A Negro at the North Pole by Matthew A. Henson

In A Negro at the North Pole (1912), African American explorer Matthew A. Henson recounts his experiences as the personal assistant of Rear Admiral Robert E. Peary during his eight expeditions to the Arctic. In the twenty-three years that Henson traveled with Peary, he was welcomed into the rear admiral’s family circle; he developed expertise in necessary survival skills, including blacksmithing, carpentry, sledge-building, dog sledding, navigation, and camp cooking; and learned the language and culture of the Inuits. He rose through the ranks to become Peary’s most trusted and able companion, and was the only other American to accompany the rear admiral when, after years of near misses, Peary finally reached the pole in 1909.

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Both Henson and Booker T. Washington (author of the book’s introduction) frame Henson’s journey to the North Pole as one of many historical instances in which people of color powered “white men’s” discoveries. Aware of his race’s absence from history books, Henson is careful to recognize the contributions of other underrepresented groups to his own adventures. He acknowledges the women who braved Peary’s expeditions (including Peary’s wife, who, during an 1893 trek, gave birth to one daughter and adopted another), and writes extensively about Inuit friends and colleagues, listing them by name and celebrating not only their contributions to Peary’s expeditions, but also their individual personalities.

Jess Touchette

About Jess Touchette

Jess Touchette is a former staff member in the Rare Books unit.

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