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Public Affairs


Nation's first encyclopedia on black politics is published

July 28, 2003

Photo of the cover of "Encyclopedia of African-American Politics"It was a tough research assignment even for a respected scholar known for his vast knowledge of black politics: create a comprehensive survey of African American politics.

Now three years and 432 pages later, political science Professor Robert C. Smith has finished what is thought to be the first encyclopedia on African American politics, providing a comprehensive reference on the people, events and ideas that have shaped life for black Americans.

"African American politics is a politics about freedom and equality," said Smith, the author of several other books on black politics. "The encyclopedia tells the story of how politics and issue of power created and changed policies that have affected generations of black Americans."

The book provides answers to just about any question on black political history, including details on:

  • The Black Cabinet -- an informal association of blacks during the administration of several presidents, beginning with William Howard Taft, working as race relations advisers to white cabinet members.
  • The Colfax Massacre -- one of the most glaring examples of violent political repression in the U.S. African American experience, when an estimated 150 to 280 blacks were killed by whites over voting rights in Colfax, Louisiana in 1873.
  • Pan-Africanism -- a cultural, historical and political movement that asserts that there are common bonds that unite all people of African descent wherever they are in the world.
  • "Strange fruit" -- a black protest song against lynching written by a Jewish high school teacher in 1937 that became popular following its recording by Billie Holiday, who sang about the "strange fruit of southern trees ... with blood on the leaves and blood at the root ... and a black body swinging in southern breeze."

One of the country's top scholars on race and politics, Smith began working on the book in early 2000 after being approached by Facts on File, a leading publisher of reference books for libraries and schools. Many books exist on African American history but apparently no standard reference that focused on blacks and politics existed before.

The encyclopedia's entries range from the abolitionist movement, described as the first interracial movement, to the life of Whitney Young Jr., executive director of the Urban League from 1961 to 1971. Although most of the material is widely known, Smith verified all the information for each entry. For readers who want more information about a subject, Smith concludes entries with notes on books for further reading.

In the development of African American politics, Smith explained, whites acquired and maintained bases of power and used them to subordinate blacks and maintain control. While blacks, on the other hand, have tried to acquire bases of power to end their subordinate relationship. "Historically, however, whites have monopolized virtually all of the bases of power," Smith said. "From this perspective, African American politics is an oxymoron: a politics without power."

It is that ensuing tug-of-war that makes African American politics so fascinating, he said.

In compiling the book, Smith said he received invaluable assistance from his wife, Scottie Smith. And he dedicated the book to the memory of Lavonya Dejean, a friend and colleague of his wife. Dejean was a well-known advocate and activist for the education of disadvantaged children in western Contra Costa County.

Smith hopes the book will help people understand the breadth of the African American experience in politics. "Readers will learn something about the impact of this unique black experience and its integral relationship to the political theory and development of politics in the United States," he said.

-- Ted DeAdwyler


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Last modified July 28, 2003, by the Office of Public Affairs