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AfriGeneas News & Announcements
January 2008

Thursday, January 31, 2008

The African American National Biography Shines Light on Famous and Overlooked Black Historical Figures

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post

January 28, 2008

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- "Ever heard of Ted Rhodes? There he is, right before Condoleezza Rice."

Harvard historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham is paging through the index to the eight-volume African American National Biography. She co-edited this massive new biographical treasure chest -- to be published next month by Oxford University Press -- with her Harvard colleague Henry Louis "Skip" Gates Jr.

Higginbotham is trying to underscore how many fascinating lives the biography will help rescue from obscurity: people such as Rhodes, a black professional golfer who paved the way for Tiger Woods.

"Valaida Snow's interesting," Higginbotham says, mentioning a jazz singer who was interned in a Nazi concentration camp. "You know Major Taylor? He's a bicyclist. . . . Margaret Smith was a midwife; she delivered over 3,000 babies in Alabama. . . . "

Name after name, life after life:

There's Cathay Williams, "cook, laundress, and Buffalo Soldier," who fled her slave master during the Civil War and disguised herself as a man to enlist in the postwar U.S. Army. There's John Carruthers Stanly, born a slave in North Carolina, who ended up owning 163 slaves himself.

And there's Rayford Logan, Higginbotham's old history professor at Howard University who helped create the Dictionary of American Negro Biography -- the best-known antecedent of the Gates-Higginbotham effort.

When it was published in 1982, Logan's dictionary was by far the most professional African American biography project ever completed. It had 626 entries. This one will have 4,100, and there are plans to add thousands more to the online version. Gates calls it "the most important recovery project in the history of African American studies."

Black history has long been important to Higginbotham, chairwoman of Harvard's Department of African and African American Studies. As a child in her parents' house in Washington, she met Logan and other pioneers of the field such as Carter Woodson, whom her father, a school principal, helped out at the Assn. for the Study of Negro Life and History.

After Woodson's death in 1950, she says, her father drummed his friend's historical credo into her:

"We must refute the lies that the Negro has no past or that the Negro has no past worth respecting."

The African American National Biography was the brainchild of the entrepreneurial Gates. No one involved can quite imagine anyone else pulling it off.

Reached by phone in California, Gates credits his inspiration to two sources.

One was Yale historian John Blassingame, who introduced him to the outpouring of quirky black biographical dictionaries of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Largely efforts to refute the most damaging lie of all about black people -- that they were intellectually inferior to whites -- these works tended toward hagiography but preserved many names that might otherwise have been lost.

The other inspiration, Gates says, was one of his heroes, "the smartest black intellectual in the first half of the 19th century." James McCune Smith was the first professionally trained black physician in the United States, the nation's first black candidate for political office and an influential abolitionist. Seven years ago, Gates looked for Smith in the premier American biographical dictionary, Oxford's American National Biography.

He wasn't there. Nor were most of the names on a list of maybe 25 prominent blacks Higginbotham assembled after Gates told her of the gaps he was finding.

Gates called Casper Grathwohl, who headed Oxford's reference division, and told him he needed to publish a stand-alone African American reference work.

"Do you think you can fill it up?" Gates recalls Grathwohl asking.

Not a problem.

An initial database, compiled at the Gates-run W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard, ran to more than 12,000 names. Many, brought to light by burgeoning research efforts in African American history over the last quarter century, remained virtually unknown outside the academy.

Gates and Higginbotham set out to turn that database into what Gates calls "the grandest history of the African American people ever written."

Members of the staff they assembled began work in 2002, based in the Du Bois Institute. By 2004, they had produced a handsome 600-entry volume called African American Lives that served as a kind of advertisement for the full biography. But soon after this, the editors began to fear that the larger project would never get done.

Indeed, Gates is a man who, asked what he's working on now, has trouble recalling the full list. His sabbatical project is "a book on race and the Enlightenment." Another book, "In Search of Our Roots," will be out in April. He's just gotten approval from Oxford University Press for a huge African biography project. There's a PBS show airing next month, the second to be based on African American Lives. Oh, and he's forgotten to mention "the big project I'm gearing up to do": an eight-hour PBS series on the history of the African American people -- "the whole sweep, from the slave trade to Barack Obama."

In short, Gates is hardly a typical academic. He is uncomfortable with the slower rhythms of university scholarship, and some academics, in turn, are uncomfortable with him.

"A lot of people working for Skip get a little freaked," says Kate Tuttle, a book editor and journalist whom Gates and Higginbotham brought in to jump-start the project. When Tuttle signed on in 2004, she says, the biography was mostly a Du Bois Institute production, with little input from the publisher, and there was a feeling among the staff "that the project was impossible." Her chief idea for retooling it was to get Oxford more involved.

A key decision, says Tuttle's Oxford counterpart, Anthony Aiello, was to reduce the responsibilities of the Du Bois staff by recruiting 17 credentialed "subject editors" -- for education, art, slavery, civil rights and so on. The subject editors approved biographical entries in their fields, to be written mainly by some 1,700 outside contributors.

Unknown figures from centuries past are hard to research; the living, meanwhile, offer their own challenges.

What do you do, for example, with sprinter Marion Jones, who had yet to admit to using steroids when her biography was written? Or with Barry Bonds? What about Condoleezza Rice and Colin L. Powell? Both were shoo-ins for inclusion, but both have had their legacies of achievement destabilized by the Iraq war. What happens when Deval Patrick suddenly becomes governor of Massachusetts?

The beauty of a biographical dictionary produced in 2008 is that it can be updated online. The print version can be ordered for $795. The online version is proceeding more slowly and won't include all 4,100 entries for nearly a year. It is part of a collection of online reference tools called the Oxford African American Studies Center, available by subscription.

Putting this and similar works online may resolve a question that the compilers of specialized biographical dictionaries are forever being asked: Aren't they, despite their good intentions, perpetuating a form of ghettoization?

Online, Gates explains, "you can have your cake and eat it too." Users will soon be able to search across all Oxford's reference tools without specifying race -- but they'll still be able to separate African American entries if they want to.

"I'm exhilarated," Gates says. If someone had enough time, it would be great "just to start with A and read to the end."

You won't catch him doing that himself, however. And it's not just because he's thinking ahead to his African biography project, which should daunt him. No. He's already lighting out for new territory.

"Oxford doesn't know it yet," Gates says cheerfully, "but I want to do blacks in Latin America and the Caribbean."

Source: Los Angeles Times

Posted by Staff on 1/31/08 at 12:29 am EST

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Washington Post Launches Online Magazine Aimed at Blacks

By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 28, 2008

The Washington Post Co. plans to launch a Web magazine today called The Root that aims to be a "Slate for black readers," according to one of its founders, Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Slate, the online magazine founded by Microsoft and purchased by The Post Co. in 2004, offers a mix of news and opinion, arts and sports coverage. The Root will feature news and opinions on black issues in the United States and worldwide and include a genealogy application designed to help black users build their family trees.

The site, which began coming together in October, is the brainchild of Gates and Post Co. Chairman Donald E. Graham. Gates got to know Graham through several years of joint service on the Pulitzer Prize committee. The Root is a spinoff of Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive (WPNI), a wholly owned subsidiary of The Post Co. and the parent of

When Graham broached the idea of The Root to Gates several months ago, "it took me precisely one nanosecond to say, 'I would love to do that,' " Gates said in an interview on Friday.

Gates has written extensively on black history and genealogy. On Feb. 6, Gates's "African American Lives 2," a documentary series using DNA analysis to help trace the ancestry of prominent black Americans such as Chris Rock, will begin on PBS. The Root dovetails with many of Gates's interests.

Gates said he has longed for a national black newspaper since childhood in rural West Virginia, when he first saw copies of the black-oriented Baltimore Afro-American in his local black-run barber shop. The Root will be a 21st-century version of a national black newspaper, Gates said, featuring articles from notable black writers, such as the New Yorker's Malcolm Gladwell.

Other prominent blacks have launched news and information sites aimed at black users. Radio star Tom Joyner launched BlackAmericaWeb in 2001 that features news and commentary on issues of interest to black users. Likewise, talk show host Tavis Smiley maintains a Web site, TavisTalks, as a virtual watercooler for black issues. And Ebony and Jet magazines have a common Web site.

"I am happy to be joining the distinguished company of Tavis Smiley and Tom Joyner and Ebony and Jet," Gates said. He said The Root will be unique because it will be the only black-oriented news and commentary site to have the genealogy application.

Gates will be The Root's editor in chief while former New York Times editor Lynette Clemetson will be the site's managing editor. Slate editor Jacob Weisberg helped with the site's startup and will remain involved but said Gates and Clemetson will drive the site.

"Though [Gates] has obviously been working on other things at the same time, he's been totally focused on The Root," Weisberg said in an e-mail Friday. "He's been involved in every aspect of the launch, working on it every day, and -- it seems -- every hour of the day, seven days a week."

In an interview on Friday, Graham said he expects The Root to lose money initially, "but hopefully not for as many years as Slate." Slate, founded in 1996, did not experience its first full year of profitability until 2007. The Root has signed up HBO and Coca-Cola as initial sponsors, Weisberg said.

The Root is WPNI's second spinoff, and Graham said he is considering others. Last year, the Web division launched, a site aimed at female users interested in "green living," or environmentally friendly products.

Sprig has grown more slowly than hoped, said WPNI publisher Caroline Little, despite what she called good content. Little said the site is narrowing its focus and relaunching with this year with a large publicity push. WPNI would not release traffic numbers for Sprig.

Source: Washington Post

Posted by Staff on 1/29/08 at 1:44 pm EST

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Harold ONealPianist Explores Ancestry Through Music

The Kansas City Star

Harold O'NealIt started as just a genealogical exploration. Eventually it turned into a musical celebration of his family lineage.

Local pianist Harold O�Neal was at a workshop in Lindrith, N.M., in 2006 when, like author Alex Haley in his book Roots, he began to examine his family tree.

O�Neal, 26, was able to trace his ancestors all the way back to his great-great-great-grandfather, who was a slave who lived somewhere in Texas. Although he was unable to learn the man�s name, O�Neal did discover many other relatives along the way.

Eventually O�Neal was asked to create music to go along with his family discovery. The result is a CD released in February 2007 called �Charlie�s Suite: Cries and Whispers From My Great-Great-Great-Grandfather.�

�Each track on the record is about a different time period and a different person on my father�s side of the family,� O�Neal explained recently.

In the liner notes, he explains that his first song, �Charlie�s Suite Part 1,� was written to express his appreciation to his great-great-great-grandfather.

Another song: �Middle Passage,� explores his feelings about the Atlantic slave trade.

�The whole thing is a human travesty of monumental proportions,� O�Neal wrote. �I can�t really say how I feel about it. Too much pain. � I probably want you to hurt with me when you listen.�

O�Neal�s creativity comes from an unusual perspective. He was born in Arusha, Tanzania, in east Africa and lived the first three years of his life there. His father is Brian O�Neal, the brother of Pete O�Neal, the former leader of the Kansas City chapter of the Black Panther Party.

After moving to the States, Harold attended school here, graduating from Paseo Academy of Performing Arts.

�I was named Harold, but my mother and father still call me by my African name, Muji,� O�Neal wrote. �We lived the whole National Geographic bit in the countryside: drum circles most nights while something was cooked on an open fire.�

One of the songs is named �Panther,� a tune dedicated to his uncle, Pete O�Neal.

�Pete recruited my father and inspired him to turn his life around,� O�Neal wrote. �I don�t know what the Panthers mean to you or anyone else, but in my community they were heroes.�

O�Neal is moving next month to New York, where he has several musical projects in the works. To learn more about O�Neal and his CD, go to his Web site at


Walk down the street in Kansas City with a beer in your hand and you�re asking for a little police intervention.

However, there are exceptions. When the Kansas City Live entertainment area opens, the public will be allowed to drink adult beverages out in the open.

According to City Manager Wayne Cauthen, open containers will be permitted within a certain perimeter.

Cauthen thinks Kansas City must take steps that make the city more enticing for young people to want to live here.

To that end, the Cordish Co., which is managing the Kansas City Live area, told Cauthen that it plans to hold a series of concerts in the district this summer. Several up-and-coming artists will be brought in. The hope is that concertgoers will rent rooms in hotels and patronize the venues associated with the entertainment district.

The concerts will be advertised and promoted regionally as far as Des Moines, Iowa. College-age students will be encouraged to attend.

�You have to give young folks a reason to stay here,� Cauthen said. �If we don�t give young folks a reason to stay in the city, they�re going to move out. That whole generation of young kids that moved to Johnson County, well, they�re going to be down here in the entertainment district this summer.�

Source: Kansas City Star

Posted by Staff on 1/06/08 at 3:04 pm EST

6 Jul 2003 :: 06 Jan 2008
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