The African-American Century: How Black Americans Have Shaped Our Country

The African-American Century: How Black Americans Have Shaped Our Country

by Henry Louis Gates Jr., Cornel West


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One hundred original profiles of the most influential African-Americans of the twentieth century.

Without Louis Armstrong or Miles Davis, we would not have jazz. Without Toni Morrison or Ralph Ellison, we would miss some of our greatest novels. Without Dr. King or Thurgood Marshall, we would be deprived of political breakthroughs that affirm and strengthen our democracy. Here, two of the leading African-American scholars of our day, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Cornel West, show us why the twentieth century was the African-American century, as they offer their personal picks of the African-American figures who did the most to shape our world.

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780684864150
Publisher: Free Press
Publication date: 02/05/2002
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 412,540
Product dimensions: 7.38(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.10(d)
Age Range: 14 - 18 Years

About the Author

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is the W. E. B. Du Bois Professor of the Humanities, chair of the Department of Afro-American Studies, and director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American research at Harvard University. Among his many books are Colored People: A Memoir and Wonders of the African World. He won an American Book Award in 1989 for The Signifying Monkey.

Read an Excerpt

Billie Holiday

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

Table of Contents





W. E. B. Du Bois

T. Thomas Fortune

Matthew Henson

Jack Johnson

Scott Joplin

Henry Ossawa Tanner

Madame C.J. Walker

Booker T. Washington

Ida B. Wells Barnett

Bert Williams

1910-1919 Mary McLeod Bethune

George Washington Carver

Benjamin O. Davis, Sr.

Thomas A. Dorsey

W. C. Handy

James Weldon Johnson

Kelly Roll Morton

Charles Henry Turner

Jimmy Winkfield

Carter G. Woodson

1920-1929 Louis Armstrong

Junius Austin

Josephine Baker

Bessie Coleman

Marcus Garvey

Langston Hughes

Ernest Everett just

Oscar Micheaux

Bessie Smith

Jean Toomer


Marian Anderson

Sterling A. Brown

Father Divine

Charles Hamilton Houston

Zora Neale Hurston

Robert Johnson

Joe Louis

Jesse Owens

Paul Robeson

Bill "Bojangles" Robinson


Charles R. Drew

Katherine Dunham

Duke Ellington

Billie Holiday

Lena Horne

Jacob Lawrence

Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.

A. Philip Randolph

Jackie Robinson

Richard Wright


Ralph Bunche

Nat "King" Cole

Miles Davis

Ralph Ellison

Althea Gibson

Lorraine Hansberry

Willie Mays

Rosa Parks

Art Tatum

Sarah Vaughan


Muhammad Ali

James Baldwin

John Coltrane

Angela Davis

Fannie Lou Hamer

Jimi Hendrix

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Thurgood Marshall

Sidney Poitier

Malcolm X


Hank Aaron

Maya Angelou

Romare Bearden

James Brown

Marvin Gaye

Barbara Harris

Dorothy Height

Barbara Jordan

Leontyne Price

Richard Pryor


Alvin Ailey

Bill Cosby

John Hope Franklin

Jesse Jackson

Michael Jackson

Carl Lewis

Jessye Norman

Martin Puryear

Alice Walker

August Wilson


Louis Farrakhan

Michael Jordan

Spike Lee

Wynton Marsalis

Toni Morrison

Colin Powell

Tupac Shakur

Denzel Washington

Oprah Winfrey

Tiger Woods


A Guide to Further Reading


Photo Credits

Customer Reviews