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COMMENT: Kennell Jackson, History Department (415) 723-1679

Professor publishes new book on black American history

STANFORD -- After working on his new book, America Is Me, for 10 months straight, Kennell Jackson thought he'd finally finished the manuscript. Then the history professor was invited to dinner by friends in Palo Alto.

"It was an older, multiracial group," Jackson recalls. "After the dishes were cleared, this one gentleman raised his hand and said, 'You're going to have a lot about Muhammad Ali in your book, aren't you?' "

"Well, I'd done a good bit on Joe Louis and figured I'd pretty much covered boxing - so, in fact, I didn't have anything on Ali. But I said, 'Oh, yes, of course,' and then raced home and wrote it."

That's been the story of Kennell Jackson's life for the past few years, as the associate professor of history has tried to decide how much material he could include in his new volume, and how timely it could be. Published this month by HarperCollins, America Is Me features 170 answers to the most commonly asked questions about black American history.

Jackson, who served as director of Stanford's undergraduate program in African and Afro-American studies for most of the 1980s, frequently is invited to talk to high school classes and to address civic groups. His book grows out of 15 years he spent "on the road," lecturing and fielding questions from audiences.

"Basically, it's about blacks in America, what they brought here, how they've been transformed and how they have transformed the country," Jackson said. "There are essays on virtually every kind of ideology that there is among blacks."

Though it contains some criticism, "mostly it's laid out on its own terms. It's not a partisan book in any way, but an attempt to engage people's attention," he said.

Jackson's research for the book took him to coastal West Africa, the Caribbean, Virginia and New York City, among other destinations. He talked with Yoruba villagers in Nigeria and with jazz musicians in the Big Apple. As he dug into the work of such prominent contemporary thinkers as Henry Louis Gates Jr., Cornel West and bell hooks, Jackson researched the role of women in black history, controversies about the Black Panther Party and ideologies of Afrocentricism and black conservatism.

The resulting 432 pages provide an accessible introduction to black American history from the time of blacks' enslavement in Africa to their achievements of the present day. It's a popular account that includes rap music, Spike Lee and Clarence Thomas, as well as the Harlem Renaissance and the Freedom Riders.

As he worked on the book, Jackson says he kept a sign posted on the wall behind his desk that read: "Nuts and bolts first." The basic information - names, dates, achievements, controversies - always had to be included, he said, before he could wander down any literary or cultural byways. In the process of doing foundational research, he often turned up unexpectedly rich historical nuggets.

"I read a lot of really great essays and poems and remembrances that I had never seen included anywhere else," Jackson said. "Take Phillis Wheatley, for example. I don't think people really read her poetry, but tend to think of it as old-fashioned stuff about Christianity and redemption.

"What you find on a closer reading is the covertness of her ideology, how she slips in things about slavery and the equality of blacks in Christianity. You come away from reading her work with a far different sense of her than you had from looking at it from afar."

As the publisher's deadline approached, Jackson realized he could not include everything he'd hoped to. The material he'd collected on black domestics, break dancing and the "fascination of black Americans with cars," for example, will have to wait for another volume.

In the meantime, Jackson plans to pursue several issues that came to intrigue him in the course of researching America Is Me.

"One of the groups of people I became really interested in was the free blacks," he said. "While they lived a pretty precarious existence, they were a spirited, energetic lot who left behind a distinguished array of accomplishments. A lot of black institutions, like the Bethel African American Methodist Episcopal Church, grew out of free black society, and I think they set the model for middle-class black achievement to this day."

Jackson also hopes to explore the impact of blues and jazz music in this country and elsewhere.

"The metaphor of blues as a state of sorrowful reflection and of jazz as a kind of fluid, ever-changing, completely new sound has played a great role in making us a modern people," Jackson said. "Americans tend to think of black popular culture as an American form, but, in fact, for the 20th century it has been an international force that has played a role in formulating our ideas of modernity."

As he looks to future courses that might grow out of his research, Jackson said he's more conscious of the role that historians must play in contemporary society.

"When I was in college, there were a number of great public writers - historians who wrote and were published in the public, but also had academic standing.

"I don't think that interaction with the public is as clear cut on the part of historians these days, and one consequence it has had in black history is that a lot of the things that are presented in this new book are examples of the kinds of things that have been known and stockpiled in universities for more than 20 years."



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