'Black Saga' a milestone among guides to history

February 28, 1996|By GREGORY KANE

Black History Month officially ends tomorrow, but if you should happen upon a thick, 8 by 9 1/2 -inch book with a red cover as you cruise mall bookstores this weekend, pick it up anyway. The history buff within you will be forever grateful.

"Black Saga: The African-American Experience," written by University of Maryland College Park geography professor Charles M. Christian, is arguably the most comprehensive history book about African-Americans to date. Christian begins by giving a brief history of the western Sudan before 1492, tells of blacks who accompanied European explorers on their journeys to this hemisphere and then proceeds chronologically from there.

Black America's history is covered year by year -- through the horrors of slavery, to the violence used during and after Reconstruction to reduce African-Americans to economic and political peonage, and through the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s. The book covers the 1970s and 1980s and concludes in 1994, when the Florida Legislature granted reparations to the surviving residents of the town of Rosewood, where a white mob burned down the black community 71 years earlier and killed at least eight people.

Christian, by using the chronological approach, has done readers the favor of allowing them to look up any year for any event. Say, for example, you know of Nat Turner's rebellion but the year and exact place escape you. Simply turn to the index and look up "Nat Turner." Then go to pages 108 to 109, where you find the events listed in the year 1831. Turner's rebellion started Aug. 21 in Southampton County, Va., and was quickly hTC subdued. Turner was captured Oct. 30 of the same year and hanged Nov. 11.

"Black Saga" can be used as a simple reference book -- for U.S. history as well as African-American history. If you need to know what the Wilmot Proviso was and when it was proposed, "Black Saga" is a simple and quick source. If you're a high school student and your teacher assigns homework on the Kansas-Nebraska Act and, for example, the reactions of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln to it, a copy of "Black Saga" on the family bookshelf would come in handy.

African-American inventors are in "Black Saga," which will make it easier for blacks to rebuke scoffers such as Dinesh D'Souza -- he was mentioned at length in this column last week -- who called the claim that a black man invented the traffic light a "compensatory exaggeration."

But thanks to Christian, readers can look in the index under the name Garrett Morgan and then turn to page 333, where they'll learn that Morgan received a patent for the automated traffic light in 1923 and sold the rights to General Electric for $40,000. On page 307, they'll learn that Morgan also designed a gas mask in 1914. On page 309, readers will learn that Morgan used that gas mask two years later to rescue miners trapped after an explosion.

There's more bad news for the D'Souzas of the country: On page 261, they'll find that in 1881 Lewis Latimer received a patent for inventing the first incandescent electric light bulb with a carbon filament, "an improvement upon the incandescent electric lamp invented by Thomas Edison in 1879," Christian writes. The author also lays to rest the notion that blacks didn't resist slavery -- another of D'Souza's fantasies. A July 1844 revolt of 75 Maryland slaves from several counties is particularly revealing. They marched toward Pennsylvania before being surrounded by a mob at Rockville. Thirty-one were killed in a fight, but some managed to escape.

The author got the idea for his book while tracing his family history. His maternal great-grandmother, Dora Jeffrey, was only 7 years old when she was sold in a New Orleans slave market. His paternal ancestors were owned by South Carolina slaveholders Gideon and Carrie Christian, who emigrated to Texas in 1860.

"My family history did not occur in a vacuum," Christian said. "It was influenced by a whole host of things. I wanted to know the temporal, geographical and cultural contexts of events in my family's experiences. These were the parts missing in book after book as I searched for deeper understanding of the African-American experience."

Christian hopes his book allows African-Americans "[to] understand events and people who may have influenced [their] family history." At the very least, the book will help fill in some of those missing parts.

Gregory P. Kane's column appears Wednesdays and Saturdays.

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