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African Founders and the Early Black American Experience
David Hackett Fischer is a historian who wrote a Pulitzer prize winning book about George Washington and is probably best known for his provocative 1989 book Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America. (Albion is another name for the British isles).
Albion’s Seed is a fascinating book that examines four American regional cultures through the lens of their different origin points in Great Britain: The Puritans of Massachusetts from East Anglia, the Cavaliers of Virginia from the South of England, the Quakers of Pennsylvania from the North Midlands, and Scots-Irish of the backcountry from the borderlands of England and Scotland. He examines each of these cultures across 20+ different folkway dimensions from their buildings to their marriage practices to the way the they treated the elderly to the way they cooked their food.
It’s an utterly fascinating book, one that I’d highly recommend, with the caveat that it’s about 1000 pages long. For those who haven’t read it or don’t want to take the time, Scott Alexander wrote a detailed review of it.
Last year Fischer released what he billed as a companion volume: African Founders: How Enslaved People Expanded American Ideals. It’s another massive and impressive book, 25 years or more in the making.
African Founders is intended to complement Albion’s Seed by telling the story of black Americans from the early colonial period up through the mid-19th century, and also expanding the geographic coverage of the first book. It examines three northern regions (New England, the Hudson Valley, and the Delaware Valley) and three southern regions (Chesapeake Virginia and Maryland; Coastal Carolina, Georgia, and Florida; and Louisiana, Mississippi, and the Gulf Coast). He also includes three chapters that he dedicates to what he called “frontier” regions, but these are essentially supplemental chapters that deal with specific groups of people rather than regions per se.
African Founders is extremely informative and fascinating, if ultimately less successful than Albion’s Seed. It contains an unbelievable wealth of information about the early period of the black experience in America. A few examples:
There’s significant data about the transportation of slaves out of Africa, and where they were sent (not where you might think if you aren’t already familiar with the data).
He describes databases scholars have created that cover about 80% of all the Atlantic slave ship voyages that occurred. This database includes the ports they visited in both Africa and the United States, and how many slaved were purchased, sold, and died along the voyages.
Because of these and other data sets, there’s actually good knowledge of where in Africa the slaves that were brought to the various regions of the United States originated. Other research into slave genealogies allows scholars to track families over long periods of time.
Many slaves had converted to Christianity in Africa. They were Christians before being sent to America. Many of them were Catholic, which added the indignity of having been held as slaves by Protestants in America.
A number of slaves brought to America were Islamic, and were sometimes highly educated and literate. This often caught people’s attention. At least one prominent Muslim from Africa who had been enslaved was freed, traveled to London and explored a bit of the Christian world before returning Africa and resuming his original place in his society.
Some wealthy African leaders sent their children to be educated in Europe or even America, just as might happen today. There may have even been two of these black students who graduated from Princeton (?!).
Slaves were described in both Africa and the US as being especially good with languages. They found it much easier than whites, for example, to learn Indian languages, and often ended up as interpreters of one type or another. (My impression is that many Africans today continue to be multi-lingual. Former UN secretary general Kofi Annan spoke numerous languages, for example).
While billed as a companion to Albion’s Seed, African Founders only superficially follows the original book’s methodology. Some of this is a result of demographic realities. While there were connections between specific American regions and specific regions in Africa, ultimately the slave populations were more diverse in origins, and lacked the single dominant culture of say Puritan Massachusetts. Also, with the exception of Louisiana, Fischer never demonstrates how slaves or free blacks helped create their overall regional cultures in a significant way, which is interesting given the large impact of blacks on modern American culture.
Some of differences also result from Fischer’s decision not to discuss specific folkways in the same sort of systematic detail at the previous book. We learn some things, such as how slaves in America combined African and European building techniques in designing structures they built, but these are more examples than a systematic review. He does not give all that much detail about the folkways of African people groups or American blacks as compared to what’s in Albion’s Seed.
It’s very obvious that Fischer intentionally took a hagiographic approach to his subjects, and this clearly informs his decision on what to report. Albion’s Seed tells us all sorts of things about the white settlers of America that makes them seem strange, bizarre, or even revolting. For example, it describes the Puritan courting practice of “bundling,” in which a young man and woman would spend a night together in bed fully clothed, but with a board between them to separate them. As I recall, he also described an example of a no-holds-barred “rough and tumble” fight among the Scots-Irish in which one participant had his eyes gouged out and the other his nose bitten off.
African Founders contains nothing like that. No negative information about African cultures is reported, apart from the unavoidable fact that they themselves practiced slavery and were the ones who originally enslaved and trafficked those sent overseas. And other than one small section about how certain African boat builders were “idolators” in their religious practices, we don’t really hear anything that would strike an American as especially strange either. Whenever Fischer does recount some African or black American cultural practice, he editorially informs us how we should view it, typically using superlatives like “creative,” “complex” “exceptional,” and “astonishing.” The exception that proves the rule is when he described an African people called the Imbangala, of whom he includes a hostile description as “a predatory people who worshipped dark spirits, engaged in sorcery, practiced cannibalism, and made a virtue of violence.” Notably, he never describes any Imbangala as becoming slaves in America, only that they enslaved others. Thus he is free to use that type of description for them.
In short, African Founders provides only a limited and highly curated view of folkways in both Africa and America.
But once we recognize that this is not an Albion’s Seed for black Americans, the virtues of African Founders can be seen in their own right.
Firstly, the book, as I noted, contains a wealth of information about the early days of the American colonies, particularly with regards to slaves, and also free blacks. We learn the statistical facts around how many slaves arrived, when and from where, along with their share of the population at various points in time. The economic, legal, and cultural systems of slavery in various regions is explored as well.
The book also tries to describe something of how blacks responded to the various conditions in which they found themselves. In the North, blacks were a minority. Fischer argues that in at least a couple of the regions, the culture of the tribal groups in Africa that accounted for the largest number of early slaves were aligned with the white culture groups, namely with a focus on virtue in New England and commerce/trade in the Hudson Valley.
These slaves created novel combinations of their African culture and European culture in building what lives they could in America. I mentioned their buildings above, for example. They also availed themselves of the means at hand to advance their interest in securing freedom, or at least as much freedom as possible. In New England, slaves had some access to the court system, for example. In the New York City they bargained with the Dutch to achieve a status of “half freedom” and other such improvements in their condition. Free blacks acted similarly to advance their rights. Through this process, the American ideals of freedom were increasingly realized in practice, or expanded from their original conception, hence Fischer’s subtitle from the book.
In the South, blacks were a majority of the population. This allowed them to create and sustain more fully fledged cultures of their own apart from white society. This included drawing from many different aspects of their various African origins, creating their own languages, their own craft traditions, etc. The prime example here were the Gullah and Geechee cultures along the Atlantic coast that still exist today at some level. This also happened in Louisiana, where black culture further contributed to the mélange that became the overall culture of the state. I actually knew little about the history of Louisiana apart from it having once been French, and the books provides an interesting summary of its overall development.
African Founders has gotten quite a few reviews, mostly generous. However, it hasn’t become a major driver of public discussion. This may in part be because of its length. But it’s surely also because Fischer’s take is implicitly non-woke and presented in contrast to framings such as the New York Times’ 1619 Project. He wants to highlight black agency and accomplishment, even if the face of cruel injustices. He wants to showcase to the extent he can what blacks’ African origins contributed to America through creative engagement and synthesis with European and even Indian cultures, such as in the design and building of boats. He also believes in America and the American project. Alas, this dooms his book as a driver of public discourse, even if the woke would surely find it fascinating, too.
A second things the book does well is document the horrors of slavery. While not simply a catalogue of injustices, it does demonstrate the terrible things that were done to slaves in every region of the country. Some of the stories are uncomfortable and unpleasant to read. But they provide necessary context to the realities of slavery. The punishments dealt out to whites during the time in question were surely also cruel and unusual to our view. But those given to slaves were in a category of their own.
A third accomplishment of the book is in telling a large number of inspiring stories of black accomplishment, by both slaves and free blacks. I had heard of remarkably few of these. I’ve said it many time, despite all the black history months we’ve all been through by now, it’s remarkably about many incredible black stories aren’t known. Many of these truly are incredible stories.
The main weakness of the book is again that Fischer clearly decided to focus almost exclusively on positive elements of African and American black life (apart from external oppression). Thus, despite its 750 page length, it has the feel of an incomplete, curated view, unlike the fully fleshed out “warts and all” portrayals in Albion’s Seed.
There are also some weird omissions from the book. He doesn’t say much about spirituals until the conclusion of the book. Although Fischer talks extensively about creative synthesis of African and European cultures, I don’t recall him even mentioning things like Louisiana Voodoo. And weirdly, he multiple times cites Michelle Obama as a modern example of Gullah culture, but neither my wife nor I recall him mentioning Clarence Thomas, who actually grew up in a Gullah speaking home in the Deep South. Clarence Thomas’ first language was Gullah! (I read the hardcover edition so can’t do a text search to confirm, but Michelle Obama is listed in the index and Clarence Thomas is not. Nor is Louisiana Voodoo).
Regardless, this book is very worth reading. I would especially encourage pastors and those in the evangelical world who are focused on or interested in racial justice to read it. Unfortunately, despite the immense amount of rhetoric in the American church about race today, I see little evidence that the people talking know much about the topic. They are almost always just obviously reciting talking points, and evince little substantive knowledge of race in America. I don’t claim to be an expert on race, but I have studied cities extensively, and you can’t think about cities in America without considering race. Just with what I’ve learned there, I know a lot more than the average pastor.
If people want to make a practice of preaching or writing about race, they ought to at least, as it were, do the work. A good way to start is by reading Albion’s Seed and then African Founders, which will give a grounding in much of the origins and development of slavery and the life of free blacks in early America, as well as the nature of early settlement n America. If nothing else, it will give us - myself included - a sense of humility about how little we actually know on the topic.
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Colin Woodard in Washington Monthly: America’s Black Founders - David Hackett Fischer demonstrates the centrality of people of African descent in shaping this country’s regional cultures.
Drew Gilpin Faust in the New York Times: White and Black: A Historian Traces African-American Influences in the United States