James Haskins: “Humanitarian Philosopher,” the Unofficial


“On the most basic level, it is this historic ability to define our own humanity, and thereby to create a heritage of which we can be proud, that to me is the most significant aspect of being a Black Alabamian.” ~James Haskins, “The Humanistic Black Heritage of Alabama,” The Remembered Gate: Memoirs by Alabama Writers (2002).

James Haskins was all of the things that the title of this article suggests.  He was a philosopher, but most significantly, he was the sole author of 102 books, author of 8 book series (like Black Theater in America and Count Your Way Through Africa/Canada/Korea/Mexico), Editor of 20 books, and co-author of 34 books. In total, over the course of his 63 years, James Haskins described by the NYT Obituary as “…an Author on Black History” (https://www.nytimes.com/2005/07/11/books/james-haskins-an-author-on-black-history-dies-at-63.html ), completed 164 books.

Yet very few people know of his existence or know his name.  Why Not?

The Black Writer that Nobody Knows

The fact that very few people know of James (Jim) Haskins—he published under both first names—and that there was no commemoration of the 18year anniversary of his death begs the question of “Why Black Writers Can’t Get No Respect?”

The extraordinary level of output that marked Jim’s literary career from his first book, Diary of a Harlem Schoolteacher, published in 1969 by Grove Press, and symbolizing the beginning of a Black literary outpouring that attract the attention of white publishers, to his last book, Delivering Justice: W.W. Law and the Great Savannah Boycott, illustrated by renowned Black artist Benny Andrews, published posthumously in 2005 by Lee & Low, should not have gone unnoticed.

And yet, to paraphrase Black writer James Baldwin, Nobody knows his name!  Why Not?

James Haskins provided Black America and the rest of America and the world with documentation of Black writing talent, but he showcased Black America’s culture and history mainly through the writing of biographies.

Black America’s Unofficial Biographer

Haskins may have begun his writing career telling his own story, but his greatest gift was telling the story of others.  He wrote about Black Power, Black Mayors, Black basketball players (Lew Alcindor to Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Dr. J: A Biography of Julius Irving, Black politicians (Ralph Bunche: A Most Reluctant Hero, Adam Clayton Powell: Portrait of a Marching Black, Black baseball players (Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron: The Home Run Kings), Black soccer player (Pele: A Biography), Black musicians and singer (The Story of Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross: Star Supreme, and Ella Fitzgerald: A Life Through Jazz), Black writers Toni Morrison: The Magic of Words, Toni Morison: Telling a Tale Untold, and brought his own perspective to topics like voodoo, ice sculpture, the Special Olympics, and the Harlem Renaissance. The list of Jim’s contributions to the canon of Black biographies, Black literature, and Black children’s literature could go on forever.

His literary outpouring is not only unprecedented but also under-recognized.  James Haskins is a figure in the shadow of the Black literary canon, and it is our shame that we have not done more to make him visible.

I should also note that Jim was given the following awards for his children’s books, which many of us probably bought for our children in the 1970s and 1980s before the publishing industry opened its doors, and decades before self-publishing became normalized: Coretta Scott King Award (1976), Carter G. Woodson Outstanding Merit Award (1979), ASCAP Deems Taylor Award (1979), A Book-Across-the-Sea by English Speaking Union (1983), Carter G. Woodson Award (1988), Alabama Library Association Award (1988), Coretta Scott King Award Honor Book (1991), Carter G. Woodson Award (1994),  Carter G. Woodson Award Honor Book (2001), John and Patricia Beatty Award from the California Library Association (2004), Jane Addams Peace Award (2006), Carter G. Woodson Award (2007)—the latter two awards after his death in 2005.

Such noteworthy writing deserves recognition, and so I would again ask, why don’t we know more about James Haskins?

From Humble Origins

Eighteen years ago, I wrote the following words as an introduction to the James Haskins Endowment Fund brochure that gave an overview of Jim’s humble origins. His family is still in Demopolis, AL, and it is my intent to pay them a visit.

Who could imagine that from a small place like Demopolis, Alabama, would emerge a man of such enormous vision and talent? James Haskins was born there on September 19, 1941. Family and relatives knew him by his basket name, “Dazzle,” and later Uncle D; his teachers knew him as James; and to friends and neighbors he was simply Jim. Amidst the noise and antics of a houseful of siblings, Jim found a small ounce of privacy in reading. It opened up the windows of his imagination and transported him away from the segregated borders of Alabama to the world beyond.

We Must Remember James (Jim) Haskins

I wish to close by saying if America, and Black America specifically, cannot find a way to recognize and honor someone as prolific as James Haskins, then the rest of us as Black writers are doomed! What chance do we have for the fruits of our literary labor to be seen as monumental?

At 71, I have not achieved an iota of Jim’s literary outpouring, and few people will. Yet, he inspired me to strive to do better and be better and just do it!

He also once shared that the key to his success at writing biographies was that he tried to find something about the person that no one else knew. 

I have carried that with me when I interview people or write obituaries about Black icons who have joined the ancestors.  Following Jim’s advice, I ask myself, “what can I say about them that no one else will say?” 

James Haskins believed in taking action: he once wrote, “The smallest individual action does matter—it does matter what you choose to do with your life, the moral stands you take, the things you decided, deep in your heart…” (from “Rosa Parks Day,” a radio essay for Recess! December 1, 2004).

A Call to Action

As soon as you finish reading this column, visit your local library, online or in person, and find a book written by James/Jim Haskins. Also, select one book by a Black author you don’t know.  And, next year, on July 6, 2024, let’s do something to remember James (Jim) Haskins.  A complete bibliography of his books can be found at: https://www.biblio.com/james-haskins/author/66265 (accessed 7/17/2023)

We have a responsibility not to forget Black America’s unofficial biographer, and we must commit to supporting Black writers en masse.

Additional Resources:

“Why Black Writers Can’t Get No Respect?” on The Conversation With Al McFarlane, July 13, 2023 (https://bit.ly/3NQhU6i).

The James Haskins Endowment: http://mcclaurinsolutions.com/resources/haskins_memorial_FINAL.pdf

James Haskins Memorial Service, University of Florida, September 19, 2005.

Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Haskins

African American Literature Book Club: https://aalbc.com/authors/author.php?author_name=James+Haskins

James Haskins, Biography: https://guides.uflib.ufl.edu/haskins 

James Haskins Papers, Finding Aid: https://findingaids.uflib.ufl.edu/repositories/2/resources/407

James Haskins, Selected Writings: https://biography.jrank.org/pages/2853/Haskins-James-S.html

James Haskins, Encyclopedia.com:  https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/haskins-james-1941

©2023 Irma McClaurin

Irma McClaurin (https://linktr.ee/dr.irma/ @mcclaurintweets) is the Culture and Education Editor for Insight News. She is an activist Black Feminist anthropologist, a past president of Shaw ( in Raleigh North Carolina), the founding Executive Director of the University of Minnesota’s UROC,and has held numerous other leadership positions. McClaurin completed the MFA in English and the PhD in Anthropology from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and was just awarded the Honorary Doctorate of Social Studies by her alma mater, Grinnell College (2023).  She is also the founder of the Irma McClaurin Black Feminist Archive, located at UMass, and an award-winning author and poet. Her book Black Feminist Anthropology: Theory, Politics, Praxis and Poetics was named an “Outstanding Academic Title” in 2002 and the Black Press of America selected her as “Best in the Nation Columnist” in 2015. Today McClaurin is the sole proprietor of Irma McClaurin Solutions, a consulting firm, and works with individuals, museums, and other organizations. She has held numerous other leadership positions and published editorials, academic articles and book chapters as well as poetry, and won the Gwendolyn Brooks Award in poetry in 1974. She currently divides her time between Mobile, AL and Raleigh, NC, and is a member of newly established Center for Diaspora and Migration Studies at the University of Liberia.  

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