In 1835 Susan Paul, Boston teacher and biographer, made literary history. She published Memoir of James Jackson: The Attentive and Obedient Scholar Who Died in Boston, October 31 1833, Aged Six Years and Eleven Months. This memorial text is believed to be the first biography of a person of African descent published in the United States. Moreover, it appeared some ten years before Frederick Douglass's epoch-making Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), twenty years before the first black American novel, William Wells Brown's Clotel, or the President's Daughter (1853), and nearly thirty before Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs's amazing story of enslavement, abuse, romance and escape. This was not, however, a wholly unexpected event. Paul's narration of young James Jackson's life was just one more significant effort on the part of blacks who were struggling to resist the tendency to treat their lives lightly. Like Phillis Wheatley and Olaudah Equiano, Jupiter Hammon and Solomon Northrup, Susan Paul insisted on valuing the specificity of James Jackson's life experience even as she celebrated the vibrant black antebellum community in which he lived.
Biography operates then in much the same way as autobiography. Stories of unique individuals struggling for and within their communities have been particularly important for black people because of the way life writing specifically challenges the notion that blacks lack intelligence, culture, and individuality. Unlike autobiography, however, the black biographer is free to present his or her subject as exemplary, even saintly. Thus Paul's treatment of Jackson's life tends to present seemingly mundane aspects of the young boy's life (his education, for example) as exemplary and perhaps even unexpected.
It was this celebratory aesthetic that dominated black American biographies throughout much of the nineteenth century. Often the emphasis was less on telling the story of truly exceptional individuals than on creating black social registries in which any type of accomplishment deserved recognition. William C. Nell's Colored Patriots of the American Revolution, With Sketches of Several Distinguished Colored Persons to Which is Added a Brief Survey of the Condition and Prospects of Colored Americans is a text that briefly treats dozens of individuals: Crispus Attucks, Primus Hall, Paul Cuffe, David Ruggles, Oliver Cromwell, James Forten, Benjamin Banneker, Frances Ellen Watkins, and Denmark Vesey, among many others. Clearly Nell was attempting to establish a basic architecture for students of black American history and culture with his broad efforts to name names within the emerging black public sphere. This effort was followed by Williams Wells Brown's 1863 The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements. In the same vein William Still published The Underground Railroad: A Record of Facts, Authentic Narratives, Letters in 1872. This nineteenth-century tradition of brief treatments of many individuals probably reached its zenith with Rev. William J. Simmons's Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising, published in 1887. This was a 1,400-page volume that included 177 biographical sketches of blacks who had achieved distinction as professionals and race leaders, including slave rebels and postbellum politicians. By the latter part of the nineteenth century, however, biographers began to turn to new forms in their efforts to demonstrate the strength and diversity of black communities.
In 1886 Sarah H. Bradford published Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman and Harriet: The Moses of Her People, texts that represented significant new departures for black biography. While these works lacked basic information about Tubman's life and were largely based on information that Bradford gained from Tubman herself, they nonetheless broke new ground by focusing on a single, exceptional woman. Many more such biographies would be published over the course of both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. More to the point, from the late nineteenth century forward we see much more emphasis by biographers on singular, even heroic black persons. While texts treating the lives of multiple individuals continued—and continue—to be published, at the turn of the century a new orientation in black biography could be seen. It was represented by the work of persons like the famed black American writer Charles W. Chesnutt, who published Frederick Douglass in 1899. This effort was followed by Booker T. Washington's own Frederick Douglass, published in 1907, Shirley Graham's 1947 work, There Was Once a Slave: The Heroic Story of Frederick Douglass, and Benjamin Quarles's Frederick Douglass published a year later. Clearly, then, twentieth-century biographers revived some of the spirit of Susan Paul as they once again produced texts that privileged the life experiences and psychologies of individuals.
The release of Langston Hughes's Famous American Negroes in 1954 represented a significant turning point in the professionalization and commercialization of black biography. Published in the same year as the Supreme Court's landmark desegregation ruling, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Hughes's text was one of several written during the mid-twentieth century designed to represent the lives of modern, forward-thinking, and cosmopolitan blacks. Richard Bardolph published The Negro Vanguard in 1959 explicitly to celebrate the most successful among black Americans. John A. Williams's 1970 work, The Most Native of Sons: A Biography of Richard Wright, helped solidify the reputation of the man thought to be the most significant black writer of his generation. Michel Fabre followed this with The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright in 1973. At the same time, by the late 1960s and early 1970s black nationalists were also using biography as a way to celebrate the lives and efforts of previous generations of nationalist intellectuals and activists. Examples of these efforts are Victor Ullman's work, Martin R. Delany: The Beginnings of Black Nationalism, published in 1971, and Cyril E. Griffith's 1975 text, The African Dream: Martin R. Delany and the Emergence of Pan-African Thought.
By the early nineteen eighties hundreds of biographies of black persons had been published, so much so that some of the nation's most prominent historians began to produce work that synthesized the abundant data available for biographers and other students of black history and culture. Thus at precisely the moment when biographies of blacks became altogether common, many prominent historians produced "group biographies" that were similar, in many ways, to those of the nineteenth century. In 1982 alone Howard Rabinowitz's edited volume, Southern Black Leaders of the Reconstruction Era, appeared with John Hope Franklin and August Meier's text, Black Leaders of the Twentieth Century, as well as Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston's Dictionary of American Negro Biography.
These were followed by studies of black individuals that have now become standard parts of the American historical archive: Louis R. Harlan published Booker T. Washington: The Wizard of Tuskegee in 1983. Faith Berry's controversial work Langston Hughes: Before and Beyond Harlem came out that same year. Nellie McKay's Jean Toomer, Artist: A Study of His Literary Life and Work followed in 1984, as did Waldo Martin's The Mind of Frederick Douglass. Even more significantly, Arnold Rampersad published extended treatments of the black American writer, Langston Hughes, The Life of Langston Hughes, Vol I: I, Too, Sing America (1986) and The Life of Langston Hughes Volume II: I Dream a World (1988). Faith Berry and Arnold Rampersad's work demonstrated some of the stakes involved in the production of black biography as the two authors grappled with the question of Hughes's sexuality. Berry suggested that Hughes was homosexual, while Rampersad maintained that the evidence pointed to Hughes' asexuality. This topic would be of only passing interest if it did not speak directly to the question of whether biographies should be designed first and foremost to celebrate remarkable individuals or instead to undress them, to reveal both their good and bad attributes, in an effort to understand better their motivations and their genius.
All of these questions were perhaps most richly explored in the work of historian, David Garrow, whose 1996 text, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was remarkably thorough, so much so that many believed that King's reputation as a race leader and a man of God was tarnished. David Levering Lewis suffered less criticism for his works, W. E. B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, published in 1993 and W. E. B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, published in 2000. Again, however, he did reveal information about Du Bois's personal and professional life that firmly established the innate humanity–and fallibility–of the famed race leader. Still, the fact that both Garrow and Lewis won Pulitzer Prizes for their works demonstrated that black biography (warts and all) had been fully integrated into the main currents of American high culture.
It is important to note that the "tell-all" orientation within black biographical writing, represented by the controversies surrounding the works of Berry, Rampersad, and Garrow did not come out of nowhere. In 1988 Margaret Walker published Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius, a text that many took to be a scandalous treatment of Wright's life. Thus, from that moment forward it became clear that the days of fully laudatory biographies of black individuals were over. In her work, Walker, an extremely significant poet and novelist in her own right, suggested that the more well known Richard Wright was misogynistic, homophobic, and bisexual to boot. Thus, even though Walker published in the same year that saw the release of Leon Litwack and August Meier's much more respectful edited volume, Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century, one can see a pronounced shift in tone during this period. Martin Duberman's 1989 study of the performer and activist Paul Robeson, Paul Robeson: A Biography, demonstrated the man in all his complexity, including the mental and emotional battles that he suffered in both private and public life. The same was true of Bruce Perry's controversial 1991 work, Malcolm: The Life of a Man Who Changed America, Jill Watts's 1992 God, Harlem, U.S.A.: The Father Divine Story, and David Leeming's 1997 text, James Baldwin: A Biography. Perhaps no biographer went quite as far, however, as did Nell Irvin Painter whose work, Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol, challenged many of the myths surrounding Truth, including the widespread belief that she rescued a group of white feminists from male hostility with her famed "Ain't I a Woman" speech.
In the contemporary era a rather encouraging emphasis on the necessity of reclaiming the lives of more recent black intellectuals and activists can be seen. In particular, there has been a surprising amount of recent work that examines the lives of important American activists and intellectuals of the 1940s through 1970s. In 1999 Chana Kai Lee published her treatment of activist and founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, Fannie Lou Hamer, For Freedom's Sake: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer. Hazel Rowley published Richard Wright: The Life and Times in 2001. Lawrence Jackson published Ralph Ellison: Emergence of Genius in 2002. Barbara Ransby followed with Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision while John D'Emilio released his masterful work, Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin that same year. D'Emilio's text not only examined Rustin's extremely important contributions to the civil rights and anti-war movements, but also dealt in some detail with Rustin's homosexuality, including his infamous arrest in Pasadena on a morals charge.
It is stunning to see not only how much energy continues to be expended telling the story of black people through the example of individual persons but also how very successful the writing of black biographies has become. Geoffrey C. Ward's 2004 study of boxer Jack Johnson, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson sold wildly and was quickly adapted as a public television special. At the same time Henry Louis Gates and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham's edited volume African American Lives, published in 2004, also promises to be a briskly selling work even as it returns to the tradition of mini-biographies that was first introduced in the nineteenth century. The writing of black biography has come quite a long way since Ms. Paul's humble efforts to memorialize the life of her young student, James Jackson. It seems, then, that biographers have only just begun to test the many possibilities inherent in this important literary form.
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robert reid-pharr (2005)