Book review: 'Parallel Worlds: The Remarkable Gibbs-Hunt and the Enduring (In)significance of Melanin' by Adele Logan Alexander

Sunday, May 16, 2010


The Remarkable Gibbs-Hunts and the Enduring (In)significance of Melanin

By Adele Logan Alexander

Univ. of Virginia. 375 pp. $29.95

One of the few African Americans in the U.S. foreign service, William Henry Hunt began his diplomatic career in 1897 as an aide to Mifflin Wistar Gibbs and, before retiring in 1932, served in Madagascar, France, Guadeloupe and Liberia. Gibbs's daughter Ida married Hunt in 1904, followed him overseas and took advantage of the more liberal racial climate she encountered to become an outspoken advocate for racial and gender equality.

Hunt's story as a self-made man is as improbable as Gibbs's family background. Born into slavery in Tennessee in 1863, Hunt told fantastic tales about his hard-knocks youth. But the truth was amazing enough. In 1889, at the age of 26, he passed himself off as a 20-year-old, found a patron and enrolled at Lawrence Academy in Massachusetts. He then became one of three African American students at Williams College. He left before graduating and soon attached his fortunes to Ida Gibbs, whom he'd met in his travels. She in turn persuaded her diplomat father to take Hunt on as his protégé. And just like that, Billy Hunt morphed into William Henry Hunt, ready to perform on the world stage.

Gibbs came from African American aristocracy. Her father worked for Frederick Douglass, migrated west as part of the California Gold Rush and founded the state's only African American newspaper. He was later a lawyer, businessman and active Republican in Arkansas. His career peaked when President William McKinley appointed him consul to Tamatave, Madagascar. Ida (born in 1862) grew up in Oberlin, Ohio, where she followed her schoolteacher mother to Oberlin College, a mother-daughter achievement that surely ranks as a first in the history of African American education. Fluent in French and a long-time friend of W. E. B. Du Bois, she helped organize his Pan-African Congresses in Europe in the 1910s and '20s, and at the 1923 London conference she delivered a talk on "The Colored Races and the League of Nations."

Adele Logan Alexander, a professor of history at George Washington University and a cousin of the Gibbs-Hunt family, has her eye on larger targets than Ida and William. She wants to augment the many accounts of African American privations during the Jim Crow era and to "refute prevalent perceptions that Negroes were ignorant of or [uninterested] in international affairs." But in the effort to prove that the Hunts were not alone in either their learning or their internationalist aspirations, she often wanders from her narrative core, distracting the reader with accounts of other people's achievements that make it hard to follow the Hunts' lives. And an unusual footnoting practice that provides specific notes for some facts, nonspecific sources for others and none at all for some stories of interest makes it difficult to use this book as a definitive source.

-- Martha A. Sandweiss

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