African Founders: How Enslaved People Expanded American Freedom

S. & S. May 2022. 800p. ISBN 9781982145095. $40. HIST
With a focus on “open inquiry and empirical truth,” Hackett Fischer (emeritus, history, Brandeis Univ.; Fairness and Freedom) investigates questions about slavery in nine American regions, supported by statistics from slavery databases and anecdotes from diaries, letters, and memoirs. He begins by tracing the origins of African slaves and white European settlers in each of the nine regions, and argues that diverse African cultural features (philosophies, ethics, folklore, language, foods, agricultural, technical skills) combined with European and Indigenous cultural practices to form enriched composite North American traditions with an enduring impact. In many of the book’s examples, African Americans creatively transformed and enlarged founding ideals and institutions (liberty, justice, marriage, property ownership, education, mutual support systems). Hackett Fischer also posits that each U.S. region’s model of slavery was unique; none were just, but some were more brutal than others. He contends too that racism was “not quintessentially American” but rose and fell in waves. Finally, he argues that historians should not focus solely on the tragic moral paradox of racism and slavery without also considering the positive, enduring impacts that enslaved and free Africans have had on the United States’ founding ideals.
VERDICT This riveting, extensive study will prove invaluable to students of the history of slavery and African American history.
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