THE LIFE OF BENJAMIN BANNEKER by Silvio Bedini

THE LIFE OF BENJAMIN BANNEKER

By
Email this review

KIRKUS REVIEW

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 free-born black tobacco farmer, lived 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 the mapping of 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 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 given the extraordinary solitude of his existence. The meager biographical data has been supplemented with extensive and elaborately researched local history which throws an interesting sidelight on the relatively liberal racial milieu of Maryland society prior to the 19th 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 18th century. The author has made the most of his regrettably fragmentary sources.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1971
Publisher: Scribners