Children of Fire: A History of African Americans

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9780809067138: Children of Fire: A History of African Americans

Ordinary people don’t experience history as it is taught by historians. They live across the convenient chronological divides we impose on the past. The same people who lived through the Civil War and the eradication of slavery also dealt with the hardships of Reconstruction, so why do we almost always treat them separately? In Children of Fire, renowned historian Thomas C. Holt challenges this form to tell the story of generations of African Americans through the lived experience of the subjects themselves, with all of the nuances, ironies, contradictions, and complexities one might expect. Building on seminal books like John Hope Franklin’s From Slavery to Freedom and many others, Holt captures the entire African American experience from the moment the first twenty African slaves were sold  at Jamestown in 1619. Each chapter focuses on a generation of individuals who shaped the course of American history, hoping for a better life for their children but often confronting the ebb and flow of their civil rights and status within society. Many familiar faces grace these pages—Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Martin Luther King, and Barack Obama—but also some overlooked ones. Figures like Anthony Johnson, a slave who bought his freedom in late seventeenth century Virginia and built a sizable plantation, only to have it stolen away from his children by an increasingly racist court system. Or Frank Moore, a WWI veteran and sharecropper who sued his landlord for unfair practices, but found himself charged with murder after fighting off an angry white posse. Taken together, their stories tell how African Americans fashioned a culture and identity amid the turmoil of four centuries of American history.

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About the Author:

Thomas C. Holt is the James Westfall Thompson Professor of American and African American History at the University of Chicago. A past president of the American Historical Association, Holt has been a Fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the Woodrow Wilson International Center, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is the author of Black Over White, The Problem of Freedom, The Problem of Race in the Twenty-First Century, and co-author of Beyond Slavery.

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Children of Fire
1MIDDLE PASSAGES, MIDDLEMENEurope, Africa, America, and the Slave Trade 
 
 
 
In his Generall Historie of Virginia, published in 1624, Captain John Smith documented the difficult early years of settling the Virginia colony at Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in North America, an achievement generally taken to be one of the seminal moments in American history. Tucked almost inauspiciously among Smith's long descriptions of Indian wars and friendships, physical hardships and the eventual successes that defined this southern version of what the Puritans would later call an "errand in the wilderness," was the following brief passage quoted from a letter from John Rolfe. "About the last of August [1619]," Rolfe wrote, "came in a dutch man of warre that sold us twenty Negars."The passage John Smith quoted with merely a passing glance would prove to be a momentous development. Momentous not because these were the very first Africans in North America; they weren't. Others had come almost a century before, with the Spanish conquistadores exploring the Southwest. There were probably some accompanying the expedition of Ponce de León to Florida, and certainly some among the aborted attempt to establish an early settlement in the Carolinas in the sixteenth century. In fact, these were not even the first Africans in Virginia; a muster roll for March 1619 shows that there were already about thirty-two African slaves in the colony when that Dutch warship Rolfe mentioned laid anchor. Nonetheless, arriving scarcely twelve years after Jamestown itself was founded, these Africans were clearly the pioneers among those Ira Berlin has called the founding or "charter" generation of African Americans and certainly the first to receive written acknowledgment of their presence by one of the colony's founding fathers. Indeed, it was anacknowledgment not simply of their presence but of the character of that presence and of its provenance. Twenty Negroes ... from a Dutch man-of-war ... sold.And it is their provenance--vague and emblematic though it may be--that catches our attention here. Embedded in Smith's cryptic notation are the complex and multilayered beginnings of the history of African Americans on the North American continent. Now, less than a decade away from marking the fourth century of that presence, we are struck by the fact that for more than half that time (two and a half centuries), the great majority of black Americans were slaves. How and why that came to be is the first question that must be answered in beginning a history of those four centuries. How is it, why is it, that when that Dutch warship laid anchor in Jamestown's harbor, Africans were in the hold and Europeans were on the deck? Why is it that the Africans were the ones in the position to be sold. It is a simple question; the answer, however, is very complex and far-ranging.Of course, it may not seem so, or certainly it hasn't seemed so in the past to many historians and non-historians. Africans were the slaves and Europeans the captors because Africans were an inferior people, fit for or vulnerable to enslavement by a superior force. Others, anxious to redeem the reputation, or at least the moral superiority, of the Africans, turn that interpretation on its head: Africans were actually culturally superior to Europeans, but the Europeans were so thoroughly evil and rapacious that they subdued and enslaved the Africans. Despite their apparent opposition, both answers embrace a racial premise--virtue or evil, superiority or inferiority are racial properties. Such answers effectively foreclose further examination, for by their logic, biology or culture or morality is determinative and historical narratives emerge out of the innate qualities of peoples rather than out of the give-and-take, the contingencies, the larger social forces that condition or shape the possibility for one historical outcome rather than another.Given the latter, more contingent, view of historical process, one must seek answers to this question--why Africans in the hold and Europeans on deck--in the complex unfolding of a long history of European and African contact that predated that landing at Jamestown by almost two centuries. What we must ask is, what social forces and historical developments brought this conjuncture to pass? Racial interpretations to the contrary, the more we learn of that earlier history, of Europe and of Africa, the less obvious it is that Africans were necessarily, and certainly not always, the social or political inferiors in that encounter. But, more important, we stand to gain from this approach some tentative insight into not only the forces that put those twenty Africans into the hold of that Dutch ship, but also who they were, or at least what the broad collection of Africans at that time and place were likely to be.Although much of their history is likely to remain enigmatic, we can be fairly certain that the twenty Africans on that Dutch man-of-war were at the apex of a triangle formed by Europe, Africa, and America. At that moment in particular, three European powers--England, the Netherlands, and Spain, struggling for supremacy in Europe--were pushing the boundaries of their conflict into Africa and the Americas. There is strong, though not conclusive, evidence that the twenty Africans landed at Jamestown were part of a cargo of slaves on a Portuguese ship, the São João Bautista, that left São Paulo de Luanda--then the Portuguese stronghold in what would become Angola--bound for Vera Cruz, Mexico. It is "extremely likely" that the São João Bautista was the ship attacked in Caribbean waters by an English warship, the Treasurer, and a Dutch privateer. Although 1619 was the tenth year of a twelve-year truce, this attack appears to have been part of an ongoing civil war between the Dutch and the Spanish, the then-dominant European power that had occupied the Netherlands for several decades. For their part, the English, seeking to defend their still-fragile Protestant state against Spanish Catholicism, had formed a temporary alliance with the Dutch.The forces propelling this particular narrative, then, were European social and political conflicts into whose vortex these African men and women became almost incidentally drawn. The Dutch ship was not a slave trader, but a ship of war bent on disrupting Spanish shipping and weakening the Iberian empire, of which Portugal was then a reluctant junior partner. It just happened that the prize carried by the São João Bautista on this day was slaves rather than the preferred silver or gold. At Jamestown, an English frontier outpost only recently discovering a growing need for servile labor, these captives were promptly exchanged for "victualle," that is, food and provisions.But there is necessarily another side to this triangle: the supplier for this momentous exchange at Jamestown. Although we know little for certain about the twenty Africans who landed at Jamestown, we do knowthat unlike most of the African slaves and servants they found there, these people had come directly from Africa, rather than via the interregional trade with the Caribbean. Moreover, scholars have made a fairly educated guess that they were probably captives seized in Portuguese-sponsored warfare in central Africa during the years 1618 to 1620. Luis Mendes de Vasconçelos, newly appointed governor of the Portuguese enclave at Luanda and veteran of the Spanish campaign against the Dutch rebellion in Flanders, forged an alliance with an African warring band called the Imbangalas, or Jagas, to attack the kingdom of Ndongo (site of modern-day Angola). Ndongo was particularly vulnerable at this point because of a palace coup and succession crisis. No doubt Vasconçelos also sought revenge for a humiliating defeat that the Portuguese had suffered at the hands of the Ndongo in 1589, just thirty years earlier. The more immediate motivation for him and his Imbangala allies, however, was slaves. As in other African wars of that era, the line between military campaign and slave raiding was fine. Certainly one outcome of this war was that thousands of slaves were crammed into the port of Luanda awaiting shipment to the Americas--so many that the chances are considerable that the São João Bautista's cargo was drawn from this provenance.Those twenty Africans did not end up in the hold of that man-of-war, then, because they came from an inferior people--whether one defines that inferiority in cultural or racial terms--but because they were the losers, the pawns in a multinational struggle in which ruling elites of Africa, Europe, and the Americas competed for resources and power. In other words, their fateful subjugation arose out of very ordinary historical processes and developments, shaped by social, economic, and political forces. Indeed, more fortunate and opportunistic Africans participated in that slave trade--in its earliest years at least--more nearly as equal partners than as victims. It is true that, from a long-term perspective, they made a bad bargain, for in time the slave trade would render them, as a people, vulnerable to European penetration and overrule. Meanwhile, some European states would grow stronger as a result of that trade and the slave systems in the Americas it supported. By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Africans would indeed be "inferior" to Europeans in the economic and military power at their disposal and, in some ways, in their material culture. By the end of the nineteenth century the African continent would be carved up and colonized by European imperialists. But oneshould not fall into the anachronistic fallacy of reading the later relationship back into the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries. In 1619--and for at least a half century thereafter--the relationship between Africa and Europe was far more complex.Out of those complex interactions--commercial, technological, social, and political--that characterized European-African relations in these earlier centuries, there developed new worlds, new experiences, and often entirely new peoples. Although in some ways many of the Africans who landed in North America were in the back channels rather than in the vanguard of these developments, they, too, were its legatees and they followed a course of cultural and social development first pioneered by a generation of African Americans whom Ira Berlin has called "Atlantic creoles." The development of American slavery and its eventual racialization must be understood against this complex historical backdrop. That history begins with another question haunting that moment in Jamestown harbor: What brought Europeans to the western coast of Africa in the first place?EuropeIf one takes the question at its most literal level--why were Europeans launching explorations of Africa and the Americas and not the other way around?--the answers are fairly straightforward and relate to physical geography and technological innovation. Although Europeans had extensive experience with sea travel, navigating the South Atlantic had long posed major problems, because well-defined systems of currents and winds limited the possible voyages that could be safely undertaken. The Canary Current, running north to south, sped ships down the West African coast but blocked their return. Arab sailors may have found ways to negotiate these currents, but if so, they left no enduring legacy, except possibly the geographical knowledge that eventually made its way to Portuguese mariners. Obviously the same current that so long held Europeans at bay had to have been an equally forbidding obstacle preventing Africans from sailing north, assuming they wanted to try.Meanwhile, southern Europeans gained experience navigating two inland seas--the Mediterranean and, by the late thirteenth century, the Baltic--from which technical and geographical skills accumulated that enabled them eventually to master the open seas of the Atlantic. TheMediterranean-Baltic connection shifted long-distance trade from primarily luxury goods to bulk commerce, especially grain, preparing the way for the movement of sugar, tobacco, and slaves that would later propel the Atlantic trade. As the volume of trade along this axis grew, fortuitous geographical discoveries became almost inevitable. Thus, in 1312, a Genoese sailor, Lanzaroto Malocello, accidentally rediscovered the Canary Islands. Just sixty miles off Africa's northeast coast, the Canaries would become a principal way station for voyages from Europe to the Americas and from Africa to Europe.Though a necessary part of the story, these material and technical factors are ultimately inadequate to fully explain these developments. Some African groups also had very skilled boatmen; in fact, their skills at navigating inland waterways were put to effective use by slaveholders in the Americas. An equatorial current runs from Senegambia, on the west coast of Africa, to the Caribbean; indeed, it would later become an important route in the slave trade. Thus it was, technically, as plausible for Africans to sail west toward the Americas as for the Iberians. One scholar, Ivan van Sertima, has offered a controversial interpretation of archeological evidence from Central America to argue that Africans did in fact make such a journey long before Columbus. Even if some Africans made the journey, however, obviously they never established a continuing relationship or contact there; consequently, they did not--in this way at least--shape the history of the Atlantic world that unfolded.West African waterways were full of falls and land blockages that prevented navigation by oceangoing vessels, but they were accessible to smaller craft with head porterage at critical junctures--which sustained a thriving African inland commerce along a riverine system that would later be integrally linked to the Atlantic slave trade, especially along the Central African coast. Faced on one side with such formidable barriers in navigating the South Atlantic, and on the other with ample opportunities for trade along coastal and inland rivers, Africans concentrated on the latter. In this choice, they resembled the Chinese sailors during the Ming dynasty who undertook seven voyages into the Indian Ocean between 1405 and 1433, led by the eunuch-admiral Cheng Ho. The Chinese flotilla made contact with Ceylon, Calcutta, the Persian Gulf, and Mogadishu in East Africa, but despite possessing the technological skills for further exploration and discovery, they simply showed the flag and sailed home--never to return. Like the Africans, perhaps, they, too, werecontent--or compelled--to apply their skills and knowledge to other tasks, developing commercial and cultural contacts closer to home.The crux of the issue, then, is what was the social, cultural, economic, or political impetus behind the European push to solve the daunting technical problems, to make the necessary investments, to take the physical and financial risks? And here, too, we need to pause to make certain we do not fall into a typical anachronism that so often bedevils such analyses. What do we mean when we say "Europe"? In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when these voyages unfolded, not only was there not a single cultural entity called "a European," but neither were there the nation-states we typically conjure up in our minds when we speak of the Spanish, the French, or the Dutch. When the Genoese admiral Columbus made his first lan...

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