February of every year is Black History Month, and it's easy to tell when it's here because we're inundated with images of Martin Luther King Jr. and other celebrated African-Americans. All of it can seem mostly pro forma political correctness with little context and even less thought. But a new eight-volume set of books released this month, the African American National Biography (AANB), blows the dust off Black History Month by telling the stories of 4,080 black lives in America—past and present, famous and obscure. The series is edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of the Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He's also the creator of "African American Lives 2," on PBS throughout this month, and editor in chief of TheRoot.com, a new Web magazine about black issues published by NEWSWEEK's owner, The Washington Post Company. Gates spoke with NEWSWEEK'S Raina Kelley.
What is the African American National Biography?
It is the largest history-recovery project in African-American studies. We included people who were important in their time but have been stuck in suspended animation. Now they will never be lost again.
What are your favorite entries?
Richard Potter, a ventriloquist and magician, who became a millionaire in the 19th century. George Washington Bush, a frontiersman who settled in Washington Territory and was so respected by his white neighbors that they petitioned Congress to allow him to own land, which they did. The slave Onesimus, who told his master, Cotton Mather, that in Africa they take a little bit of smallpox and scratch it into the skin. That saved Mather's colony. Henry (Box) Brown was a slave who mailed himself in a crate to freedom. Then there was Cathay Williams, who cross-dressed and enlisted in the Buffalo Soldiers as William Cathay. Or Alice of Dunks Ferry [Pa.], born in 1686. She took tolls in Bucks County, Pa., and actually lived in three different centuries. These people are characters, and they deserve to be remembered.
What did the AANB teach you about the history of African-Americans in this country?
The interaction between black and white people was always much more complicated than we imagined. It wasn't ideal, but I'm astonished that in a racist society, black people found ways to express themselves. Yes, there were great tragedies, but there were lots of black people who managed to succeed in the face of oppression. They made a way out of no way.
Who is the AANB aimed at?
Everyone. The story of these people's lives will become assimilated into African-American history and then into all the history books that usually write about great men or women or anonymous social movements. We have this picture in our minds of black lives' being one of unmediated misery. But when you read these stories, you see that black and white people were dealing with each other from the very beginning in ways outside of the slave-master paradigm.
What is the lesson of the AANB for African-Americans today?
It lets the sensitive, ambitious African-American know that they are not alone. That black people just like them existed from 1619. That the sky is the limit for African-Americans.