people constitute a major challenge to us all in the twenty-first century. This challenge takes the form of two basic questions: Will America continue to deny the pervasive impact of its ugly past on its evanescent present? Can America survive and thrive without coming to terms with its roots in slavery, its expansion in Jim Crow and conquest, and its prosperity alongside discrimination and devaluation of people of color? In this way, the distinct personalities in this book are not simply exemplary Americans to celebrate but also -- and more importantly -- grand moments of a great struggle for freedom with which America must contend if we are to preserve the precious liberties and opportunities in twenty-firstcentury America. How we view and understand the AfricanAmerican Century deeply affects whether the next century will be another American Century or simply another hundred years in which history repeats itself not as tragic but as traumatic.
The lives of the African-American Century illuminate a central dilemma: How do we affirm black dignity and preserve black sanity in the face of the American denial of black humanity? All one hundred figures find themselves thrown in a whirlwind of white supremacy in American life and hence must discover and cultivate effective strategies to survive and thrive. They pursue their life passions under adverse circumstances -- even after their relative success. They forge a courage to be with self-confidence and self-respect. They marshal a courage to love with selfregard and self-determination. They promote a courage to fight for justice against the grain of American institutional terrorism (Jim Crow and lynching) and/or individual insult (from racist fellow citizens), And the fruits they yield in every sphere of life are extraordinary -- so extraordinary that we and the rest of the world must take notice. Their grand efforts and fruits are a crucial part of a great caravan of black love and achievement that creates a strong wind at our contemporary backs.
Yet they are who they are primarily because they preserved memories that put a premium on possibilities and promoted progeny whose hearts, minds, and souls were focused on accomplishments. Their incredible intelligence and imagination, creativity and ingenuity bespeak their unique fusions of talent, discipline, and energy. In short, their own distinctive forms of black genius make visible the pervasive black geniality -- largeness of black heart, mind, and soul -- among often everyday black folk.
So this book is a tribute to the world-historical contributions of people of African descent in the United States of America that have repercussions around the world. We want fellow human beings across the globe to know -- and never forget -- that here in this colossal American empire and past American century lived a great people who strived with much dignity and discernible effect to be true to themselves and their ideals of freedom against overwhelming odds and adverse circumstances. And we especially want our children-all children-to remember that more democracy is always a possibility if they are willing to carry on the precious heritage with vision, courage, and compassion.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Posted January 11, 2002
If you want to know about people you don't learn about in regular history classes, you need to get this book. It contains fascinating information about African-American pioneers and trailblazers that I've never heard of or have virtually never heard of. I really enjoyed it.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.