A great way to celebrate Black History Month is with a good book. Of the many and varied history books by or about people of African descent that the African American Book Discussion Group of Rockville Memorial Library has read and discussed over the past 15 years, there are three that stood out for me. These three history books illuminate the central role people of African descent have played in the development of European and American history. Also, let me take this opportunity to invite you to join our Rockville Memorial book group or one of the other African American book discussions groups that meet at branches throughout the County.
The first one is entitled, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed. If ever there was a history book that read like a novel, this is one. Gordon-Reed won the National Book Award and is the first African American ever to win the Pulitzer Prize in History for this work on the family of Sally Hemings, a slave girl, and Thomas Jefferson, one of America’s founding fathers and the author of The Declaration of Independence. Many of us have seen Sally Hemings: An American Scandal, the romanticized television mini-series and/or read Barbara Chase-Riboud’s noteworthy historical fiction novel Sally Hemings, but neither of these come close to revealing the historical facts detailed in Gordon-Reeds book. We learned not only that Sally was Jefferson’s first wife’s half-sister, but that he had his own sister send Sally to him in Paris, where he was on U.S. business, when she was only 14. Not only did Sally and Thomas have six children together, but Sally ran the mansion at Monticello and sat at the table with statesmen and their wives when they were invited to lavish dinners. Reading the Hemingses of Monticello is like taking a roller-coaster ride through American history.
The second history book that stood out for me is The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migrationby Isabel Wilkerson. Richard Wright, the notable Harlem Renaissance author, wrote a poem in which he speaks of having to leave home because conditions are so harsh, he has to seek “the warmth of other suns,” in order to survive. Wilkerson tells us that in the neighborhood of 6,000,000 African American men, women and children migrated from the southern states to northern cities from 1915 to 1970 in order to seek better living conditions, better education and better chances for survival away from mob lynching. Not only did Wilkerson’s research provide new data to support the great migration event, it also provided proof of the impact that the black immigrants had on American history, e.g., Franklin Delano Roosevelt won a narrow victory in an important election in 1944 by the extra votes of new black immigrants to the north who were voting for the first time. There was much discussion in the book group about members whose families had migrated to Maryland from the south.
Third and last is Black Count: Glory Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss, which won the 2013 Pulitzer for biography. Just about everyone is aware of The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, and other stories by Alexander Dumas. What you might not know is that Alexander Dumas’ father, General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas Davy de la Pailleterie (or Alex Dumas, as he preferred to be called) was one of the highest ranking men of African descent in a European army. It was General Dumas’ mother who was a slave on a Haitian planation owned by his father, the French Count Marquis Alexandre Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie. General Alex Dumas fought in the French Revolutionary war and in Africa under Napoleon Bonaparte who, Reiss discovered, was instrumental in seeing to it that Alex Dumas’ contributions to the success of the French army was buried. Reiss’ meticulous research into the man that inspired The Three Musketeers and other novels resurrected General Alex Dumas’ phenomenal history and makes it clear why the name Dumas is one of the many chiseled into the Arc d’Triump in Paris.
To learn more about African American history and experiences, listen to our Library Matters podcast episode all about African American literature. I was a guest on the episode along with Silver Spring librarian Christian Wilson.