HDavid Hackett Fischer is an historian and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Pulitzer Prize. Washington’s CrossingSince 1965, his history books have been written by. African Founders: Why Enslaved People Have Expanded American Ideals, is an encyclopedia of enslaved people’s experiences in the United States from the 17th century to the 19th century.
The book, which came out May 31, is organized by region to show how the experience of slavery differed around the country—and to show its impact in local cultures today. Fischer heavily relies on oral and written histories of enslaved or formerly enslaved people.
The topic of Fischer’s book is especially timely. The latest chapter of the culture wars is in large part focused on how much of America’s worst moments to teach its youngest students, sparked by the New York Times’s 1619 Project, a series of articles published in 2019 reframing the country’s origins around the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in Virginia 400 years ago.
Fischer speaks to TIME to discuss how he managed to create a tone that celebrated the accomplishments of African Americans, while also acknowledging the worst parts of the history of slavery. His opinion was also expressed on the 1619 Project.
The interview was edited to be more concise and clear.
Your book is called what? African Founding Fathers?
This article focuses primarily upon the contributions of individuals from nine African countries to the foundation of the great Republic.
Was there anything that surprised you about your research?
What was most important were the Africans’ writings. They described who and where they came, their personal values, aspirations, hopes, and fears for America. When they arrived, they started to create new societies in America that were based on their ideals of what a society should look like. They were usually familiar with liberty and freedom. Gradually, they started to understand the need for participation in running these societies. In the beginning, [America’s leaders were]It started out as a group of mostly male men. It began to incorporate different ethnic groups. And America’s diversity increased. All of this is what keeps us free and makes us happy today.
We have hundreds of such writings by individuals from the beginning of American history. Our great Republic and the country we live in today were born out of their goals. This book is meant to bring back the founding fathers of this great Republic and help them understand how diversity can be a key to freedom and democracy.
My favorite thing about these Africans is their creativity. These Africans learned to help other people free themselves from chains.
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We would love to see if you could highlight a few characters who can easily be taught in K-12 schools.
You can find so many. Phillis Wheatley—she was named after the slave ship that brought her to America. Susanna Wheatley, her mistress, was the one who taught Phillis reading. Phillis’ writings began to impress people and she continued to publish them. After being freed, she became emancipated and devoted her life to helping others.
A slave named Caesar was a man of great strength—a central figure in managing an industrial operation in New York, and employed a community of Angolan and Congo slaves and helped them become free. Peter, who was New York City’s doctor, worked to liberate others. Mostly, the book is about slaves enlarging the idea of liberty and freedom in America—both enlarging the number of people who were free and also enlarging the idea of freedom itself.
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What is the reason Absalom Jones appears on the cover? He is significant.
A serious man, he became a minister of great importance and helped build institutions in New England for Africans who were free. He was also interested in expanding freedom’s idea and instinct and in building the institutions that would make a society free, as we do today. You will also see how important these factors were in the establishment of American African churches.
What’s the biggest lesson you want readers to learn?
This central concept is about the significance of Africans’ contributions to the founding of this Free Republic and how it became more liberated than it would have otherwise been. They owe us all. We have the responsibility to free it further.
New York Times recently published a book on the topic of your book. Times’s “1619 Project.” How do you see your book fitting into the conversation that that feature started?
They’re centered too much on what went wrong and too little on the creativity of people who are responding to what went wrong. The creativity is what I would like to stress. I think that’s much more important than carrying on about racism in America.
It’s about the people who found ways to overcome that, and take us beyond that and to make us less racist than we had been. That’s the big story in America. It’s not the fact that we are racist. We overcame it. There is still much more to be done. This is something I would like to celebrate.
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There’s a debate going on about how much of American history—the good, the bad—to teach to young students. Many American students don’t get an in-depth education on the darkest chapters of American history until college. How do you determine the best balance?
What I’m trying to do is not to dwell on the dark side. Many people write about the horrible effects of slavery. And I’m interested in the people who tried to do something about all of that, who tried to build a free system that would include those who were enslaved, the people who tried to liberate, emancipate slaves, who tried to enlarge freedom to include them—and in that process, enlarge our free institutions.
That’s what my book is about. It’s not about beating up on racism in America. That was all true. However, America’s main story is the fact that we have fought back against this. And we’ve made real progress in this country. But we have some way to go. But I’m working to reinforce that positive story and to show how we can make it work better in the future, and not to beat up on other people.
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What would you say to people who argue that we can’t fully learn from the past if we only focus on the good side of things?
I think we should ask an honest question about what happened, how things changed and why—nevermind, skewing it toward the good or the bad. I don’t think we should begin by saying we want to look for the good things or for the bad things. Some have stressed the darker side, while others tried to highlight the brighter side. It is up to us to discover what the truth was and learn from it.
What we need to do is ask hard questions and find the right answers. But I don’t think we should begin with positives and negatives. I think that’s not what a serious piece of history is all about.
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