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How Blacks Shaped Every Facet of American Culture

David Hackett Fischer’s African Founders is a book we have greatly needed.

October 6, 2022

Early on in his 946-page instant classic, African Founders: How Enslaved People Expanded American Ideals, David Hackett Fischer, the 86-year-old Pulitzer Prize–winning Brandeis historian, tells the story of W. E. B. Du Bois’s great-grandmother.

Elizabeth “Mumbett” Freeman, who was born into slavery around 1742 to African parents in the Dutch town of Claverack, N.Y., was sold at the age of 6 months to a resident of Sheffield, Mass. Thirty-nine years later, in 1781, Colonel John Ashley’s wife, Hannah, struck Freeman with a hot fireplace shovel, leaving a lasting scar. This incident led Mumbett Freeman to ask the Federalist attorney Theodore Sedgwick if she could “claim her liberty under law,” since the Massachusetts Constitution and Bill of Rights declared that “all people were born free and equal,” and “as she was not a dumb beast, she was certainly one of the nation.”

Sedgwick took her case, and a Berkshire County Court subsequently declared her free.

African Founders, David Hackett Fischer’s 17th major work of scholarship, is a book that we have badly needed, a fair-minded, synthetic overview of the ways that Blacks during this society’s formative years shaped every facet of American culture, from foodways and religious practices to the cultural value attached to freedom.

African Founders isn’t flawless. I found its argument overly schematic, its coverage a bit uneven, its length excessive. Nor is it written with the wit, style, verve or panache of Fischer’s earlier works, like his widely admired exposé Historians’ Fallacies. I fear that its bulk will deter readers who would benefit enormously from its encyclopedic wealth of information and its interpretation.

A bigger problem is that the book isn’t written as a provocation in the manner of Howard Zinn or “The 1619 Project.” Fischer has no interest in crafting a polemical argument designed to bait, inflame, incite or irritate, nor is he interested in overstatement, embellishment or sensationalizing. His book’s overarching arguments won’t set your emotions aboil.

More descriptive than argumentative, a thorough compendium of information rather than a sustained thesis-driven narrative and more illustrative than confrontational or contentious, African Founders simply takes it for granted that Blacks are central to American history, society and culture—and then proceeds to illustrate this basic fact with the richness that it deserves.

The book sparkles with insights. Here are a few:

  • Like the historians David Eltis, Michael Gomez, Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Gregory E. O’Malley, David Richardson, John Thornton and Lorena Walsh, Fischer demonstrates that enslaved Africans tended to arrive from distinct regions and therefore shared a common language, cultural references, backgrounds and religions. Indeed, their African nationality played an indispensable role in shaping their identity, activities, skills and worldview. Revolts, burial practices and skills were inextricably bound in pre-enslavement national identities.
  • Instead of speaking about African survivals, Fischer shows how new ethics and customs emerged out of the syncretic interplay of specific African and European traditions.
  • Like his earlier work on distinctive regional cultural traditions among the United States’ earliest European immigrants and their colonial and 19th-century descendants, he reveals how differently Black cultures evolved in very differently in various geographical regions, whether in New England, the Hudson and Delaware Valleys, the Chesapeake, Coastal Carolina, Georgia and Florida, the Gulf Coast or Louisiana, and decisively demonstrates that this is a story not of progress (or its inverse), but of striving, aspiration, collective self-help and struggle.

Many faculty will find the book to be an invaluable one-stop source of information on migration patterns, mortality rates, family and household structure, literacy rates and occupations. Fischer’s analyses of fugitive slave advertisements are especially impressive.

African Founders sparkles with fascinating capsule biographies of the famous and lesser known figures, like Juan Rodriguez, the first documented non-Indigenous settler of what’s now New York City; Anthony van Saleer, the Muslim son of an African mother and a Dutch pirate who acquired a large estate near Coney Island; Coffee Slocum (one of whose sons was Paul Cuffe); and Thomas Peters, the “George Washington of Sierra Leone.”

The volume also offers vivid descriptions of celebrations and festivities like Pinkster (which took place on Pentecost Sunday or Whitsunday, the seventh Sunday after Easter) and Negro Election Day and shows how Blacks were the first group to embrace a hyphenated identity—as African Americans—at least as early as 1782, four or more decades before the first recorded use of “German American” or “Irish American.”

Even those who are well versed in American slavery’s history will learn a great deal.

  • About the prevalence of Islam among enslaved Africans.
  • About the sharp increase in enslaved African Americans’ skills and occupations after 1750.
  • About the various ways that the enslaved achieved freedom, for example, by self-purchase or through a contractual agreement with a master or via military service.
  • About the increasingly harsh treatment and extreme use of force (including castration, tendon cutting and burnings alive) against enslaved Blacks in the Chesapeake region after 1700.
  • About the Black roles in the Seminole Wars, which might be understood as the largest uprising by (former) slaves in U.S. history.

Most historians are familiar with enslaved Africans’ role in the development of the Carolina coastal rice industry, but far fewer know that the earliest Black cowboys, far from being the recipients of Hispanic, British and Indigenous expertise were in fact teachers, drawing upon long experience with stock raising in West and Central Africa. Somewhat similarly, African maritime cultures heavily influenced Chesapeake boat building, and many Blacks, free and enslaved, made up a disproportionate share of deckhands, stevedores, pilots, captains, fishermen, oystermen and crabbers.

One of the most striking sections of this big book examines the “modernization” of violence inflicted against enslaved Blacks as masters began to show signs of embarrassment in advertising scars inflicted on the enslaved, substituting the light buckskin “cracker” or straps for the older cowhide or bullwhip or the use of paddles bored with auger holes, since these new “progressive” instruments did not break the skin or scar the body. Violence also became increasingly “professionalized,” as masters came to rely on specialists: slave whippers, slave breakers, slave hunters and private slave jailers.

Another impressive section looks at how debt-ridden masters dealt with economic downturns through various strategies of “monetizing” enslaved Blacks—and how the enslaved sought to use circumstances, like leasing, to their own advantage.

Then, too, Fischer builds on an idea he first presented in Albion’s Seed, his 1989 study of British folkways in America: that various colonial regions developed distinctive conceptions of liberty, which ranged from a Puritan ideal of ordered liberty (in which freedom is limited by certain established religious precepts and assumptions about the proper ordering of society), a Chesapeake ideal of hegemonic liberty (which required inhabitants to recognize the authority of an established elite) and a Quaker ideal of reciprocal liberty (according to which each person was regarded as a fellow child of God with certain divinely given rights).

Fischer doesn’t explicitly draw any present-day implications in his study, but several stand out:

  1. That we need to study American culture’s West and Central African origins with the same intensity that we study their British, Irish, Italian, Scandinavian or other roots of ethnicity and see how religious traditions and cultural practices were selectively modified and adapted to New World circumstances.
  2. That Black history during this country’s formative years is an incredibly inspiring story of people who, against all odds and in the face of almost unimaginable horrors, succeeded, in a surprising number of instances, in acquiring land, building extended kinship networks, attaining freedom and forming churches and a host of self-help and reform organizations.
  3. That Blacks have given this country a host of unrequited gifts, of style, sensibility and ethics, language and speech, music and dance, and most important of all, spirit and soul that have continuously revitalized this country’s core values of freedom, aspiration and equality.

I fear that all too often my profession, in its relentless pursuit of the false idol of specialized expertise, has lost sight of history’s larger purpose: to formulate meaningful stories and narratives that connect the past, present and future, that inspire and empower even as they expose past evils that continue today.

We live in cynical times and maybe, just maybe, Fischer’s themes might help us develop a more positive vision of the arc of American history—not a Whiggish history that bends toward justice, but rather the message that social history conveys: that ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary deeds, that all individuals have the capacity to become active agents who can draw on all the resources available to them as they struggle and strive to improve their lot, that we, like they, can empower ourselves and, to paraphrase Dickens’s David Copperfield, become the heroes of our own lives.

Black history during this society’s formative years is a story not just of endurance but of perseverance, not just of oppression but of struggle, not just of suffering but of aspiration and, to an extraordinary extent, a story of people who prevailed over the most unspeakably awful circumstances.

Let me conclude with a call out to those scholars who die with their boots on, researching and writing until their lives end.

In 1914, just months into the First World War, the British poet Laurence Binyon published seven stanzas in the London Times that stand out as a classic reflection on aging, mortality and loss. Entitled “For the Fallen,” the poem’s most famous lines read:

“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.”

May age not wither us.

A number of our greatest historians continued to research and write well into their 80s or even later. Edmund S. Morgan was 86 when he published a biography of Benjamin Franklin and 93 when his profiles of the women and men who shaped early America appeared. David Brion Davis was 87 when he completed his Pulitzer Prize–winning Problem of Slavery trilogy. Bernard Bailyn was 90 when he published The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600–1675, while Peter Gay was 84 when his study of modernism from Baudelaire to Beckett and beyond was issued. Sir Keith Thomas, still alive and the author of a review in the latest issue of The New York Review of Books, was 86 when he published In Pursuit of Civility: Manners and Civilization in Early Modern England.

In stark contrast to physics or mathematics, where many of the greatest scholarly achievements are produced when their authors are in their teens or 20s, historians benefit from advancing age, as they learn more about life and acquire fresh perspectives on the past.

I understand that many younger scholars feel, with much justification, that their elders are blocking their path into the profession and, worse yet, are obstructing the academy’s need to diversify. Without a doubt, the end of mandatory retirement has encouraged some scholars to refuse to step down to the detriment of their students. In reality, however, very few academics continue to teach beyond their early 70s, and if campuses are willing to buy out their contracts, many might well retire earlier.

Indeed, when my graduate school mentor, David Brion Davis, approached the Yale administration about the possibility of a buyout, the institution refused, saying that the campus had made a gross mistake when it had allowed eminences like Peter Gay to go to the New York Public Library’s Center for Scholars and Writers and Edmund Morgan to the Huntington Library.

Such figures are far more valuable to the campus as active presences and as publishing scholars than as emeriti—which is why Yale ultimately established the Henry Koerner Center for Emeritus Faculty, which provides these scholars with office space, seminars, lectures and ongoing opportunities to interact professionally with their peers, younger scholars and undergraduates and graduate students. Other institutions should, I hope, replicate that center.

Age, of course isn’t just a number or a state of mind. It can raise questions about an individual’s level of performance and skills. A recent study in the sciences concluded that, as scholars age, “their references get older” and “they’re more likely to” disparage more recent work.

But academic research and writing isn’t a job; it’s a mission in life, and all of us benefit when scholars of the caliber of Bailyn, Davis, Gay, Morgan and yes, Fischer, continue to share their insights and the wisdom acquired over many decades.

So let them “beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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