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story of the negro

21 january 2023

In 1922, Hendrik Willem van Loon won the inaugural Newbery Medal for The Story of Mankind. In 1949, Arna Bontemps would be a Newbery runner-up with Story of the Negro, a book whose title seems a rejoinder to van Loon. Bontemps was the first African-American writer to win any kind of Newbery mention; it would be another 26 years before Virginia Hamilton would become the first to win a Medal.

I hadn't read The Story of Mankind since I was a pre-teen. I imagined it must have been a draughty wheeze about the cleverness of Western white men. And when I took a quick look recently, van Loon's book does go in for a lot of that. But it holds up better after a century than you might think. It's an elegant narrative, with a wry sense of humor, and it's fairly progressive.

But it's still about white people. Africans barely come into van Loon's story, except as the subjects of slavery (which he scathingly disapproved of) and emancipation (which he naturally approved of); and both are treated as things that mainly concerned white people.

Bontemps' Story of the Negro, by contrast, makes white people tangential to black history. Bontemps' book doesn't seem particularly dated, except maybe in terms of gender, 75 years on. I learned new things from it and I imagine most readers, child or adult, would.

One of Bontemps' themes is the diversity of black experience: diversity among Africans, diversity among the experiences of the enslaved, diversity of life experiences among African-Americans throughout history. (Story of the Negro looks for a while at Africa and then briefly at Haiti, but it's mostly about the United States.)

Bontemps posits that racism was alien to early-modern European thought until the advent of European slave empires, which taught white people to think of black people as inferior because they were enslaved, not the reverse. And he is no-nonsense about the realities of slavery. It might not have meant constant abjection – the experiences of many dissident slaves and freed people show that thought and struggle were frequent – but "There were no slaves who did not want to be free. There were no contented slaves" (122).

Story of the Negro still follows the van Loon model in that it's largely an All-Star version of history: miniature biographies of one great man after another. And indeed most of the heroes are men, though Phillis Wheatley and Harriet Tubman make appearances. So do a few white allies: William Lloyd Garrison, Abraham Lincoln, and Wendell Willkie – a strong advocate for civil rights who had died not long before Story of the Negro was published.

Story of the Negro was revised and reissued in 1955, but I got the original edition because that's the one the Newbery jury cited in 1949.

Bontemps, Arna. Story of the Negro. Illustrated by Raymond Lufkin. New York: Knopf, 1948.