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

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