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Saturday, September 03, 2022

White and Black: A Historian Traces African-American Influences in the United States


A Black cabaret, 1937.
Public Domain via Schomburg Collection

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How Enslaved People Expanded American Ideals
By David Hackett Fischer

During more than half a century as a professor and a scholar, David Hackett Fischer has published 11 books, received multiple awards for his teaching and won a Pulitzer Prize. Now he has delivered the long-promised “companion volume” to “Albion’s Seed,” a work that appeared in 1989 to both acclaim and searing criticism. (Fischer noted ruefully that one forum assembled to discuss it was “closer to the sort of thing that happened in the Colosseum.”) In that sweeping study, he had traced the nation’s roots to four colonial-era British migrations that, he argued, continued to shape American culture and politics into the late 20th century.

“African Founders: How Enslaved People Expanded American Ideals” has much in common with its predecessor. Like “Albion’s Seed,” it is more than 900 pages long, encompassing an almost unimaginable breadth of research, information and ambition. “African Founders” employs the same framework of analysis in its focus on migrations to specific regions, which Fischer believes came to define American culture in the centuries to follow. But these migrants were arriving from Africa and were forced rather than free. Fischer has revised his conception of American “regions” to now comprise what he calls six “hearth” regions (“an area of initial settlement from which a culture developed”) and three “frontier” regions (“an outer area on the periphery of a country”). Each becomes a chapter, designed to portray the mix of white and African American culture that emerged there: New England; the Hudson Valley; the Delaware Valley; the Chesapeake; Coastal Carolina and Georgia; and Louisiana, Mississippi and the Gulf Coast, as well as what he calls the Western, Maritime and Southern frontiers.

Drawing on extensive recent work by historians on the demographics of the slave trade, Fischer traces the multiple African sources of the waves of importations from the 17th to the early 19th century, offering a rich portrait of the variety of cultures and places from which captives came. Ultimately, however, he judges that a “broad diversity of African origins” was present “everywhere in North America.” The distinctiveness of each American region and its African Americans largely arose instead from other cultural factors and experiences that shape the “interplay” of Black and white — for example, the religious outlook of Puritan or Quaker masters, the French legal traditions of Louisiana, the “strong passion for the pursuit of wealth” in New York. Fischer juxtaposes his scholarship with brief biographical portraits of African Americans who embody aspects of the larger regional context. He has been hailed as an accomplished historical storyteller who can capture a general reader, and those skills are evident here.

Although his detailed analysis focuses on the colonial period and the early 19th century, he not infrequently skips over decades and even centuries, introducing a kind of timelessness into his interpretation by compressing chronology and suggesting that the traits he has identified persist into the present. Without much specificity, for example, he cites Michelle Obama as an embodiment of her Carolina Gullah roots.

At the beginning of “Albion’s Seed,” Fischer justified this approach by stating that “every period of the past, when understood in its own terms,” is not just prologue, but “immediate to the present.” It is erroneous, he explained, to think of history as the study of change and discontinuity. He was much criticized for these assumptions in his earlier book, and here too he asserts the connections without tracing the explicit links and influences through the years of the mid-19th century and beyond.

But for all the parallels between the two studies, 2022 is not 1989. In the era of “The 1619 Project” and of right-wing attacks on what is characterized as critical race theory, African American history poses different challenges and questions than did a study of British folkways. Fischer assails what he sees as a “deeply negative” turn in historical writing in the 21st century, as well as a “cultivated carelessness of fact and evidence.” He insists that his study will be an “open-ended inquiry,” not “an argument or a thesis or a polemic.”

Yet his book, as its subtitle indicates, is clearly an argument: “How Enslaved People Expanded American Ideals.” He is intent to show, in a phrase he repeats often, that Africans “made a difference” in American history, and that they “continue to make a profound difference in our world.” He does not ignore or minimize the brutality, cruelty and injustice of slavery and racism, but this is nonetheless a celebratory narrative that belies his declaration in the introduction that he “does not begin with predominantly positive or negative judgments about the main lines of American history.”

“African Founders” is fundamentally an appreciation of the place of Black people in America past and present, as well as an appreciation of the nation of which they became a part. Their “creativity” — he uses the words “creative” or “creativity” over 100 times in the book — combined African characteristics with the customs of the peoples and societies among which they found themselves to make signal contributions to a syncretic American culture. For each region he outlines this process, summarizing in his conclusion four distinctive African “gifts” to American life: language and speech, music, spirit and soul, and ethics and freedom. The very word “gift” — which also makes frequent appearances in his text — may offer a hint about the difficulties inherent in this approach. “Gift” indicates something that is freely given, not something seized from one who is in bondage. And at the same time, it suggests something that is less than essential or formative: a contribution or an add-on rather than a foundation.

Yet Fischer has titled his book “African Founders,” a term that resonates within our national history and mythology with its implications of defining and enduring influence. He argues that in struggling for their own freedom, Black people expanded and transformed America’s understanding of what freedom meant. The presence of enslaved Africans and their descendants, he suggests, has made us freer than we would otherwise be. Does that describe us today? Is not the exact opposite the case? How do we explain why the United States has incarcerated the highest percentage of its population of any country in the world, with Black men imprisoned at more than five times the rate of white men? Persisting racism and the inequality and injustice it yields continue to make us less free in spite of the centuries of struggle Fischer venerates. As he acknowledges, good history does indeed require us to go beyond both celebration and condemnation. Perhaps the debate his new book is likely to generate can help move us toward that goal.“

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