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By the time she enrolled as a graduate student in history at Howard University more than a decade ago, Adele Logan Alexander was pushing 50. She had trained as an architect at Radcliffe and, later, worked as a graphic designer, a children’s museum executive, an aide to then-Sen. Adlai Stevenson III (D-Ill.), and a key advisor to the 1974 D.C. mayoral bid of her husband, onetime Secretary of the Army Clifford Alexander.

But after the kids had grown, Alexander decided to go for a Ph.D. Her timing was fateful. Had she gone to graduate school straight out of college, Alexander might never have had the opportunity to write about the topics in which she now specializes: women’s and African-American social history. In the early ’60s, historians considered the daily lives of ordinary people “soft” material for study. Now the field is burgeoning. As Alexander tells her students at George Washington University these days, her specialty “is great because…you’re not regurgitating one more time stories about Abe Lincoln or George Washington or FDR.”

In 1991, Alexander published Ambiguous Lives: Free Women of Color in Rural Georgia, 1789-1879. This year, she’s following up with an even more personal subject. In Homelands and Waterways: The American Journey of the Bond Family, 1846-1926 (Pantheon), Alexander paints a broad-brush portrait of her own family. Over the course of almost 700 pages, Alexander unfurls a four-generation saga ranging from Liverpool, England (where her great-great-grandfather, a Briton of African descent, and her great-great-grandmother, an Irish refugee, met and bore her great-grandfather) to Virginia, Massachusetts, Alabama, Texas, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C. During each era, family members feel the influence of historical events—the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I—and historical figures, including Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, and W.E.B. Du Bois.

“It started with scraps of oral history, stories my mother told me, photos that she had,” Alexander says. “My mother died in 1993. The next year, I was thinking about her and the possibility of writing an essay about the things she said, about the issues of being an American, and about the issues of race.” Instead, Alexander decided to write a book. Though Homelands is profusely footnoted, Alexander purposely targeted the popular market, too. “We have stories about black people who are successful, but they tend to be about entertainers or athletes or ministers. We don’t have any folks like those in here.”

The book follows the life span of Emma Thomas, who was born a slave and died several years after women (though not always black women) achieved suffrage. Alexander could have easily extended her book into the present day, but she decided against it. She says she thought it important to reveal the probable homosexual rape of one ancestor and the apparent lesbian orientation of another. “Historians like to maintain distance between themselves and their subjects,” she says. “You have to be willing to talk about the dirt, and you have to be willing to embarrass people.”— Louis Jacobson