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African-American Portraits in Focus

AFRICAN AMERICAN: PORTRAIT OF A PEOPLE Edited by Kenneth Estell Visible Ink Press 793 pp., $18.95 paper.

IN the introduction to ``African America: Portrait of a People,'' editor Kenneth Estell explains that his book's purpose is to illustrate and demystify ``the moving, difficult, and often lost history of black life in America.''

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For the most part, Estell succeeds in this endeavor by providing a single volume - a condensed version of his earlier ``African-American Almanac'' - that thoughtfully addresses the challenges and triumphs of black Americans during the last 400 years.

The book's 18 chapters, each written by a scholar or specialist, provide background essays and concise biographies of key figures in areas ranging from civil rights to classical music.

Particularly thought-provoking are the essays, which place events and people in context and outline ongoing problems of discrimination.

Browsing through the pages of ``African America,'' one can read about the Harlem Renaissance, the period between World War I and World War II in which African-American literature and art flourished; inventor Andrew J. Beard, whose ``Jenny Coupler'' device made connecting railroad cars safer; or A. Philip Randolph, who founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and fought against unfair labor practices.

The book's index is generally a helpful tool, but is not as complete as it could be, occasionally omitting topics and names in the text. The editing between chapters is also sometimes inconsistent, with the same event, for instance, being referred to in several different ways.

These small faults, however, do not detract from the overall readability of ``African America.'' With its informative text and black-and-white photographs, this book will suit the needs of any reader interested in the history of African-Americans.

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