Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 680
Bontemps presents his twelve subjects with enthusiasm and a clear intention to inspire readers. He refrains from didacticism or sentimentality, letting the subjects’ courage and perseverance tell their own stories. The book emphasizes problem-solving and determination—with or without family support. There are a number of orphans and displaced children among these individuals; opposition seems to fuel them.
More than any other factor, education makes the difference between success and failure, a fact that is no doubt an object lesson to young readers. All these people sought higher education, often at great sacrifice. Their early circumstances were at best ordinary (only one or two came from families with any degree of wealth); most faced overwhelming disadvantages. Readers will find these subjects—all under-dogs—easy to like and admire.
Bontemps presents his subjects’ ordeals and achievements in plain language. Reflecting contemporary racial designations, he uses the term “Negro” (and occasionally “African-American”) rather than “black.” The book is not negative toward whites, but rather toward those members of all races who practice discouragement and injustice. Only James LuValle, a track star from Los Angeles who grew up to work for Eastman Kodak, escaped the sting of prejudice in his childhood. For the other subjects, racial inequality was a fact of life.
The individuals’ curiosity often compensated for what could otherwise have been drab and suffocating lives. Emmett M. May was so eager to see the world that he became a sailor while still in his teens. Algernon P. Henry, yearning for contact outside his Long Island town, built radio sets and talked far into the night with friends he made on the airwaves from Nova Scotia and Montana. LuValle celebrated a track victory by doing calculus problems.
Community service was a priority with these individuals. Cayton became director of a Chicago rehabilitation house, and Beatrice Johnson believed that her nursing skills were best applied to her hometown of Brunswick, Georgia.
The personalities in this book are notable for their readiness to work hard; they accepted menial jobs if no other work was available and kept moving toward their goals. Their lives were not without disappointments and setbacks. Davis failed the West Point entrance examinations the first time around; Sylvestre C. Watkins was fired from his job at a bookselling company. Both men applied themselves with renewed energy and succeeded. All twelve men and women possessed ingenuity, willpower, and the ability to recognize opportunity. They are not presented as saints or superbeings; they are occasionally bewildered and despairing. The one constant—pursuit of education—is the overriding theme of the book, an implicit message to any young reader who might doubt its worth. Bontemps knows the value of detail, anecdote, and emotion in shaping an essay. Readers will long remember the story of Cayton, snubbed by classmates who refused to dance if an African American were on the dance floor. Humiliated, he spent the evening “talking casually” and trying to keep his friends from discussing what had happened. Pride and vulnerability, ever sharp in adolescence, run throughout these stories, along with the capacity to bounce back.
Each of the subjects sought challenge and experience, even if he or she was shy. Frail, pensive Blount impressed her employer at an upscale New York millinery by sheer industriousness, and her designs helped the company win the hat contract for the film Gone with the Wind (1939). Each chapter reveals personal qualities that engendered professional triumph. Not only hard work and training, but also flexibility and generosity, allowed the individual to rise. Johnson, heartbroken that her family had only enough money to send one child to college, discovered that the nursing program at Tuskegee Institute was affordable enough to permit her sister to attend college as well.
The book indicates that none of these people succeeded through luck or an unshaped natural talent. Certainly there was talent involved, and perhaps the luck of finding a mentor, but the individual’s own performance was the determining factor. At the time of the book’s writing, each of the twelve had reached a point where a career was assured.
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