This book begins with a quote by Arturo Schomburg: “The American Negro must remake his past in order to make his future. . . . History must restore what slavery took away.”
The book not only tells how Schomburg helped with that restoration, but gives a great deal of background on works he discovered. Thus, it is actually a short survey of black history couched within the guise of a biography.
Schomburg, an Afro-Puerto Rican born in 1874, longed to read histories of his own people, but there were few materials available in either the schools of Puerto Rico where he grew up, or in New York, the city to which he immigrated at age seventeen. He felt an insatiable curiosity about Africana, however, and he haunted rare books stores in New York to find materials by and about black men and women. He was able to purchase the materials cheaply, because they were not considered to be valuable by white collectors.
Much of the book is given over to descriptions of the accomplishments of the heros and heroines of color whose writings and artwork Schomburg uncovered, including Phillis Wheatley, Benjamin Banneker, Paul Cuffee. He even found a 1573 book of poems by Spaniard Juan Latino, “perhaps the first printed book by a black person.”
Schomburg became actively involved in the activities of Harlem’s intellectuals, and his acquaintances, the author reports, were a “Who’s Who” of the Harlem Renaissance. In addition, he corresponded with important intellects around the U.S. such as Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois.
The author also reveals how Schomburg “navigated a maze of misinformation” to find out about other artists with black heritage whose origins had been whitewashed, including John James Audubon, Alexandre Dumas, Alexander Pushkin, and Beethoven.
In later years, Schomburg traveled all around the country and the world, not only to collect new materials, but to advocate for more attention to and resources for black history and culture.
Eventually, Schomburg’s large library was purchased by the Carnegie Foundation, which donated it to the New York Public Library in 1926. The collection, called “matchless,” became the cornerstone of the NYPL’s Division of Negro History, Literature and Prints. Schomburg served as curator of the collection from 1932 until 1938, when he died.
At the end of the book, there is a time line, source notes, and a bibliography.
Award-winning illustrator Eric Velasquez adds richly detailed oil paintings that display his usual meticulous attention to historical detail.
Discussion: For the most part this book doesn’t focus on Schomburg as much as on the historical figures whose materials he collected. Their stories are of course important as well as interesting, but I was very intrigued by Schomburg and wanted to know more. For years I have followed the excellent website of the Schomburg Center online but never took the time to learn about the founder. But clearly he should be more well-known and appreciated for the massive contributions he made to black scholarship. It is worth noting here more about the Center – his legacy – from its website:
“The Center consists of three connected buildings: The Schomburg Building, the Langston Hughes Building, and the Landmark Building. It is recognized as one of the leading institutions focusing exclusively on African-American, African Diaspora, and African experiences. Begun with the collections of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg 92 years ago, the Schomburg has collected, preserved, and provided access to materials documenting black life in America and worldwide. It has also promoted the study and interpretation of the history and culture of people of African descent. In 2015, it won the National Medal for Museum and Library Service. Today, the Schomburg continues to serve the community not just as a center and a library, but also as a space that encourages lifelong education and exploration.”
Evaluation: This book is full of interesting information about black history generally. I hope teachers and librarians will help this book gain wider attention than it might have as “just” a biography of one man; it is much more.
Published by Candlewick Press, 2017