Black Stars of the Harlem Renaissance
by Jim Haskins, Elanora Tate, Clinton Cox, and Brenda Wilkinson. 2002.
Ok, time for a rant. I haven't ranted in a while, have I? Well, maybe. Even so, a rant is due so here it is:
The chapter on Du Bois: Do we have a reliable narrator? Du Bois is introduced as “one of the greatest scholars the world has ever known.” First we have the issue of a lose definition of scholar (what is a scholar, exactly?), and then the absurd grandiosity of the superlative. "Greatest World Scholar!" So Du Bois should be canonized with historical and world scholars such as Aristotle, Plato, Hegel, Hume, etc? Or is the author introducing us to a figure who is made larger than life with exaggeration? Acceptable in a Tall Tale, but not in a biography.
Ok, on to pg. 7: it’s said that Du Bois has an academic career that claims nationwide attention. Yet the development, the “proof” to back up his "nationwide attention" is that he taught English, Latin, Greek, and German at the university level. I know a handful of Classics professors ... sadly, they don't get much attention, locally or nationally. The author then follows up that "nationwide" claim with details of Du Bois' marriage and kids. No development of his scholarship, what this "attention" consisted of, or anything else of real interest.
In fact, Du Bois' ambivalence toward Nazi Germany is entirely ignored, and his strong beliefs against racial integration never mentioned. I found more detail at Wikipedia than I did in this chapter! Even children deserve 1. the facts and 2. the truth at age/developmentally appropriate levels.
Most other biographies: these sketches are so short. I found myself irritated by the lack of interesting detail and by the inclusion of mundane this-is-what-I-read-in-the-encyclopedia factoids. The sketches don’t live and breathe, they gloss over an entire life in sometimes the boringest possible way, with broad and often clumsy brush strokes that, because of the first line of the first sketch and huge omissions of facts, make me want to double check all the facts. Very text-book-y.
Yet the book is uneven. The section on Langston Hughes was interesting and vivid. It didn’t have the broad-brush feel some of the other sketches had. Hmmm. Which makes me ask if there is a problem with the book as a whole, or an issue common to a multi-authored book. Perhaps some authors are better at research/writing/clarity/intellectual integrity than others?
I also noticed that many of the books referenced in the notes are secondary sources at best. Honestly, I wish I'd seen Wikipedia referenced - there might have been more details!