The Fierce 44: Black Americans Who Shook Up the World, written by the staff of The Undefeated, portraits by Robert Ball

The Fierce 44
Black Americans Who Shook Up the World
Written by the staff of The Undefeated
Portraits by Robert Ball
Review Copy from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
The Fierce 44: Black Americans Who Shook Up the World joins the growing ranks of a genre I just dubbed "Portrait Biographies," adding an inspirational new collection to the shelves. The 2016 publication of Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls and its overwhelming success, as well as a push for diversity in children's books has resulted in a wealth of non-fiction that can be both a great introduction and a superb starting place for further research. The Fierce 44 brings a lot to the table, from the writers of The Undefeated who, as Editor in Chief Kevin Merida notes in his preface, debated fiercely over who would be included in the collection of "dreamers and doers, noisy geniuses and quiet innovators, record breakers and symbols of pride and aspiration," to their decision to keep the list (acknowledging that it is not a "complete list of jaw-dropping black achievers") to forty-four as an homage to the forty-fourth president of the United States. And then there is forward by Henry Louis Gates, Jr that is powerfully pointed and elegant. Quoting black historian Carter G. Woodson, Gates says we need the "beautiful romances," these stories of the "successful strivings" for "enlightenment under the most adverse circumstances" more than ever. And he reminds us that these strivings were, 

interwoven with every president who came before Obama, pushing the country to live up to the ideals of freedom and equal human rights that it had articulated at its founding, even as it retreated from them during both the long age of enslavement and the long retreat from Reconstruction after the Civil War that marked the nadir of race relations in the United States.

What I love most about The Fierce 44, and what makes it stand out from other Portrait Biographies, is the "Because" that leads every bio. You can read The Fierce 44 in full here, where you will find the "Because" immediately after the name of the subject. In the book format, it appears in the negative space of the portrait of the subject. Giving readers a concise lead in is a great framework for learning about these amazing people and the challenges they faced. And, while forty-four is just a start, the fierce black Americans who made the list are well chosen, from contemporaries like Jay-Z, Serena Williams, Simone Biles and Oprah Winfrey to historical figures like Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington. Alvin Ailey, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix, Duke Ellington and Zora Neale Hurston join Sydney Poitier, Quincy Jones, Richard Pryor, Toni Morrison and Stevie Wonder are among the artists represented. I especially loved learning about people I had never heard of, like Ella Baker, "Because she didn't let gender keep her from defending her race," and Benjamin O. Davis Sr., "Because he led the fight against enemies both foreign and domestic," and Gordon Parks, "Because he brought us pictures of black America."

Yet another stellar collection of inspirational biographies to spark young readers. 






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