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African Founders, American Liberty

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African Founders, American Liberty

A magisterial new book shows the contributions that slaves made to freedom. September 2, 2022
The Social Order
Arts and Culture

African Founders: How Enslaved People Expanded American Ideals, by David Hackett Fischer (Simon & Schuster, 944 pp., $40)

Anyone who sets out to write a history of slavery in America must walk a thin and perilous line between affirmation and denial. When Stanley Elkins published Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life in 1959, he compared the dehumanization of black slaves to the psychological “infantilization” of concentration-camp inmates during the Holocaust. Elkins thought of this as a critique of the totalitarian nature of Southern slavery, in opposition to the absurdly sunny depictions of it in Ulrich Bonnell Phillips’s American Negro Slavery (1918). But Elkins found himself bitterly criticized for framing slaves as helpless and brainwashed. As Eugene Genovese wrote in response to Elkins, the supposedly docile “Sambo” was actually playing a game of “day-to-day resistance” on the master, and Elkins was erasing his dignity. On the other hand, when Genovese published Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (1974), he was just as roundly criticized for picturing slave “resistance” to slaveowners’ control as so pervasive, and so characterized by negotiation between black slaves and white owners, that slavery seemed like just another demeaning labor relationship. So, we are faced with what Manisha Sinha has described as a historians’ Hobson’s Choice: “We either accept Elkins’s view of slavery as a totalitarian institution and the concomitant one-dimensional and ahistorical picture of all slaves as imitative ‘Sambos,’ or we follow Genovese’s paternalism thesis if we want to stress the creation of African American culture under slavery.”

Though David Hackett Fischer never mentions Genovese by name in his new African Founders: How Enslaved People Expanded American Ideals, it is likely that the book will be seen as falling largely on the Genovese side of the slavery-history tightrope. African Founders follows a pathway Fischer laid out in his 1989 opus, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, in which cultural anthropology rather than politics, economics, or (worst of all) genealogy becomes the key to understanding the early American experience. “The present area of the United States was settled by at least four large waves of English-speaking immigrants,” Fischer wrote in Albion’s Seed: East Anglian Puritans, a royalist elite “from the south of England,” a third wave from the Midlands and Wales, and finally a “flow” from north Britain and northern Ireland. Each wave brought a distinctive culture with it; each established a distinctive regional footprint in America; and “strong echoes” of each remain audible in “the major dialects” of American speech and in the “continuing conflict between four different ideas of freedom in the United States.”

In African Founders, Fischer applies this strategy to the history of slavery and its long-term influence in American life. As with the English-speaking “folkways” of Albion’s Seed, Fischer discerns the cultural patterns of four distinct regions—the Senegambia, the Guinea coast (modern Ghana, Nigeria and the Côte d’Ivoire), the Congo-Angola, and east Africa and Mozambique—in the 400,000 Africans who were victims of the North American slave trade between 1501 and 1867. The cultures represented by these Africans planted themselves in distinct ways in seven American regions: New England, the Hudson River Valley, the Delaware Valley, the Chesapeake, the South Atlantic Coast, Louisiana, and the West. But these distinct African cultures did not remain distinct unto themselves. They blended with the regional cultures of the colonists who enslaved them, leaving indelible marks on each of these regions and on American notions of freedom and liberty.

Take New England: the first slaves in Massachusetts came as a trickle from Barbados, and then, after 1700, African slaves arrived as a flood from the Guinea coast. Based on naming patterns, Fischer estimates that “a majority of the 60 to 70 percent” of African slaves arriving in New England until the Revolution were Akan-speaking (either Fante or Asante peoples) and the product of a warrior culture that forced “New England masters” into a “sharing of legitimate power and authority with African slaves.” The Dutch settlements in New Netherland represented an entirely different style, based around raw acquisitiveness—and so did the Angolans who were transported there. The Angolans “shared an instrumental and entrepreneurial spirit” and made the most of it in what became New York by the “rapid growth of marketable skills.” In the Delaware valley, Quakerism imposed the least onerous of colonial burdens on Africans through “close personal relations that were deep, genuine, long-lasting, and corrosive of slavery and racism in many ways.” In Louisiana, where the slave population came largely from the Senegambia, African roots fostered “a spirit of comity, collective belonging and mutual respect” that “enriched the entire fabric” of an already-unique American culture.

Tracking the path of distinctive African folkways is not quite as straightforward a task in African Founders as it was for Fischer to chart English folkways in Albion’s Seed. Even at its most survivable, slavery made little room for literacy or the personal written records that literacy generates. Fischer looked instead for evidence of African cultural patterns in housing styles, burial practices, fragmentary observations by white onlookers (who themselves had little way of identifying what was particular in cultural practices), and even fugitive advertisements. Nevertheless, he can find an African imprint in descriptions of religious rituals, marriage and family practices, and above all, in blended language systems—the “Black Dutch” recorded by a Maryland lawyer in 1744 and still spoken in isolated communities in the twentieth century, the Geechee and Gullah dialects of the Carolina coast (which were, in effect, “truly new languages”), and the Afro-French Gombo of the lower Mississippi delta.

The overarching significance of these language survivals, however, is that they were syncretistic—and indeed syncretism rather than separatism is the fundamental gospel Fischer wants to preach in African Founders. Fischer finds that the slaves brought Africa directly to America, without any traces of intermediate creolization from slaves passing first through the West Indies or elsewhere. The African cultures he describes are direct transplants, not hybrids. And it is not hard to see why this is important to his argument since accounting for the unique blends of colonizer and slave cultures would be infinitely harder to do if the slaves had passed through some earlier process of enculturation between Africa and America. But if slavery is about oppression—and Fischer does not deny that it is—it is an oppression that failed to eradicate African cultural practices, then decided to absorb them.

The problem Fischer faces is that absorption and syncretism are not popular messages, if only because the vast area Fischer creates for their operation may seem to imply, like Genovese, that oppression was not all that oppressive, and that power is not the sole factor in human relations. He is diligent in lavishing praise on Africans. They learn with “incredible speed,” display “extraordinary competence, strength, dignity and moral authority,” cultivate “a spiritual movement of astonishing power,” were “highly respected by English purchasers,” and were “treated with respect and deference.” But the result for Fischer may well be the accusation that this is merely a relapse into Genovese’s resistance paradigm, or worse, into Phillips’s historical happy-talk, when in fact there should be nothing happy or resistant to be talked about in human bondage.

Much more than Phillips or Genovese, the shadow that hangs over African Founders is the New York Times’s 1619 Project. Though Fisher never mentions the 1619 Project by name, it is certainly a collateral target for him. The 1619 Project is built around the premise that the American story of liberty is really a disgraceful story of bondage, beginning with the first Jamestown slaves and continuing through a Revolution in 1776 that was mounted largely to protect slavery in America from British intrusion. The purpose of the 1619 Project has been “to reframe American history” by placing “the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are as a country.”

But if there is any message in African Founders, it is that there is no one racial “center” to the American story, that the “contributions of black Americans” have been to a syncretism that celebrates liberty, and as part of a constantly shifting, constantly expanding chorus, not as an alternative solo voice. Fischer is frankly disturbed that “the tone of much American historical writing” has “turned deeply negative,” and abandoned the celebration of the “vibrant traditions of freedom and liberty and the rule of law” in favor of “strident demands for ‘political correctness’” and for historical narratives which are “deliberate falsehoods, actively concocted . . . in new forms of rhetoric and communication.” Fischer is staggered by the claim that the American Revolution was a defense of slavery. How can that be, when Britain’s German mercenaries noted that “you do not see a regiment” in the Continental Army “in which there is not a large number of blacks”? Africans did not contradict American ideas of freedom; they embraced them and enlarged them alongside other Americans “by linking those ideas to a larger spirit of equality and humanity.”

Fischer decries the notion that racism is systemic to America. “Ideologies of racism are errors of modernity,” not of the American Founding, and to condemn America as ineffably racist is not only “fundamentally false” but “misses the successful efforts of twelve generations of Americans” to eradicate it, and to miss their “positive achievements and its central dynamics.” But the objection will arise at once that Fischer is describing just one strain of racism, as though only the fully formed development of race in “modernity” counts as a definition, when there are cognate notions—tribalism, language, religion, nationalism, ethnicity—that have operated as lethal forerunners (and modern cognates) to race since classical times.

There is much about which people will complain in African Founders—its prolixity, its vagueness in defining and identifying culture and cultures, its occasional rhetorical overreach and moments of first-person intrusion. But in all likelihood, the real rock of offense will be Fischer’s contention that liberty is the story of our African founders, and that liberty blended them with American founders. Bless him anyway. His encyclopedic understanding of slavery in American regions from Texas to Massachusetts will make African Founders a book to reckon with and to reference for years to come.

Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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