100 Amazing Facts about the Negro
- By Henry Louis Gates Jr.
- Pantheon Books
- 496 pp.
- Reviewed by Stephen Middleton
- November 15, 2017
An easy-to-read essay collection that’s far more than a trivia compendium.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. has had his finger on the pulse of African Americana in print and the media for decades, and he has done it again in his fascinating new book, 100 Amazing Facts about the Negro.
Gates, a literary critic and the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University, got the idea for this book from Joel Augustus Rogers (1880-1966), a Jamaican-born American journalist.
“Mr. Rogers,” a writer for the Pittsburgh Courier, delivered “enlightenment and pride, steeped in historical research, to a people [black Americans] too long starved on the lie that they were worth nothing because their ancestors had contributed nothing to world civilization.”
Rogers, therefore, was one of America’s first black-studies teachers to use historical facts to undermine theories of white supremacy and black inferiority, and he did it virtually alone, says Gates, because the mainstream press did not publish his work. It’s fitting, then, that Rogers is the first entry in this book of remarkable facts.
Rarely do Americans discuss the Atlantic slave trade; it’s too painful a subject for people of any background. Gates raises the question in the second essay: How many Africans did European slave trades take to the United States (including the British Colonial Period) during the entire history of slavery?
We have good estimates, thanks to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. David Eltis and Martin Halbert, the project leaders, establish that slavers took approximately 12.5 million Africans from the continent, but only 10.7 million survived the Middle Passage (the journey from Africa to the Americas). Of these, the slavers shipped 450,00 to the United States. They carried the vast majority of African captives to South America and the Caribbean, with the bulk (4.86 million) going to Brazil.
“Most of the 42 million members of the current African-American community,” Gates notes, “descend from this tiny group of less than a half million Africans.”
Juan Garrido, born in West Africa in 1480, then captured and taken to Spain, joined the conquistadors to become the first black man to arrive in the Americas, circa 1503. From there, Africans ended up everywhere and in every imaginable vocation and field of intellectual inquiry.
An African named Maurice emerged as the first black saint in the Catholic Church (c. 1240). In politics, New World blacks, some of them with European ancestry due to hidden crimes against black women, led nation-states or served as governors and senators in the United States. Vicente Guerrero was a black president of Mexico in 1829. “Disparagingly nicknamed ‘El Negro Guerrero’ by his political enemies,” he lost two elections in Mexico, once in 1824 and again in 1828.
“Claiming foul play, he and his supporters rebelled and toppled the new government,” writes Gates. The coup d’etat resulted in his presidency.
In the United States, Hiram Rhodes Revels and Blanche Kelso Bruce were the first black Americans to serve in the U.S. Senate. Reconstruction politics, inaugurated by a Republican Congress, disenfranchised disloyal whites and gave the ballot to blacks and loyal whites. The Mississippi legislature had the votes to send Revels to Congress to serve out the shortened term of Jefferson Davis, whom Congress disqualified due to his leadership of the Confederacy.
The next black man, Bruce, served a full term in the Senate. Pinckney Benton Steward (“PBS”) Pinchback served as lieutenant governor of Louisiana when Oliver Dunn died, and acting governor for a year when the state legislature impeached Henry C. Warmouth. Surprisingly, given the fact that the United States did not abolish slavery until 1865, these men entered government only five years after the emancipation of enslaved blacks.
Black Americans have served in the armed forces in North America since colonial times, and in the United States Army since the American Revolution. In World War I, many blacks saw the crisis as a chance to defend their country and win greater freedom for themselves at home.
To that end, and with the urging of black leaders including W.E.B. Du Bois, 2.3 million black Americans registered for the military; approximately 370,000 served. Of the 200,000 who went overseas to fight the enemy, only 42,000 saw combat. The military assigned the remainder to support details. The military commissioned only 639 black officers to lead African-American troops.
The tide changed when “the commander of the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe assigned the Ninety-third Combat Division to the French Army,” which included the “Harlem Hellfighters.” They spent 191 days in combat at the Battle of Château-Thierry and Belleau Wood and fought valiantly. The French government honored them, awarding two soldiers the Croix de Guerre. Back home, black Americans understood the significance of their heroism and gave them a fitting welcome when they returned to New York City.
This book is an easy read and an excellent conversation piece; it’s also useful for games and competitive intellectual exercises. For example, who was the black press secretary in the Kennedy administration? Which civil rights leader talked most with the U.S. president over the Civil Rights Act of 1964? Who is reportedly the first black female millionaire in the United States? Who was the first black federal judge or the first black boxing champion? Who were the key black scholars to pioneer the discipline of black history?
Unquestionably, 100 Amazing Facts about the Negro will get people talking about the global contributions of people of African descent and black Americans. It is much more than a work of trivia; it is a storehouse of important historical data that illuminates the role of black people in the world beyond slavery. Joel Rogers led the way decades ago; now, Henry Louis Gates Jr. brings additional astonishing facts to the attention of people in the 21st century.
Stephen Middleton is a professor of history at Mississippi State University and the lead editor of and contributor to The Construction of Whiteness: An Interdisciplinary Analysis of Race Formation and the Meaning of a White Identity (2016).