Discover more from MILLER’S BOOK REVIEW 📚
The Freedom You Make for Yourself
African-American Responses to Slavery. Reviewing David Hackett Fischer’s ‘African Founders’
In debates concerning critical race theory and American history there seem two extremes: one for whom nothing ugly about our racial past should be raised and another for whom nothing but ugly exists. And, as Tom Wolfe said in The Right Stuff, “All holes in the argument”—on either side—“were immediately vulcanized by the heat of the emotion.”
Into that smoldering false dichotomy steps Pulitzer-winning historian David Hackett Fischer with a sweeping, hulking narrative of his own. Fischer argues in African Founders: How Enslaved People Expanded American Ideals that no humanity, no matter how oppressed, fails to assert its creativity and claim its autonomy in whatever ways possible.
And the catalogue of achievements is not only vast, it’s also inspiring—especially in light of the oppression endured from the majority-white population.
Cultures in Collision
“This book is an inquiry into what happened when when Africans and Europeans came to North America, and the growth of race slavery collided with expansive ideas of freedom and liberty and the rule of law in the European and mostly English-speaking colonies that became the United States,” Fischer explains.
He divides the book into nine chapters, each focused on a different region of the country. New England, the Hudson Valley, and the Delaware Valley take up the first third of the book before the action moves southward for the second—into the Chesapeake, Coastal Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, and then Louisiana, Mississippi, and the Gulf Coast. In the final third of the book, Fischer treats three frontiers: Western, Southern, and the seas.
Along the way, he answers three basic questions:
How did slavery look on the ground in each of these regions? American locales differed not only in law and custom but also in the cultural backgrounds of their enslaved populations, coming as they did from different areas in Africa.
How did enslaved and free Africans act amid and despite these various conditions? Responses to repression reveal the amount of agency individuals were able to express.
What were the impacts of those responses? In other words, what effect did these enslaved or formerly enslaved Africans have upon the society which denied their freedom?
Fischer begins in New England with the remarkable story of Coffe Slocum. Born on the Gold Coast in 1717 and purchased at age ten by a Fante middleman, Coffe ended up in New England as the possession of a Quaker named John Slocum. His ambivalent master allowed the adult Coffe to purchase his freedom. Once free, Coffe married a Wampanoag woman and the two built a life together—raising children, finding a line of profitable work.
In 1766, Coffe purchased a 116-acre farm in Dartmouth and laid a solid foundation for later generations to build upon. He left a journal, which contains moral and ethical reflections that Fischer finds noteworthy because they represent “something new in the world,” an ethic constructed on African and Puritan-Quaker sources as these two “traditions met in the mind of a very bright and able Akan-speaking freedman. . . .”
That “something new” runs throughout Fischer’s analysis, as he reveals how the contributions of enslaved or formally enslaved people carved out spaces for their own freedom and even changed the larger society in the process.
Coffe Slocum represents a bright spot in a dark history. “Less than 5 percent of New England slaves became free before 1760,” says Fischer. The rest endured harsh and heavy labor. Some, as he notes, were worked to death by cruel and indifferent masters; forensic pathologists studying human remains find, among other things, evidence of muscles and ligaments having been ripped from bones.
Amid and against these conditions, Africans persisted and resisted. Some continued African folkways. Others took up Christianity but developed their own practices and traditions, leading to spiritual expressions still with us today in the black church. Despite official discouragement and sometimes significant consequences, the enslaved gathered on their own whenever able for religious services and other reasons, including impromptu horse races.
The enslaved even used the New England legal system when possible. They petitioned the courts for redress, sometimes winning. Fischer documents several cases of self-emancipation. Observing these efforts stirred anti-slavery sentiments in onlookers such as John and Abigail Adams.
Enslaved Africans in the Hudson Valley’s Dutch colony learned to use official channels as well. Some felt they deserved pay for laboring on public projects; in 1635 they petitioned and won, getting the same pay as European workers. In 1644 eleven men petitioned the Dutch director-general for their freedom and won “half freedom” for themselves and their families; they were officially freed but owed the Dutch West Indian Company some of the produce of their lands or trapping.
“Half freedom” began extending to others who petitioned for it, though the terms worsened; instead of gaining freedom for entire families, petitioners were forced to purchase freedom for their children. What’s both surprising and noteworthy, however, is that the enslaved found ways of using the slaveholders’ own system to undo their bondage, leveraging it at their own initiative for their own liberty.
Slaves resisted in other ways, too, including uprisings and armed revolts, as happened in New York in 1712. It was the precursor to many such events. The 1730s saw “a great wave of slave revolts and conspiracies,” says Fischer. New York had more than most, but the enslaved Africans took arms or planned to do so in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, South Carolina, Louisiana, the Virgin Islands, Jamaica, and Antigua. According to Fischer, these uprisings and the brutal responses they provoked edged many “people of conscience” into the anti-slavery camp.
Resistance took still more forms, including both escape and literacy. In the early part of the eighteenth century, the Church of England sponsored a school for New York’s enslaved. In 1707 more than a hundred pupils attended.
Newspaper notices for runaways provide one surprising source of evidence for literacy. In these notices, slaveholders identified characteristics of the runaway to aid in their return, including whether they could read and write. Numbers drawn from these notices likely undercount the true totals because, as Fischer notes, masters were sometimes the last to discover their people had learned to read and write.
Slaveholders, particularly, in southern states worked to keep books out of the hands of slaves. And most states forbade instruction in reading and writing. Surprisingly, however, not all followed suit. Until the end of the eighteenth century Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky and Tennessee all permitted the enslaved to acquire literacy, and these states consequently had the highest literate populations of people in bondage. Perhaps less surprisingly, these freedoms were revoked in the early nineteenth century as fear of slave uprisings spread.
Whether legal or not, many Africans worked hard to improve their situation through literacy. Fischer provides several examples. One learned by trading apples for lessons with literate boys and girls he met. Frederick Douglass famously traded food for learning as well. Another picked it up from a white orphan who lived in his master’s house. Two learned piecemeal from itinerate plasterers working on their plantation.
Literacy offered the enslaved access to ideas that elevated their self-image and station. After reading an oration of John Quincy Adams and finding “there was a place where the Negro was regarded as a man, and not as a brute,” an enslaved man in Maryland escaped North. Literacy also proved very practical, enabling the enslaved to forge documents necessary to assist their escapes.
Slavery victimized humans held in bondage, as Fischer’s exhaustive inquiry shows over and again. But those victims were not passive. They pushed back when, where, and how they could and thereby expanded not only the scope of their own freedom but also the wider society’s understanding of freedom.
That expansion is visible in the work of freed and enslaved Africans who participated in the abolition movement, cultural reforms, and more. Most of us know a few of these contributors: Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and so on. Fischer excels in highlighting many others who have garnered far less attention. Unfortunately, the names of countless more will never be known, though they’ve impacted our legal system, language, the arts, and more.
American history is full of injustice; it’s impossible to ignore. But it’s also full of examples in which injustices are overturned. And in many cases the reversals have come by the efforts of the oppressed themselves, in the process creating “something new in the world,” as Fischer says. African Founders reminds us that any history of America that excludes its capacity for reinvention and reform is an incomplete history.
Thanks for reading. If you’re enjoying Miller’s Book Review 📚 please take a second and share it with a friend!
Not a subscriber? Take a moment and do that as well. It’s free, and I’ll send you my top-ten quotes about books in your welcome email.