Life Upon These Shores: Looking at African American History, 1513-2008

By Henry Louis Gates Jr.; Knopf

This hefty, bounteously illustrated coffee-table book looks and feels very much like the sort of tome Time-Life Books might have offered more than 50 years ago—if the Luce magazine empire had seen fit back then to expand writer-photographer Gordon Parks’ eye-opening work on civil rights and racism for Life into book form. (As it is, Parks gets his own full-fledged entry here.)

Life Upon These Shores makes no direct claim to be a definitive history of black America, but it packs a distinct vibe of comprehensiveness. It is a glossy, chronological digest of events, significant and obscure, from the earliest known records of the Atlantic slave trade to the inauguration of Barack Obama. Gates, who may be the only intellectual-of-color with a brand name large enough to promote so ambitious an enterprise, starts off by capably—and carefully— assembling a rich, yet brisk narrative of the Middle Passage and how the United States came to end up virtually alone among “civilized nations” in perpetuating the “peculiar institution” of slavery.

Gates then makes the customary stops en route to emancipation—Nat Turner’s rebellion, the Dred Scott decision, the Underground Railroad, Uncle Tom’s Cabin—without neglecting the roles black activists played in the abolitionist movement. Nor does he overlook the presence of ex-slaves and other black adventurers in the California gold rush. The Amistad slave ship rebellion of 1839 shares a section with the lesser-known 1841 uprising aboard the Creole. Rescuing from obscurity such antebellum celebrities as vocalist Elizabeth T. Greenfield, “The Black Swan,” whose international renown didn’t keep racists from haranguing her or her audiences, Gates juxtaposes the literary triumphs of escaped slaves Frederick Douglass and William Wells Brown with the tribulations of Anthony Burns, who escaped slavery for gainful employment in Boston only to be arrested and tried as a fugitive.

Most of Life Upon These Shores sustains its narrative power from the perpetual tension in African-American history between advancement and setback: between the false spring of Reconstruction and its abrupt, brutally persistent rollback; between grotesque caricatures of black faces at the turn of the 20th century and simultaneous, less-conspicuous efforts to depict the “new negroes” of what would soon be known as “the talented tenth”; between resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s and that decade’s blooming of black artistic talent across the cultural spectrum. Some of those ironies strike home directly: The seeming apotheosis of the 1963 March on Washington took place a month before the murder of four black girls by racists bombing their Alabama church. Others intrigue, if bewilder: Gates pairs Martin Luther King’s Nobel Prize with Amiri Baraka’s groundbreaking critical history, Blues People.

The author waylays his blend of paradox and irony only toward the climax, when with insistent triumphalism he ushers in Spike Lee, black astronauts, Prince, Toni Morrison and, of course, the incumbent president, leaving only Hurricane Katrina and (maybe) Clarence Thomas as discordant notes.


Originally published in the April 2012 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.