Short Reviews

The Life of Benjamin Banneker

by Silvio Bedini
Scribner's, 434 pp., $12.50

Jazz Masters of the Thirties

by Rex W. Stewart
Macmillan, 224 pp., $7.95

Right to Challenge: People and Power in the Steelworkers Union

by John Herling
Harper & Row, 450 pp., $15.00

War Comes to Long An: Revolutionary Conflict in a Vietnamese Province

by Jeffrey Race
University of California Press, 323 pp., $10.00

A modest but intriguing biography of the self-taught black astronomer, mathematician, and surveyor, whom admirers were to describe after his death as “the Newton of his race.” Banneker (1731-1806), a freeborn black tobacco farmer, spent his entire life in Baltimore County, Maryland, poor, obscure, and solitary. In his fifties, with the help of white friends who provided books, he began to study astronomy and within a few years was able to compile an ephemeris (an astronomical computation of tides, sunrise and sunsets, eclipses, etc.) for an almanac, first published in 1792—“I suppose it to be the first attempt of the kind that ever was made in America by a person of my complection.” Banneker left his lonely farm only once, when he was hired as an assistant surveyor for mapping Washington, D.C., shortly after the American Revolution. Probably at the prompting of white Quaker friends he addressed a letter to Thomas Jefferson, bidding him to reconsider his assertion that blacks were mentally inferior to whites and in reply received a courteous (albeit evidently hypocritical) reply from the then Secretary of State.

Bedini has reconstructed his life with painstaking care from the few notebooks, memorabilia, and reminiscences of friends which still survive—no small feat in view of Banneker’s extraordinary solitude. The meager biographical data have been supplemented with extensive and elaborately researched local history which throws an interesting sidelight on the relatively liberal racial atmosphere of Maryland society prior to the nineteenth century, when anti-black sentiment and legislation hardened. Scholarly and judicious, this is a valuable contribution to black studies—one which may help Banneker achieve belated recognition as one of the outstanding black minds of the eighteenth century. The author has made the most of his regrettably fragmentary sources.

Festive memories of jazz greats by the man who replaced Louis Armstrong on the horn with the Fletcher Henderson band and went on to play with Ellington: “At various times I have been his barber, chef, valet, third trumpet man in his orchestra and his poker opponent.” Despite Stewart’s inside knowledge of how the music was made and who influenced whom, he spends little time on musicology, preferring to concentrate on the personalities of the stars. “Smack” Henderson is improbably characterized as the “Mahatma Gandhi, of the jazz age”; Ellington’s pre-mod clothes are credited with a “profound influence on men’s fashions”; and the poker-playing abilities of his musical cronies are assessed with affectionate élan.

Stewart is sensitive to the middle-class orientation of the big band sound even among black musicians (Ellington and Henderson both came from black middle-class families) and he has a large stock of amusing recollections of the freewheeling recording sessions of the Twenties and Thirties—“In those days most people felt that a musician played with more native abandon when he was full of alcohol.” Gossipy and anecdotal, he captures the easy flow of the music and the musicians’ frenetic lives. The nonchalance, though, was more apparent than real and most of the big band leaders were in fact master…


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