This collection of biographies addresses a general audience, including both youths and adults. Each portrait is historically accurate, though general, and moves swiftly to its conclusion. Although the obvious purpose is to teach, each story contains enough suspenseful narrative and colorful detail to mask the didacticism. Thus, Famous American Negroes serves as a basic introduction to African-American influence before the Civil Rights movement.
Hughes’s introduction is vital to an understanding of his approach. Primarily, what he calls “the History of the American Negro” is not to be built around slave origins. He assumes that his 1954 white audience, still attending segregated schools, has little insight into the African-American experience and thus has limited its view to the context of slavery and the Civil War. Although he does not dwell upon this context, he does include Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, whose importance is directly related to slavery. His purpose appears to be twofold: to teach readers that African Americans have been successful despite hardships in every historical context, and to assert the interaction of minority success and progress in society. Hughes hints at pan-Africanism, but he follows custom in emphasizing a “Negro” dimension to United States history.
Each portrait is described as an interweaving of the person’s internal direction and external circumstances. From these components, Hughes creates unified segments and consistency for the group. Hughes clarifies his choice of subjects and lists other possibilities for proving an African-American presence in American history. His awareness of a distinctly American Negro influence in this developing democracy provides background for the emphasis on individual achievement in the body of the work.
On Hughes’s list are some figures traditionally named in both United States history and Afrocentric studies: Wheatley, Douglass, Tubman, Washington, Carver, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Anderson, and Robinson. Others are lesser known but also noteworthy: a Philadelphia religious leader, a Chicago physician, an expatriate actor, a religious artist, a Chicago newspaper editor and publisher, a composer initiating professional acceptance of the blues tradition, and a successful businessman. Two political figures are also introduced: A. Philip Randolph, an equal-rights activist before the Civil Rights movement, and Dr. Ralph Bunche, an international diplomat. The book’s discernible theme is to portray contributions to Negro America combined with influence beyond race.
Personal details enliven these sketches of flesh-and-blood humans, even those who have achieved mythic status, such as Douglass, Tubman, Carver, and Washington. Descriptions of hardship are central to Hughes’s purpose, although not to the neglect of triumphs, and are presented as obstacles already overcome rather than as excuses. The infamous snub of Anderson by...
(The entire section is 655 words.)