Books Chapter & Verse

Henry Louis Gates Jr. discusses his mission to marvel with '100 Amazing Facts About the Negro'

'God put me on earth for many reasons, and one is to integrate the history of the human community by establishing the role that black people played,' he says.

'100 Amazing Facts About the Negro' is by Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Caption
  • Randy Dotinga

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is on a mission to marvel, inspired by a chance encounter nearly 50 years ago.

Back in the late 1960s, Yale University student Gates dropped by a campus co-op one day and ran across a paperback called "100 Amazing Facts About the Negro with Complete Proof: A Short Cut to the World History of the Negro."

His find entranced the future professor, author, and PBS show host. For decades at mid-century, a journalist named Joel A. Rogers had written multiple editions of the book, full of just what its title promised – remarkable tidbits about a people.

The revelations uncovered by Rogers became a source of pride in the African-American community, transforming him into what Gates calls "just about the only source of black history that a few generations had."

"His research was astonishing," Gates says. "He got some things wrong, but he got a lot of things right."

Gates never forgot the book and the lessons learned. In 2012, he began writing modern "Amazing Facts" columns for The Root, the online magazine for African-Americans where he served as editor-in-chief. Now, he's compiled his work in the new book "100 Amazing Facts About the Negro."

Among the facts:

–Only 388,000 Africans were shipped to the US during the entire slave trade; millions more went to other parts of the New World.

–The second president of Mexico was black; like Abraham Lincoln, he freed slaves and was assassinated.

–The first American black newspaper appeared in 1827, a black journalist was first to expose the Belgian atrocities in the Congo, and four percent of whites in the US have black ancestry within the past six generations.

"There are so many urban legends," Gates says. "It's more astonishing to print the truth." 

Q: Was the original "100 Amazing Facts" inspired by "Ripley's Believe It or Not!," Robert Ripley's collections of startling feats and phenomenon? 

It was viewed as a black version of "Ripley's," which I used to read in the funny papers. Rogers was very aware of Ripley. That's how he marketed it, and he wanted that comparison made. 

Q: What draws you to write about accomplishments of black people? 

God put me on earth for many reasons, and one is to integrate the history of the human community by establishing the role that black people played.

There are so many urban legends. It's more astonishing to print the truth. I've been with Mexican people and say, "Your second president was a black man." They say: "You're so funny! You have a great sense of humor." 

Q: What do you hope readers will take from your book? 

It's a mini-encyclopedia of African-American history, but in a fun, readable way, a book made for leisurely and loving reading.

I wanted to maintain and mimic the sense of wonder that Joel A. Rogers had. I imagine him at the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library, finding these facts, and saying, "Holy mackerel, no one will believe this!"

We still need to do books like this. Our society remains inadequately educated about the contributions of people of color, both in the United States and across the ocean on the African continent. Our cumulative knowledge of the black world is still tiny, a thimbleful compared to our cumulative knowledge of Europe.

We have to figure out how to change the archive, how to broaden access and change the larger narrative of who created America and who and what is an American. 

Q: Your book has the troublesome word "Negro" in the title, which will surely startle some book buyers, especially white ones. What's behind your title choice? 

If I were writing it as a new book, I'd use "African-Americans." But the only way that I can show respect for Joel A. Rogers and riff on him is to use that title.

Q: Did the rise of Donald Trump affect this book?

I'm sure that would have affected the mood, but this book was pre-Donald Trump. [The Root published "Amazing Facts" columns from 2012-2014.]

My response to the election of Donald Trump after eight years of Barack Obama is my next documentary for PBS about Reconstruction, a period of maximum black freedom followed by a rollback.

The rollback now is so intentional, just like it was during Reconstruction. Black men had this time of glorious freedom followed by a horrible rollback, and that's exactly what we're seeing. Forces in this country are trying to erase the hallmarks of the Obama administration, whether it's health care or voting rights.

I want to make this film, slated to air in February 2019, as a foreshadowing. 

Q: Have you thought about a sequel to "100 Amazing Facts about the Negro"? 

That's a great idea. If there's a popular response, I would love to do that. 

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