Famous American Negroes by Langston Hughes

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Form and Content

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

Langston Hughes’s Famous American Negroes is a collection of brief biographical essays highlighting the individual achievements of seventeen African Americans who have contributed to the history and development of the United States. Beginning with the poet Phillis Wheatley, who was born about 1753, and ending with the baseball player Jackie Robinson, who was still alive when this book was published, Hughes has created a highly selective list that is intended to be representative of the range of African-American achievement rather than an exhaustive study. The general format followed in other works in this series, known as “Famous Biographies for Young People,” is an obvious influence in the form followed by Hughes.

Hughes covers the two centuries of the nation’s existence in a series of chapters placing each historical figure’s achievements against the backdrop of United States history as it is traditionally taught. Figures such as Ira Aldridge, a nineteenth century actor, and Charles C. Spaulding, an insurance executive whose life spanned the Reconstruction era and the first half of the twentieth century, are not well known to the general public, having been excluded from generally used textbooks. Nevertheless, these individuals are afforded the same careful treatment as such famous figures as Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver.

Each of the seventeen chapters takes a narrative form, usually beginning with the circumstances surrounding the subject’s birth, when these are known. National history provides the context against which personal accomplishments can be viewed, and international recognition is noted when appropriate to the life story presented, as in the stories of artists such as Aldridge, Henry Ossawa Tanner, and Marian Anderson. Anecdotes, quotations, and personal family material are spread throughout, giving the impression more of storytelling than of exposition, although background material and explanations of the conditions of African-American life in the United States provide a balance of interpretation to fill in the narrative outlines.

The illustrations, consisting of contemporary photographs of twentieth century subjects and photographs of paintings or sketches of the earlier figures, are clustered together in one section of the book. Hughes does not provide notes or a bibliography, but the index of names and titles is thorough. The introduction to the volume reveals to the reader an African-American heritage on the North American continent that is outside slavery. It includes a few brief stories of exploratory expeditions and an emphatic reminder of the lives of free African Americans and those who escaped from slavery; the sacrifice...

(The entire section is 608 words.)