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

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

Henry Louis Gates, JR., Cornel West. Free Press, $30 (432pp) ISBN 978-0-684-86414-3

""At the dawn of the 21st century... we cannot imagine a truly American culture that has not, in profound ways, been shaped by the contributions of African Americans,"" write scholars and popular social commentators West and Gates in the introduction to this elegant, fact-filled compendium of nearly 100 short biographies of distinguished thinkers, artists, politicians, entrepreneurs and athletes (one quarter of them women). While many of the figures highlighted here are obvious choices--such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells Barnett, Jackie Robinson, Jessye Norman and Spike Lee--there are numerous others who are more obscure, including Bessie Colman, the first black woman aviator; Dorothy Height, who organized black women through the YWCA; and sculptor Martin Puryear. Maintaining an upbeat tone, the authors, Harvard professors both, attempt to address the complexity of their subjects' lives (e.g., Tupac Shakur's indictment on charges of sexual abuse), although they occasionally play down such thorny issues as Louis Farrakhan's anti-Semitic statements or Josephine Baker's support of Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia. The concept behind this book is not new (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's Profiles in Black Courage, among others, has covered similar territory), but the authors' strong reputations and clear prose make this not only an ideal gift book for younger readers but a good educational resource. 100 b&w photos. (Nov.)