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The African American National Biography (Oxford African American Historical Reference) 1st Edition
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*Starred Review* African American lives are “collected and resurrected” in this impressive set, a product of the African American National Biography Project sponsored by the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research and Oxford University Press. The first few entries give some indication of its scope. The first entry is for an escaped slave known only as Aaron who became an antislavery lecturer in the North, and about whom almost nothing else is known; the second is for baseball great Hank Aaron; the third details the life of Jesse Aaron, a wood carver and folk artist who began making well-received “outsider” art late in his life.A supplement to the 24-volume American National Biography (Oxford, 1999), African American National Biography (AANB) records the contributions and achievements of more than 4,000 African Americans—slaves, architects, entertainers, dentists, political leaders, artists, poets, and activists. Just paging through the volumes offers some fascinating discoveries along with the essays on well-known figures. A sampling (600 biographies) of the lives in this project appeared earlier in African American Lives (Oxford, 2004). The 4,100 names included in AANB are selected from a database of more than 12,500 African American names compiled in the Barker Center at Harvard University. To capture the contributions of African Americans after World War II, and especially to cover the civil rights period, the editors have chosen to include living subjects, a departure from the practice of American National Biography. The editorial staff have also ensured that a range of spheres, including sports, music, education, politics, business, labor, and art, are represented and also that certain topics, such as the role of African Americans in exploration and settlement of the west and in science and technology, receive adequate coverage. More than one-fourth of the entries are for women. The format is alphabetical. The length of the articles varies from half of a (large) page to several pages, depending on the prominence of or available information on the person. Suggestions for further reading follow each signed entry, and the volumes are peppered with black-and-white photographs or illustrations. There are more than 1,700 contributors in all, listed in a directory appendix, and although their credentials are not provided, their article credits are. Barry Kernfeld, editor of the New Grove Dictionary of Jazz (Grove’s Dictionaries, 2001) wrote more than 100 of the entries for musicians, generally longer than those included in the New Grove. An “Index by Subject Area and Realm of Renown” and an “Index by Birthplace” facilitate access. The set closes with lists of African American prizewinners, medalists, members of Congress, and judges. African American National Biography will not eliminate all other publishing of biographical sources about African Americans. There will still be a need for specialized biographical sources, such as Early Black American Playwrights and Dramatic Writers: A Biographical Directory and Catalog of Plays, Films, and Broadcasting Scripts (Greenwood, 1990); and Black Conductors, by D. Antoinette Handy (Scarecrow, 1995). Some current reference works, such as Gale’s Who’s Who among Black Americans or the Contemporary Black Biography series, have many figures (some admittedly rather minor) not included here. However, AANB is a major new standard reference work that most libraries of any size will want to have. It is available online as part of Oxford’s African American Study Center (http://www.oxfordaasc.com/public/). --Margaret Power
"A powerful testament to our intelligence, integrity and commitment to excellence, traits often ignored by mainstream historians....This reference collection is a must-have for your library."
"Blows the dust off Black History Month."--Newsweek
"[A] Massive new biographical treasure chest." --Washington Post
"Impressive....a major new standard reference work that most libraries of any size will want to have."--Booklist, starred review
"Another major reference work that will add luster to Oxford University Press's reputation for serious scholarship. Given the set's obvious quality, the inclusiveness of its coverage, and the importance of African American Biography as a reflection of American history, libraries of all types would be wise to consider it."--Against the Grain
"I have always admired the great work of Editor-in-Chief, Henry Louis Gates. The volumes will remain among my treasured displays."--Linda Johnson Rice, President and Chief Executive Officer, Johnson Publishing Company
"This set, a monumental creation, is now the definitive black biographical database....Either the print or the online version should be a crucial purchase....Highly recommended. All levels."--CHOICE
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Top Customer Reviews
There are two significant problems, however.
Many entries have already become dated, and in the process, lack critical biographical information. For instance, the entry on Sam Gilliam fails to mention his 2005 retrospective at the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the massive accompanying catalogue. That catalogue is the most detailed look at his life and work. This may be related to the considerable amount of time it has taken for this work to be published.
The binding of this set is glued, not sewn. For a title that retails for $100 a volume, and that will be heavily used in public libraries for the next couple decades, this is simply unacceptable. I'm sure that I'll be sending my library's copy off to the bindery in five or ten years at the most.
If not for the above issues, I'd give this title five stars. I just hope that the second edition, these issues are resolved.