The African-American Century: How Black Americans Have Shaped Our Country
© 2000, by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Cornel West. New York: Free Press. Used by permission of the author and publisher. May not be presented in any form elsewhere without permission from copyright holders.
“…whatever else the true American is, he is also somehow black.”
Ralph Ellison, “What America Would Be Like
Without Blacks” (1970)
It was the century in which African-American life was transformed – and the century in which African Americans changed America. And yet, when the twentieth century opened, African Americans had been “up from slavery,” as Booker T. Washington would put it in his classic autobiography, for only thirty-five years. Over the long and arduous course of the next hundred years, the achievements of our people would be nothing less than miraculous.
Remember: In 1900 blacks were systematically barred from full and equal participation in the larger society. No African American could serve in a position of authority over white soldiers, or fight by their sides; no black could participate in professional baseball, the national pastime. The classic blues and jazz had not emerged as the defining forms of American music. Black Americans were routinely lynched with impunity. “Separate but equal” was the institutional law of the South and the de facto law of the land. Racist “Sambo” images of blacks proliferated in advertisements, postcards, games, tea cozies, and a thousand other sources. The future of the race, at the turn of the century, looked rather bleak indeed.
At the dawn of the twenty-first century, by contrast, we cannot imagine a truly American culture that has not, in profound ways, been shaped by the contributions of African Americans. Who could imagine the American Century without the African-American experience at its core? When we listen to that century, there would be no Louis Armstrong. No Duke Ellington. No Billie Holiday or John Coltrane. In fact there would be no jazz. No blues. No rock and roll. When we read that century, there would be no Ralph Ellison. No James Baldwin. No Toni Morrison. When we think about what democracy means in such a century there would be no W. E. B. Du Bois, no Thurgood Marshall, no Martin Luther King, Jr. When we rent the movies of that century there would be no Bojangle Robinson. No Sidney Poitier. No Spike Lee. When we reminisce about the sports heroes of that century there would be no Jesse Owens. No Jackie Robinson or Althea Gibson. No Muhammad Ali. When we laughed about that century there would be no Bill Cosby. No Richard Pryor.
Such a century would not seem very American, would it? Of course, the most fundamental significance of what is called the American Century was the unprecedented expansion of democratic sensibilities around the world. Nowhere were these sensibilities more apparent than in the extraordinary lives of those African Americans in this book. From American slaves to American citizens (most of whom are descendants of American slaves), these figures enact and embody the core of the democratic faith: the precious notion that ordinary individuals and everyday people possess the capacity to attain the highest levels of excellence and dignity. In this deep philosophic manner, the African-American Century sits at the center of the American Century just as black culture constitutes an essential element of American culture.
The song known as the “Negro National Anthem,” penned by James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson in February 1900, expresses the essential principle of democracy: “Lift Every Voice.” The ethical precondition for democracy is to allow every voice of the citizenry to be heard in the basic decisions that shape the destiny of its people. The political prerequisite for democracy is to secure the rights and liberties for every citizen, especially the most vulnerable ones. And the economic requirement for democracy is fair opportunity to every citizen. The African-American Century was first and foremost the black struggle for these ethical, political, and economic conditions of democracy in the face of vicious antidemocratic practices. This struggle is one of the great historical dramas of modern times. The people in this book are major agents in this unfinished struggle and incomplete drama.
We chose these particular persons because they represent the exemplary virtue of the black struggle for respect and liberty – namely, the courage to embody and live their respective truths in the face of overwhelming obstacles, including often the threat to their very lives. This courage was grounded in a profound commitment to enhance and elevate the deplorable plight of African Americans. As we probed into the remarkable lives of these figures we were struck by two recurrent features. First, we noticed the complex interplay of quiet despair and active hope in their diverse personalities. All of these individuals at some point in their lives were pushed to the edge of America’s racist abyss. Each one of them experienced the absurd side of American life that reveals the lie of America as the land of liberty and justice for all. Second, we were brought to tears by these individuals’ incredible efforts to affirm the full-fledged humanity of black people. These efforts took many forms, yet their common denominator was an unwavering self-confidence in their astonishing aspirations to achieve and excel. Be they artist, scholar, activist, scientist, or businessperson, of whatever political persuasion, these extraordinary persons who ushered forth from a hated and hunted folk never lost their belief in themselves in their quests for betterment.
Our selections were complicated by the dominant stereotypes of black people as born entertainers and natural athletes. Needless to say, some of the greatest entertainers and athletes of the twentieth century were black. So we had to walk a thin linen in acknowledging this rich cultural heritage – owing to tremendous discipline and dedication to their crafts – while accenting the many spheres of life from which they were often excluded owing to their skin color. This balancing act is a tricky one because the undeniable achievements in black entertainment and sports in the eyes of many (of all colors) downplay black accomplishments in other areas of American society.
Needless to say, there are many towering figures who belong in this book yet do not appear as individual essays – Arthur Ashe, Harry Belafonte, Mary Frances Berry, Jim Brown, Johnnetta Cole, Marian Wright Edelman, John Johnson, Quincy Jones, Edwin Moses, and Gordon Parks, to name but a few. It could be said that each and every one of these people are part of the great story of the African-American Century. Our focus is less on individuals as isolated icons and more on individuals as part of a grand tradition that deepened democratic roots in an insufficiently democratic America. In this regard, the real heroes are the often overlooked anonymous foremothers and forefathers who loved, nurtured, and sacrificed for millions of black children.
One fundamental truth informs this book: American life is inconceivable without its black presence. The sheer intelligence and imagination of African Americans have disproportionately shaped American culture, produced wealth in the American economy, and refined notions of freedom and equality in American politics. And, on a deeper level, black reflections on the human condition in this land of sentimental aims and romantic dreams injected tragicomic sensibilities into the American experience. In other words, black people have always tried to remind America of its night side, of the barbarism lurking underneath its self-congratulatory rhetoric of universal freedom and equal opportunity. Black perceptions of American democracy are rooted in blue notes – the inescapable realities of pain, hurt, misery, and sorrow in human life and American society. In this sense, the response to white supremacy is not only the ultimate litmus test for American democracy, but wrestling with its tragicomic realities is the primary criterion of American maturity. Hence, the lives of these twentieth-century blues people constitute a major challenge to us all in the twenty-first century. This challenge takes the form of two basic questions: Will America continue to deny the pervasive impact of its ugly past on its evanescent present? Can America survive and thrive without coming to terms with its roots in slavery, its expansion in Jim Crow and conquest, and its prosperity alongside discrimination and devaluation of people of color? In this way, the distinct personalities in this book are not simply exemplary Americans to celebrate but also – and more importantly – grand moments of a great struggle for freedom with which America must contend if we are to preserve the precious liberties and opportunities in twenty-first-century America. How we view and understand the African-American Century deeply affects whether the next century will be another American Century or simply another hundred years in which history repeats itself not as tragic but as traumatic.
The lives of the African-American Century illuminate a central dilemma: How do we affirm black dignity and preserve black sanity in the face of the American denial of black humanity? All one hundred figures find themselves thrown in a whirlwind of white supremacy in American life and hence must discover and cultivate effective strategies to survive and thrive. They pursue their life passions under adverse circumstances – even after their relative success. They forge a courage to be with self-confidence and self-respect. They marshal a courage to love with self-regard and self-determination. They promote a courage to fight for justice against the grain of American institutional terrorism (Jim Crow and lynching) and/or individual insult (from racist fellow citizens). And the fruits they yield in every sphere of life are extraordinary – so extraordinary that we and the rest of the world must take notice. Their grand efforts and fruits are a crucial part of a great caravan of black love and achievement that creates a strong wind at our contemporary backs.
Yet they are who they are primarily because they preserved memories that put a premium on possibilities and promoted progeny whose hearts, minds, and souls were focused on accomplishments. Their incredible intelligence and imagination, creativity and ingenuity bespeak their unique fusions of talent, discipline, and energy. In short, their own distinctive forms of black genius make visible the pervasive black geniality – largeness of black heart, mind, and soul – among often everyday black folk.
So this book is a tribute to the world-historical contributions of people of African descent in the United States of America that have repercussions around the world. We want fellow human beings across the globe to know – and never forget – that here in this colossal American empire and past American century lived a great people who strived with much dignity and discernible effect to be true to themselves and their ideals of freedom against overwhelming odds and adverse circumstances. And we especially want our children – all children – to remember that more democracy is always a possibility if they are willing to carry on the precious heritage with vision, courage, and compassion.
Mother of Civil Rights
Rosa Parks made her historic stand for justice by, famously, sitting down. For simply refusing to move to the back of the Montgomery public bus, she would be remembered as the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement,” but her involvement in the movement went far beyond the moment history has assigned her. Far from an aging, relatively apolitical figure, Parks was at the time of her arrest a seasoned civil rights worker just forty-two years old. The secretary of her local NAACP branch, for years Parks had worked on voter registration drives, legal defenses of unfairly accused African Americans, and efforts to desegregate public transportation.
Born Rosa Louise McCauley on February 4, 1913, she spent her early years in Pine Level, Alabama. Her parents separated soon after the birth of her younger brother, Sylvester, and the children grew up primarily with their mother and her parents. Parks remembers being aware of racial inequality from an early age, watching the abusive treatment her family and other sharecroppers suffered at the hands of white overseers, landowners, and town officials. She attended segregated local schools, later moving to Montgomery for the opportunity to attend junior high school, and then the laboratory school run by the Alabama State Teachers’ College for Negroes, where her mother studied teaching. She left before graduating, however, to care for her dying grandmother.
After her grandmother died, Parks went to work in a shirt factory in Montgomery. In 1932, when she was nineteen, she married Raymond Parks, a barber. She would later describe him in her autobiography as the “first real activist” she had ever met. He was a member of the NAACP and had been involved in local efforts to help the defendants in the Scottsboro case, in which eight black men were convicted of raping two white women on a train. Raymond Parks encouraged his wife’s educational dreams, and with his help she finished high school, graduating in 1933 at the age of twenty.
Even with her diploma, Parks found only semiskilled work, first in a hospital, then later at an air force base, newly integrated due to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 8002 desegregating the war work effort. The Parkses joined the Montgomery Voters’ League, led by Edgar Daniel Nixon, a Pullman porter who was one of the city’s most active black citizens. As founding president of Montgomery’s branch of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and president of its NAACP chapter, Nixon was a tireless fighter. He and a black lawyer named Arthur A. Madison organized a voter registration effort beginning in the early 1940s but most African Americans in Montgomery continued to be denied their right to the franchise. It took Rosa Parks two years from the time she first tried to register in 1943 until she received her voter’s card in 1945.
By now she was secretary of the Montgomery NAACP, working closely with E.D. Nixon and others to record testimony of African Americans who had suffered harassment, beatings, and lynchings. In 1950 she found a better job, working as a tailor’s assistant in a department store, but she continued to work informally for Nixon, who had left his NAACP post but continued to head the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters branch. She also worked for a white couple, Virginia and Clifford Durr, who were liberals and supported desegregation. In 1955 Virginia Durr encouraged Parks to attend a workshop on implementing the school integration that recently had been ordered by the Supreme Court in its 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. The workshop was held at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee, a radical education center founded by Myles Horton, a white man, in 1932. At Highlander, Parks met Septima Clark and other black activists, as well as white people committed to civil rights, and she returned to Montgomery energized and enthusiastic.
All that optimism met its match when, on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, on her way home from work, refused to move from her seat in the middle of the bus – the no-man’s-land at the front of the “black section” in which blacks were permitted to sit until white people wanted them – when the busdriver asked. As she wrote in her autobiography:
People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically … I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then … No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.
She was arrested and charged with breaking the local segregation law. When Nixon and Virginia Durr came to pay her bail, they asked Parks if she would be willing to serve as the test case to end the system of segregation on Montgomery’s buses. Above reproach, known for her integrity and hard work, Parks was the perfect defendant to fight segregation; as a member of the NAACP Youth Council said at a rally soon after Parks’s releases, “They’ve messed with the wrong one now!”
December 5, the first Monday after her arrest, was slated as both Parks’s court date and the first day of a protests by African Americans of all city buses. Black cabs and individual citizens offered their services to provide transportation for boycotters, and despite threatening rain and fears of inadequate publicity, Montgomery’s black population stayed off the buses. Parks appeared in court, pleaded “not guilty,” was convicted of the charges, and fined fourteen dollars, while her lawyers began planning their appeal. A group of Montgomery’s black ministers met and formed the Montgomery Improvement Association, electing as their president a young pastor just twenty-six years old named Martin Luther King, Jr.
All that year, the boycott held. King and Nixon rallied the black population and found ways to get people where they needed to go. Many involved in the boycott faced harassment, and its leaders had to withstand duplicitous offers of negotiation by increasingly angry and defensive whites. In March, King was tried and convicted of leading an illegal boycott, but successfully appealed his conviction. Rosa Parks found herself in demand as a speaker, traveling to New York and San Francisco to address sympathetic meetings. The federal district court ruled in Park’s favor in June 1956, and in November the U.S. Supreme Court did too. Black Montgomery continued the boycott until December 20, when the written order reached city officials. The boycott was over.
Rosa Parks found her own life changed as well. She had lost her job during the boycott, and the racial atmosphere in Montgomery had become oppressive. In 1957 she, her husband, and her mother moved to Detroit. She continued to work as a seamstress, taking on speaking appearances and attending meetings and rallies, marching on Washington in 1963 and Selma in 1965. When a young congressman, John Conyers, asked her to join his staff in 1965 Parks did; she worked for Conyers until retiring in 1988. In 1987, ten years after her husband died, she founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development, which offers youth programs in communication, health, economics, and political skills. In 1989, Cleveland Street in Montgomery (the street that gave its name to the Cleveland Street bus line from which she had been arrested) was renamed Rosa Parks Boulevard. No more dramatic symbol of the courageous resistance that characterized the abolition and civil rights movements exists than Rosa Parks, whose spontaneous courage fueled a movement. Within a decade following her daring act, legal segregation would be struck down by the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1965 and 1967. She continues to lend her legendary clout to causes of social justice around the world with her unique sense of dignity, humility, and style.
Zora Neale Hurston
Now, she is read and loved by students of all colors, everywhere. But there was a time, not much more than twenty years ago, that Zora Neale Hurston’s work was largely out of print, her literary legacy alive only to a tiny, devoted band of readers often forced to photocopy her works in order to teach them. The black arts poet and critic Larry Neal saw to it that Jonah’s Gourd Vine was reprinted in 1971, just as the scholar Darwin Turner had Mules and Men reprinted a year before. But those pioneering gestures were rare.
Today Hurston’s works are central to the canon of African-American, American, and women’s literatures. Recently, at Yale alone, seventeen courses taught Their Eyes Were Watching God. An extreme example perhaps, but it gives pause to those who would argue for the timelessness of literary judgment and taste. Which is not to say that her genius went unappreciated by her peers. The prodigious author of four novels –Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934), Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939), and Seraph on the Suwanee (1948) – two books of folklore – Mules and Men (1935) and Tell My Horse (1938) – an autobiography (Dust Tracks on a Road, 1942) and over fifty short stories, essays, and plays, Hurston was one of the more widely acclaimed black authors for the two decades between 1925 and 1945.
Zora Neale Hurston was born on January 7, 1891, in Notasulga, Alabama. (Hurston herself gave varying dates ranging from 1898 to 1903.) Parents Lucy Ann and John Hurston raised her and her seven brothers and sisters in Eatonville, Florida, an African-American community. Her experiences in Eatonville later would serve as the background that shaped the views of her writing. After the death of her mother, John Hurston remarried, and Zora was forced to relocate from relative to relative. Eventually she moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where she attended prep school at Morgan College until 1918. From 1919 until 1924 Hurston studied writing under Lorenzo Dow Turner and Alain Locke at Howard University. Turner and Locke greatly affected the development of her writing style.
In May 1925, she won second prize at the annual Opportunity magazine awards ceremony for her short story “Spunk” that had appeared in Alain Locke’s germinal anthology The New Negro, which announced the birth of both the New Negro movement and the Harlem Renaissance of black expressive culture. At the age of thirty-four, the wind at her back, Hurston attended Barnard College to study anthropology, earning a B.A. in 1928.
Hurston then enrolled in Columbia’s graduate program in anthropology and began to collect black folklore throughout the South between 1927 and 1931; in Jamaica, Haiti, and Bermuda in 1937 and 1938; and in Florida in 1938 and 1939. Hurston seems to have loved listening to and transcribing Negro folktales and myths. As late as 1946, when her own powers of storytelling were on the wane, Hurston was drawn to Honduras to gather more folklore. But despite the publication of two widely heralded collections of folklore, it was as a writer of fiction that Zora Neale Hurston excelled.
With the exception of her last novel, Seraph on the Suwanee, Hurston’s fiction was well received by mainstream American reviewers. On the other hand, some prominent black male writers thought her work was problematic for reasons that would convince few readers now.
Please Note: This excerpt appears by special permission of the author and publisher and may not be presented elsewhere without permission of the copyright holders.
Explore. Discover. Learn. Teach.
Search Africana Heritage for Related Content
Buy The African-American Century: How Black Americans Have Shaped Our Country from Simon & Schuster
Buy The African-American Century: How Black Americans Have Shaped Our Country from Shop PBS
About Henry Louis Gates, Jr.:
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is the W. E. B. Du Bois Professor of the Humanities and the Director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University.
Visit the Faculty Home Page for Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. at Harvard University
Read more about Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. at the Stanford Presidential Lectures in the Humanities and Arts website
Read excerpts of other titles by Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. at Amazon.com
Explore The Raymond & Rosa Parks Institute for Self-Development
Explore The Rosa Parks Portal, a comprehensive list of online resources on Rosa Parks
Read Rosa Parks biography at Academy of Achievement
Read Rosa Parks: The Woman Who Changed a Nation at Grandtimes.com
Read Black History: Rosa Parks from Thomson-Gale Free Resources
Rosa Parks: How I Fought for Civil Rights, an online activity from Scholastic.com Teachers'' Resources
Rosa Parks Lesson and Printable Activities from Enchantedlearning.com
Zora Neale Hurston:
Explore the University of Central Florida Zora Neale Hurston Digital Archive, an academic web site that provides a repository of biographical, critical, and contextual materials related to Hurston''s life and work
Explore The Zora Neale Hurston Plays at the Library of Congress
Listen to Zora Neale Hurston sound recordings from the 1930s, at The Florida Memory Project
Discover Zora Neale Hurston Quotes at About.com
Read Black History: Zora Neale Hurston from Thomson-Gale Free Resources
Read an excerpt of Their Eyes Were Watching God at HarperCollins.com
Check out the Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities
Read Zora Neale Hurston''s writings online at Project Gutenberg
Zora Neale Hurston Lesson Plans at The Florida Memory Project
Explore the Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) Teacher Resource File at James Madison University