Black Lives: Essays in African American Biography

Article excerpt

Black Lives: Essays in African American Biography, edited by James L. Conyers, Jr. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 1999. 222 pp. $19.95, paper.

Reviewed by Irene E. McHenry, Fielding Graduate Institute and Friends Council on Education.

Black Lives is a vivid, varied and remarkable collection of 15 scholars' work, which individually and collectively makes a significant contribution to studies in African American history, culture, and literature. This collection strengthens the legacy of African American biography by providing fresh perspectives on the global impact of the Black experience and significantly adds to the literature on the contributions from the Black community in America. Edited by James Conyers, Jr. and devoted to the study of African American biography and culture from an Afrocentric perspective, this richly diverse collection evidences Conyers' scholarly background as an educator, researcher, and author of considerable works in African American history and sociology.

The manuscripts in Black Lives are arranged in three broad categories: intellectual studies; literary studies, grouped as cultural biography; and, oral history narratives and the use of biography as a teaching tool. This three-part organization provides the reader with common themes for the otherwise diverse methods, theories, cultures of inquiry, and writing styles used by the 15 authors in conducting and writing biographical studies. Individually, each essay is a unique discourse, which examines and amplifies the critical and substantial contributions of African American lived experience within the context of world history and culture. Collectively, the essays provide a view of the diversity and complexity of the African diaspora examined by African American scholars.

Conyers authors the lead essay in the collection, introducing the section on intellectual biography with a focus on the life and work of Maulana Karenga (1941- ), one of the leading Afrocentric thinkers in the 20" century. Conyers examines the genre of Black biography and addresses the issue of the hegemony of the Eurocentric perspective in writing biography while inviting the reader into a contextual analysis of Karenga's philosophical contributions from a social ecological perspective. The additional essays on intellectual biography are stimulating, informative and thought provoking, particularly with regard to delineating the limitations and biases of race, class, and gender that have been overcome by the men and women whose biographies appear in this collection. Calvin McClinton's inspirational essay examines the career of talented, hard-working Black theater director Vinnette Carrol (1922- ). While spotlighting Carrol as the creator of "the gospel song-play," McClinton paints a deep portrait of African American life in the creative arts of music, theater, and dance in 20th' century America. Earnest Bracey's affable narrative on the legacy of the charismatic Daniel "Chappie" James, Jr. (1920-1978), the first African American four-star general in the United States Air Force, opens a broader discussion of Blacks in the military during World War II, the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Using journalistic evidence, Bracey deftly illustrates General James' legendary charisma, oratorical skills, controversial activism, and tremendous contributions against racial segregation in the military. The final essay in this section is Mitchell Katchun's provocative composition on the construction of historical memory and commemorative tradition as they relate to the shaping of the public biography of Richard Allen (1760-1831), the first bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church.

In a section on cultural biographies, five scholars review literary works of African American authors and provide new insights into their lives, careers, and writings. Gloria Randle poses an analysis of Toni Morrison's works centering on women characters in her novels who are outlaws in their collective Black communities. …