A Letter from Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Editor in Chief of the African American National Biography
Why study African American biography and genealogy? I mean, it is perfectly irrelevant, in one sense, what one's ancestors did a century or two ago. The fact that my great-great-great-great-grandfather was an excellent casket-maker has no bearing on my life, at least none that I can immediately perceive. But of course that's not the point. Understanding our history, as Americans and as African Americans, can sometimes help us to imagine our future—our future as individuals, our future as a people.
After all, a people's historical narrative can only consist of a summary of the voices that created that history. And if our voices have been silenced or excluded, how can the black voice testify to what we have done, what we have seen, what we have heard since our ancestors first landed in this country in the early 1600s? How else can we testify to how we got through the thicket and morass of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, the war for our Civil Rights, and beyond? Embracing our individual family histories enables us to expand the collective narrative of America, helping all of us to understand that the founding of this republic was not only red, white, and blue, it was also, indelibly, black.
There a million little stories that make up a black family's tree. Stories of washerwomen and sharecroppers, teachers and farmers, soldiers, slaves, musicians, business people. And each of these is a huge story for us individually and for our families. Collectively, they make up the narrative of our people. These are the people who got over slavery and segregation, lynchings and poll taxes. This is how we survived. This is how we overcame tremendously difficult odds to emerge as a people.
We can never forget that there are many large trends in black history, but normal, regular black people lived their lives, too, each and every day. They loved and hated, worshipped and sinned, worried and hoped. They were defeated, yet they triumphed. Together, they created a culture, one of the world's great cultures; they made a world with its own language, its own sacred and profane institutions, its own art and music and literature and dancing, its own ways of walking and thinking, shucking and jiving, dissipating and aspiring. They are the people who met the daily struggles of everyday life—the ordinary struggles that all human beings face—and I think a lot of the history books miss that.
This is why I and other like-minded scholars have worked together to create major large-scale projects in African American history, biography, and genealogy. And it is this impulse—to record the ordinary struggles of everyday life and to rescue the lost stories of our American and African American past—that has led to the compilation of the largest collection of black lives in existence, the African American National Biography.
With all best wishes,
Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Editor in Chief
African American National Biography