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African Founders: How Enslaved People Expanded American Ideals

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In this sweeping, foundational work, Pulitzer Prize–winning historian David Hackett Fischer draws on extensive research to show how enslaved Africans and their descendants enlarged American ideas of freedom in varying ways in different regions of the early United States. African Founders explores the little-known history of how enslaved people from different regions of Afri In this sweeping, foundational work, Pulitzer Prize–winning historian David Hackett Fischer draws on extensive research to show how enslaved Africans and their descendants enlarged American ideas of freedom in varying ways in different regions of the early United States. African Founders explores the little-known history of how enslaved people from different regions of Africa interacted with colonists of European origins to create new regional cultures in the colonial United States. The Africans brought with them linguistic skills, novel techniques of animal husbandry and farming, and generations-old ethical principles, among other attributes. This startling history reveals how much our country was shaped by these African influences in its early years, producing a new, distinctly American culture. Drawing on decades of research, some of it in western Africa, Fischer recreates the diverse regional life that shaped the early American republic. He shows that there were varieties of slavery in America and varieties of new American culture, from Puritan New England to Dutch New York, Quaker Pennsylvania, cavalier Virginia, coastal Carolina, and Louisiana and Texas. This landmark work of history will transform our understanding of America’s origins.


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In this sweeping, foundational work, Pulitzer Prize–winning historian David Hackett Fischer draws on extensive research to show how enslaved Africans and their descendants enlarged American ideas of freedom in varying ways in different regions of the early United States. African Founders explores the little-known history of how enslaved people from different regions of Afri In this sweeping, foundational work, Pulitzer Prize–winning historian David Hackett Fischer draws on extensive research to show how enslaved Africans and their descendants enlarged American ideas of freedom in varying ways in different regions of the early United States. African Founders explores the little-known history of how enslaved people from different regions of Africa interacted with colonists of European origins to create new regional cultures in the colonial United States. The Africans brought with them linguistic skills, novel techniques of animal husbandry and farming, and generations-old ethical principles, among other attributes. This startling history reveals how much our country was shaped by these African influences in its early years, producing a new, distinctly American culture. Drawing on decades of research, some of it in western Africa, Fischer recreates the diverse regional life that shaped the early American republic. He shows that there were varieties of slavery in America and varieties of new American culture, from Puritan New England to Dutch New York, Quaker Pennsylvania, cavalier Virginia, coastal Carolina, and Louisiana and Texas. This landmark work of history will transform our understanding of America’s origins.

40 review for African Founders: How Enslaved People Expanded American Ideals

  1. 4 out of 5

    Carol Kean

    The "invention of racism" was something new in the 1700s, spreading rapidly in Europe and North America to justify stealing people from one land (namely, Africa) and selling them into slavery in the New World, to be treated worse than cattle, to be bred and sold like livestock. In 1776, when the Land of Liberty was launched, a German scholar was dividing humanity into five races. In the 1800s, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach's "taxonomy of race" grew into a "full-blown ideology of racism." Here's th The "invention of racism" was something new in the 1700s, spreading rapidly in Europe and North America to justify stealing people from one land (namely, Africa) and selling them into slavery in the New World, to be treated worse than cattle, to be bred and sold like livestock. In 1776, when the Land of Liberty was launched, a German scholar was dividing humanity into five races. In the 1800s, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach's "taxonomy of race" grew into a "full-blown ideology of racism." Here's the part you may not have heard before: while they condemned (and composed haunting spirituals about) the human trafficking that brought them out of Africa, many African slaves embraced American liberty and opportunity. Some paid for their freedom, learned to read and write, built schools, became Freemasons, bought land, petitioned state legislatures for reform, and contributed a vast set of skills and talents to the budding United States of America. Even if you have a general knowledge of such things, you likely do not know the specifics. Who was Kofi? Why are Coffe Slocum's writings a national treasure, preserved in a Connecticut library to this day? How did "Akan Ethics," deeply rooted in West Africa, inform Protestant beliefs in America? If Boston was the most racially segregated city in America, how did it come about that African slaves in Massachusetts were allowed to intermarry with Europeans and American Indians? Many did just that, and the "melting pot" that was America allowed for a mingling of culture, knowledge, talents, traditions, religion, and the political foundations of a new nation. I wish more high school history teachers had even a fraction of the knowledge and passion this professor, David Hackett Fischer, brings to his latest book, "African Founders." The concept seems audacious: slaves were able to expand American ideals? How did they manage that? Because out of Africa came the greatest talent pool to set foot in the New World. Animal husbandry - not brute force, as Europeans were known for, especially in the Old West - was one of the extraordinary skill sets brought from people who'd learned the finer arts of gentle persusasion when dealing with animals. Don't miss Chapter 7,"Western Frontiers," or the section on "Singing the Herd," or the way Methodist hymns and "Negro spirituals" morphed into many of the cowboy songs we know today. The legendary horse whisperer Robert Lemmons, despite hostility and racism, managed to buy land and tame some white racists as well as a lot of horses. To this day, his descendants own land and businesses in Texas. "Only in America!"as Larry the Cable Guy might say. Line after quotable line is highlighted in my Kindle. E.g. , "To travel in Africa is to discover again and yet again the enormous scale and unimaginable beauty of this great continent. It is also to observe its vast abundance, teeming diversity, deep dynamics, and inexhaustible creativity." And this: "African slaves were not passive victims of their bondage. They responded by actively supporting each other, and by creating systems of mutual support." They had a system of drumming messages far and wide, said to be faster than the telegraph. They brought us the banjo. African gifts of language and speech (they were multi-lingual, quick with rhyme and rhythm, easily able to learn new languages) made them in demand as interpreters when colonists found themselves unable to converse with Native Americans, slaves, and settlers from Spain, Germany, or other neighboring countries of Europe. The slaves were just as quick to create new languages in America. Some of the most famous horse gentlers of Texas were African American women. Again I say: do not skim or skip Chapter 7. Chapter 8, Maritime Frontiers, is full of fantastic stories and evidence of the ingenuity of African ship builders. A boat almost 8,000 years old, found in Nigeria in 1987, sheds new light on a lost "aquatic civilization" in the middle of West Africa, going back to the Pleistocene Era. Many centuries before the navigators of Europe, Africans were building boats, perfecting them, and accumulating knowledge of the rivers and coasts of their vast continent. In what is now Liberia and Sierra Leone, Kru seamen were in great demand. Highly skilled boatbilders carefully preserved time-honored techniques, and their knowledge was imported to America via skilled craftsmen who were captured and enslaved. Even if you know nothing about sailing, page after page will enthrall you. Europeans, so proud of their own vessels, were humbled and amazed by West African builders, saying "the speed with which these people make these boats travel is beyond belief." Another awesome aspect of African mariners is their spiritual outlook. The Congo people, e.g., cultivated the idea of the sea as the realm of many spirits, where magical things happen in ways that are in the control of higher powers. Those in touch with water spirits would be able to conciliate them, wearing fetishes and speaking words of thanks to their patron-spirits of the sea. While Euro-Americans might flatter themselves that Western ways of thinking are superior, in many cases, the Africans' animalist beliefs in the sea as a world of spirits set them in a league above the Western mariners. So did their swimming skills. While many Africans and Native Americans were superb swimmers, most white men had never learned to swim, even if they were sailors. Many drowned within swimming distance of shores. Chapter 8 is brimming with stories and names we should celebrate and remember. If nothing else, this much is worth committing to memory: African boatbuilders, Europeans, and American Indians all learned from each other in the New World. In a similar way, music and religion were shaped by contributions from Africans in the New World. Jazz, rap, hip hop, spirituals, hymns, and cowboy songs emerged from a mingling of different cultures. I was glad to see that the term "cultural appropriation" is not mentioned in this book. We have all influenced one another, and to get territorial about it would leave me asking why Americans don't accuse anyone of "cultural appropriation" when people of other cultures wear Levi jeans, sneakers, baseball caps, and T-shirts, to name just a few ways that American culture has been adopted by others. But I digress. One bit of American history is missing from this book: the way President Monroe in the early 1800s sent several ships to Sierra Leone, looking to build a new nation for freed slaves to return to Africa, but Sierra Leone turned them away, and many perished after the long voyage from New England to Africa. Liberia did become a new nation, with its capital city named Monrovia, for Monroe, but not all that many freed or escaped slaves left the U.S. to return to Africa. A hundred years later, Marcus Garvey tried to send ships to Liberia, to build a new nation modeled after the economic freedom and prosperity of the U.S., but the FBI got him imprisoned and exiled, and the nation of free blacks as envisioned by Garvey did not come to pass, except perhaps as the fictional Wakonda in comic books. Hackett Fischer does mention "New Liberia" in New Haven, CT, but if he explained the Monroe administration's efforts to return African slaves to their homeland, to a land of THEIR OWN, I missed it. Garvey envisoned a new nation with Africans returning to their homeland from America, a free people, governed by themselves, not by descendants of white colonists. History books seem to erase him, and Garvey's grandson was turned down when he petitioned President Obama to issue him a posthumous pardon (for crimes Garvey didn't even commit, but he served time in prison and was exiled from America for the rest of his life). Hacket Fischer's focal point is more on how Africans in America came to embrace the concept of liberty and equality and opportunity, even though barriers of racism and injustice made it much harder for them to succeed than for other Americans. "Inequality" is another issue, and I wrote a long paragraph about that this morning, only to have my entire original review VANISH, and I have just spent my afternoon rewriting the review from memory, minus the excerpts and quotes I took time to type earlier. Given the horror of writing a long review and having it disappear beyond all salvage after hitting the SEND button, I may make this my last book review for NetGalley. Thank you for the ARC, but what happened today is ludicrious, and hardly anyone reads my reviews anyway, so my career as a book critic may be winding down after I've sung the praises of "African Founders." This is a must-read, a worthwhile, well-written, engaging, and illuminating saga, packed full of historical documents and stories that really happened. If you prefer to get your history in fictional form, you might want to learn about "Fort Negro" via the novel "Down Freedom River" by Joseph Green. So many, many great stories in this book - I will not rewrite from scratch all my comments on the Black Seminoles, or the Comanches who fought them, or the many groups who would offer the Black Seminoles a chance to buy land and settle nearby, on the condition that they defend their neighbors from enemy invaders, so great was the military prowess of the African Americans who married Native Americans and became the most accomplished of warriors. Rather than read my long review, just get the book and see for yourself: the skill set, knowledge, aptitude, attributes, intelligence, athletic ability, linguistics and musical talents, and more, all show that African Americans are far from the dark stereotype of an "inferior" race and are, indeed, in so many ways, the "superior" beings. Not that I'm arguing for a reverse form of racism here, but "African Founders" shows us how our Founding Fathers were influenced by other cultures. Hackett Fischer does not mention the contributions of Native Americans to Thomas Jefferson's vision of a free republic (Ian Frazier makes that case quite eloquently in "On the Rez"), but he does a splendid job of showing how African Americans have helped to make America a land of opportunity, even as racism and injsutice set back so many of them.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Scott J Pearson

    African-American contributions to American history are often pushed to the side and either given a lower priority when presented or segregated into its own area. These stories are often discussed during Black History Month, but then forgotten in the remaining eleven months of the year. In this book, a (white) Pulitzer Prize-winning author seeks to make a comprehensive, foundational case that enslaved people significantly enriched the cultural course of America – all before the Civil War. He does African-American contributions to American history are often pushed to the side and either given a lower priority when presented or segregated into its own area. These stories are often discussed during Black History Month, but then forgotten in the remaining eleven months of the year. In this book, a (white) Pulitzer Prize-winning author seeks to make a comprehensive, foundational case that enslaved people significantly enriched the cultural course of America – all before the Civil War. He does so in just under 1,000 pages with meticulous research and engaging prose. Fischer admits that the story of African contributions varies regionally. Thus, he divides his narrative into nine regions, each with its own story, cultural influences, and main actors. Intellectual and spiritual New England fares differently than French/Spanish Louisiana, and Charleston’s Gullah culture varies from Pennsylvania’s Quakers. Organizing this story into regions allows Fischer to describe America in all its diversity. Then he describes how each region was made vitally better by African contributions, in a way that you could not imagine the history existing without these contributions. Importantly, Fischer traces African-American cultural history back to Africa. Into the historical narrative, he integrates information about the names of enslaved people along with where boats transported from. Then he reconstructs the culture of the tribes and countries that these people came from. Thus, the prior lives of enslaved African are respected as they use these skills in a new setting. For example, African boat-making skills, formed especially by one African tribe, added to European boats in the Chesapeake Bay region of America. This technological innovation allowed the region to better conduct commerce among dispersed towns. The tales of individual African-Americans are told here. Some were names I knew, but Fischer still introduced me to so many characters. Even though many whites sought to oppress blacks, enslaved Africans persisted to contribute their knowledge to construct America. Fischer proves that thesis exhaustively, with detail after detail, as he makes the case that American history and American ideals simply could not be without their African roots. I’m not a historian, only a fan of history, so I cannot critically judge the quality of historiography in this book. I trust Fischer’s Pulitzer and distinguished academic credentials (a university professor at Brandeis) are fairly earned. Nonetheless, this book is one of the best histories I have ever read (and I’ve read hundreds). It breaks down an important, complex issue in detailed fashion, and then rebuilds it in a new way that advances the conversation. Words like brilliant and ingenious come to mind. I sincerely hope that Fischer’s take on race in America will achieve its potential in bringing a richer, more diverse, and more honest discussion of who we Americans are.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Mystic Miraflores

    This was a well-researched and extensively-documented history book. As an immigrant who came to the US as a baby, everything I learned in the US school system was about how the White People did this and that, established this and that, won this and that, etc. Now I am more conscious about the indigenous people who used to "own" the area that is now the US. For example, my husband and I just took an RV trip to the West Virginia mountains. I was wondering which tribes used to live in these lands, This was a well-researched and extensively-documented history book. As an immigrant who came to the US as a baby, everything I learned in the US school system was about how the White People did this and that, established this and that, won this and that, etc. Now I am more conscious about the indigenous people who used to "own" the area that is now the US. For example, my husband and I just took an RV trip to the West Virginia mountains. I was wondering which tribes used to live in these lands, now called "The George Washington Forest" system. Similarly, after reading Prof. Fischer's book, I'll try to find the footprints and influence of the African-American founders of the US.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Lezley

    Recommended by Goodreads

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  9. 4 out of 5

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  10. 5 out of 5

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  38. 5 out of 5

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