Black History Lit Review: Life Upon These Shores

 african american literature black history


A Look at Black History

We all learn stories about Black heroes like Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and George Washington Carver; but there are so many more stories from Black History that should be shared.  African-Americans represent a diverse group of people with a rich and varied history in the United States. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. shares many of these stories in his book Life Upon These Shores: Looking at African American History 1513-2008.

The first thing that struck me when I opened Life Upon These Shores  is the pictures. There are so many historical photos, prints and illustrations that catch your eye and make you want to learn about the people in the pictures. The book narrates the achievement of Blacks in all aspects of American culture–politics, journalism, the arts and music are all featured.

Image from Life Upon These Shores


The picture above really caught my eye because it looks very much like an interracial couple. Gates doesn’t write about the woman in the picture at all (Helen Thornton Morrison); but he does write about her husband. Robert S. Abbott founded the Chicago newspaper, the Defender. According to Gates, Abbot wrote a “scathing critique of white supremacy, publicizing incidents of violence and lynching. At the same time, he emphasized black pride and published stories of the success that many African Americans had found in Chicago.” Robert S. Abbott started the Defender in 1905 and I can’t help but reflect on how courageous he must’ve been to write and publish stories that mainstream media has a hard time publishing now—in 2012.

Image from Life Upon These Shores

Besides sharing the stories of African Americans who succeeded in all walks of life, the book also shares descriptions of the societal ills that attempted to keep them from success. Midway through the book is a photo essay on Sambo Art, showing clearly both the horrifying way American society treated Blacks, and the negative way the media represented them. Seeing these images made me reflect on how far we’ve come…and also realize that we still have a long way to go.  In 2012, we still have an overwhelming number of stereotypical images of Blacks in the media. And I don’t think that anyone can deny the fact that racism is still a factor in the way  our society treats African Americans.

For me, the most powerful part of Life Upon these Shores is that the book teaches about a history that is not taught in schools, is not in any standard U.S. History textbook I’ve ever seen. This book is powerful.  It encourages me to reflect not only on the past, but also on the present. I am amazed at the resilience of Black people. I am awed by the contributions African Americans made, and continue to make, to our country. I am inspired to teach my children about the history that they will not learn in school. And I am thankful to Henry Louis Gates, Jr. for writing a book like this one that will help me to do that teaching in a profound, beautifully illustrated, and honest way.




  1. Stacey says


    The woman in the picture is my great great aunt Helen Thornton and she is a black woman. She is my great grandmothers sister.

  2. says

    Wow! Thanks for sharing, Stacey. I was so curious about her and she is not described in the book at all. I wish Gates had included more information about her.