After Obama: Reading Black History Month

By Stuart Mitchner 

In the “Amazing Grace” chapter of The Black Presidency (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt $27), Michael Eric Dyson calls the last week of June 2015 Barack Obama’s greatest as president. Setting the scene at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church where Obama delivered a eulogy for the nine people slain by Dylann Roof, Dyson describes how the president “wrapped his vulnerability around the church” after the last words of the speech and “on the high wire of live television, before an audience of millions around the world,” began to sing “Amazing Grace.”

As Dyson puts it, “Singing in church ratifies with the gut what the head has decided is true.” For a president to risk singing meant “going where no executive order can rescue notes ill flung.” That he was a bit flat, obviously no singer, worked for Obama rather than against him as the bishops and ministers at his back joined in. It also gave emotional authority to his recital of the names of those who had died, “his words now humming with the slight tune and gentle vibrato of black sacred rhetoric.” As he called each name, it dramatized “how much more amazing grace was for having been found in the midst of terror and grief and heartbreak and death.”

January 20, 2009

It seems an unlikely combination, pairing a leader of the Civil Rights Movement with the imagery of a graphic novel, but it works in March (Top Shelf $49.99), a three-volume visual autobiography of Congressman John Lewis, one of the key players in the struggle to end segregation. Co-authored with Andrew Aydin and graphic artist Nate Powell, March is the first such work to win the National Book Award. The New York Times best-seller makes “historic events,” in the words of LeVar Burton, “both accessible and relevant to an entire new generation of Americans.”

The special strength of March is in the raw force of Powell’s graphics, immediately obvious in the brooding image of a Washington D.C. street on the morning of Barack Obama’s inauguration, January 20, 2009. Barely visible in the far distance is the dome of the capitol, where Obama will take the oath of office as the first black president. Whether or not the effect is intentional, the image of a shadow-drenched urban street on such a momentous day in American history suggests the dark underside of the hope shared by millions during the “brief shining moment” of the ceremony that took place six hours later. There’s a gritty down-to-earth quality in the drawings of a black man of a certain age, Lewis himself no doubt, getting out of bed, washing and shaving and dressing in the shadows while listening to the weather forecast (“It’s COLD in the capital city!”) and the ceremonial platitudes of the occasion (“bearing witness to the peaceful transfer of power”).

The Migration Series

In 1941, the African-American artist Jacob Lawrence, then just 23 years old, completed a series of 60 small tempera paintings with text captions about the Great Migration, the mass movement of black Americans from the rural South to the urban North that began in 1915–16. According to the New Yorker’s Peter Schjeldahl, the series “appears as a hinge of the national consciousness: inward to the untold history of African-Americans and outward to the enlightenment of the wide world. It would not have worked were it not superb art, but it is. Melding modernist form and topical content, the series is both decorative and illustrative, and equally efficient in those fundamental, often opposed functions of painting.” In Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series (the Museum of Modern Art and The Phillips Collection), edited by Leah Dickerson and Elisa Smithgall, with notes by Jodi Roberts, the “untold history” includes poetry by, among others, Rita Dove and Yusef Komunyakaa, and photographs like the extraordinary full-page view of a segregated railway waiting room in Jacksonville, Florida.

Down Home Cooking

The culinary side of Black History Month is brilliantly represented by Marcus Samuelsson’s The Red Rooster Cookbook: The Story of Food and Hustle in Harlem (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt $37.50), which Vanity Fair calls “a literary love letter” that goes beyond recipes “to the neighborhood” and “the people, places, and problems in it.” When the James Beard Award-winning chef Samuelsson opened Red Rooster on Malcolm X Boulevard, he envisioned more than a restaurant. It would be a meeting place  for both the downtown and the uptown sets, serving Southern black and cross-cultural food, as suggested by items on Rooster’s menu like Brown Butter Biscuits, Chicken and Waffle, Killer Collards, and Donuts with Sweet Potato Cream. Samuelsson’s Swedish-Ethiopian background shows in Ethiopian Spice-Crusted Lamb, Slow-Baked Blueberry Bread with Spiced Maple Syrup, and the Green Viking, sprightly Apple Sorbet with Caramel Sauce.

Krazy was Black

Among the earliest, most admired and influential American cartoonists was George Herriman, the creator of “one of the greatest comic strips in history,” Krazy Kat, and the subject of Michael Tisserand’s biography, Krazy: George Herriman, A Life in Black and White (HarperCollins $35). That Krazy was a black cat was no more an issue than that Ignatz, the brick-throwing love of Krazy’s life, was a mouse, or that Officer Pup was a dog. That Krazy’s creator was also black, however, is something else again, and it wasn’t until the 1970s that word began to get out. Some 30 years after Herriman’s death in 1944, black novelist Ishmael Reed dedicated his book Mumbo Jumbo to “George Herriman, Afro-American.”

Princeton Connections

Another 2016 National Book award winner in addition to March is one-time Lewis Center faculty member Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (Doubleday $26.95), which The New York Times named one of the year’s Ten Best. The Times Book Review described it as “Whitehead’s attempt at getting things right, not by telling us what we already know but by vindicating the powers of fiction to interpret the world. In its exploration of the foundational sins of America, it is a brave and necessary book.”

The chair of Princeton’s Department of African American Studies Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.’s Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul (Penguin/Random House) “should shape the framework for a post-Obama America,” according to Cornel West, who calls it “a bold rejection of black liberal politics and a prophetic call for a revolution of value that reinvigorates our democratic life with imagination and courage.” Newly published in paperback (Broadway Books $16), Democracy in Black is, in the words of the Los Angeles Times, “a book for the ages… one of the most imaginative, daring books of the 21st century.”

Significant Others

Finally, two biograpies that highlight extremes of Black history are Philippe Girard’s Toussaint Louverture: A Revolutionary Life (Basic Books $29.99), “a groundbreaking biography” (Kirkus Reviews) and Krin Gabbard’s Better Git It in Your Soul: An Interpretive Biography of Charles Mingus (Univ. of California Press $34.95), named by New York Magazine among “14 of the Best Gifts for a Music Snob Who’s Heard Everything,” a biography “as idiosyncratic as the great jazz bassist and composer that is its subject.”