American Founders reveals men and women of African descent as key protagonists in the story of American democracy. It chronicles how black people developed and defended New World settlements, undermined slavery, and championed freedom throughout the hemisphere from the sixteenth thorough the twentieth centuries. While conventional history tends to reduce the roles of African Americans to antebellum slavery and the civil rights movement, in reality African residents preceded the English by a century and arrived in the Americas in numbers that far exceeded European migrants up until 1820. Afro-Americans were omnipresent in the founding and advancement of the Americas, and recurrently outnumbered Europeans at many times and places, from colonial Peru to antebellum Virginia. African-descended people contributed to every facet of American history as explorers, conquistadores, settlers, soldiers, sailors, servants, slaves, rebels, leaders, lawyers, litigants, laborers, artisans, artists, activists, translators, teachers, doctors, nurses, inventors, investors, merchants, mathematicians, scientists, scholars, engineers, entrepreneurs, generals, cowboys, pirates, professors, politicians, priests, poets, and presidents. The multitude of events and mixed-race individuals included in the book underscores that black and white Americans share the same history, and in many cases, the same ancestry. American Founders is meant to celebrate this shared heritage and strengthen these bonds.
Recently, a famous U.S. musician tweeted that Atlantic World slavery lasted so long because enslaved people chose it. He should have read American Founders before he pressed send. In lucid and accessible prose, Proenza-Coles easily debunks the mythological thinking that imagines African descended people as voluntary participants in their own enslavement. Instead, she offers a sweeping history of African-descended people in the Americas that not only centers them in the fight for their own freedom, but also positions them as the intellectual progenitors and central actors in freedom struggles throughout the Americas. Pointedly, she notes that the first court-recognized enslaved person in the future United States was also the first person to launch a legal fight against it. With an uncanny ability to tackle her subject in broad yet digestible strokes (her history of slavery begins in Mesopotamia), what Proenza-Coles does best is detail individual accounts of bravery, resistance and resilience (some well known, others not so much) that challenge prevailing notions that black folks sat on the sidelines of American history. This is no "Forrest Gump” version of events where black people just happened to be there. Instead, American Founders
makes plain that the possibility of freedom was conceptualized and enacted by black people throughout the Americas, sometimes in conjunction with European and Native actors, but often by themselves.
—Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor, associate professor of history, Smith College, author of Colored Travelers: Mobility and the Fight for Citizenship before the Civil War
This narrative history illuminates the myriad ways by which individuals of African descent fought for their freedom in the Americas -- through maroon communities and military service, journalism and political organization, court petitions and club movements. It can stand as a model of a new kind of hemispheric history, as defined by the slave trade and European contact, a counternarrative to help guide historical change.
—Joel Dinerstein, Clark Chair of American Civilization at Tulane University, author of Swinging the Machine: Modernity, Technology, and African American Culture between the World Wars
In this kaleidoscopic narrative, American Founders
tackles the long history of people of African descent in the Western Hemisphere. The book shows how Americans of African origin have been central to our country's history and served as active agents in pushing for their freedom and the freedom of others. Proenza-Coles writes well, her mining of her sources is impressive, her argument cogent. A passionate work of history with a clear point of view.
To say that any work reminds us of the grand contributions to rethinking the past and the present of the late Vincent Harding risks seeming like hyperbole. But American Founders
does just that, with an added hemispheric and global dimension and array of student-friendly features making it ideal for classroom use. Proenza-Coles gives us a stirring and sweeping history that shows how appreciation of the freedom struggles of African-descended people changes the whole story of national histories.
—David Roediger, Foundation Professor of American Studies at the University of Kansas, author of The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class
offers an extraordinary, compelling new narrative of the African role in creating the Americas of the Western Hemisphere. From hundreds of sources Christina Proenza-Coles has gathered the stories of people of African descent — politicians, soldiers, poets, journalists, doctors, teachers, and entrepreneurs — who laid the foundations of the New World. Briskly and vividly told, this important work illuminates both the past and the present.
—Henry Wiencek, author of Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves, and The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in Biography
Erudite and balanced, Christina Proenza-Coles traces a complicated and arresting history with scholarly skill and finesse. She compellingly makes the case that the story of greater America is a deeply interconnected history where people of African descent played a more comprehensive, indelible, and sweeping role than once thought. Emerging from her story is a hopeful vision of a common past that links us more than it divides. The dignity she traces builds the framework for a new understanding of freedom, and expands the pantheon of freedom’s founders and its defenders in the articulation of the idea of America. Her book is a feat of synthesis and hemispheric understanding, one that refreshingly unites broad reaches of space and time.
—Ben Vinson III, Dean of Columbian College of Arts and Sciences at George Washington University, author of Before Mestizaje: The Frontiers of Race and Caste in Colonial Mexico
is a much needed, well researched, original contribution to studies of Africans in the Americas. The book's breadth of time and place reveals the largely unknown, indomitable, and courageous struggles for freedom of African-descended peoples and their enormous contributions to the arts and sciences and the wealth of the Americas. Most important, this book convincingly argues that we are all one, both biologically and culturally.
—Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, professor emeritus of Latin American and Caribbean studies at Rutgers University, author of Slavery and African Ethnicities in the Americas: Restoring the Links
In this persuasive work, historian Proenza-Coles challenges what she calls 'the simplest version of [American] popular history.' She shows that men and women of color 'were central to the founding of the Americas, the establishment of New World nations, the dismantling of slavery, and the rise of freedom in the Americas.' She emphasizes African Americans’ role in shaping both their own lives and American life as a whole and presents succinct but engaging accounts of previously obscure individuals like Elizabeth Jennings Graham, who sued successfully for the desegregation of Manhattan’s streetcars in 1855. Lucid prose and straightforward structure make this easy to read, and the unearthing of so many lesser-known figures offers new perspectives to those with deeper knowledge of American history.
—Publishers Weekly Starred Review
In our politically divided nation, this book shines welcomed light on our common heritage and how many people from diverse backgrounds truly made America great!
—The Fayetteville Observer
Expertly researched, yet thoroughly accessible to readers of all backgrounds, American Founders
is a welcome and highly recommended contribution to both public and college library American History collections.
—Midwest Book Review