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THURSDAY

Washington, Hamilton, Shakespeare: Dead white males may be retreating from academia, but they still own the best-seller lists. Then there’s Robert Gilbert, an unknown field photographer of the early 20th century and the hero of John Hanson Mitchell’s well-intentioned study, Looking for Mr. Gilbert: The Reimagined Life of an African-American. The book tells two stories. First, there is Gilbert, a talented Southerner who comes to New England to work in the shadow of the famous ornithologist William Brewster, who regards his assistant “as some rare species of helpful younger sibling…willing to do anything requested of him.” Gilbert, a Negro in the Booker T. Washington mold, maintains his dignity amid polite but cruel society while honing his craft in silence. The other story deals with Mitchell, a white man of the guilty-liberal variety, who places himself on a quest to save Gilbert from history’s graveyard. Mitchell’s affected discussions on our own current struggles with race sometimes approach the point of self-parody. (At one point, he calls the beat of a rap song “basso profundo”; at another, he grasps at street cred by hanging with a militant Afrocentric thinker named Tre.) Though he fills the book with some spicy details about the period (did you know lesbianism was common among Boston Brahmins or that John James Audubon lied about his black mother?), Mitchell’s argument on behalf of Gilbert is unconvincing. He spends too many pages discussing Gilbert’s race and very few explaining why his photographs are worthwhile. None of us, including Mitchell, knew Gilbert, but from what I could gather from Mitchell’s book, he would have been saddened—if not surprised—that his only biographer seemed to be most interested in the color of his skin. Mitchell reads at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 17, at Olsson’s Books & Records, 418 7th St. NW. Free. (202) 638-7610. (Paul Morton)