Beyond  /  Book Review

A Historian Complicates the Racial Divide

"African Founders" corrects some of the ideological uses of Black American history.

Brandeis University historian David Hackett Fischer’s African Founders illuminates the leading controversies today with facts that shame political cant and enable us to reassess the centuries of slavery’s effects on American national character. In a scholarly tome of over 900 pages, Fischer follows the method of his earlier work, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America. There he traced the peopling of America from the perspective of the character of different regions of Britain. 

African Founders achieves the equivalent with the enslaved peoples from Africa—who have hitherto largely been treated as a hapless, homogeneous heap of unfortunates, and blank slates completely recreated by masters and brutal overseers. Fischer does not hold back on detailing the brutality of slavery, but he also insists on keeping in mind the abiding character traits exhibited by the slaves from different regions of Africa. No rewrite of Roots, this scholarship forces corrections in perception created by the ideological uses of black American history then and now. Properly interpreted, this persuasive array of facts and historical exploration is an invaluable weapon against “Woke” nonsense. Perhaps that is why its reception has been for the most part less than enthusiastic. Fischer’s narratives convey an excitement that inspires awe and gratitude in the reader.

A revealing example of the fruits of his approach is his study of slavery in the Chesapeake Bay region, which comprises Maryland and eastern Virginia, with Baltimore to the north, Richmond, Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Norfolk to the south, and Alexandria toward the middle, on the Potomac. Fischer’s tightly organized account covers three regions (north, south, and frontier) each with three geographic sub-regions that describe in detail different traits ascribable to the way these chosen slaves and their descendants interacted with whites.

Fischer begins by asking why the Chesapeake Bay region of the early United States produced outstanding black leaders such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Booker T. Washington—two Marylanders and a Virginian? In 1790, Virginia’s overall African population was 37 percent, with 35 percent in Maryland. (See Diana Schaub’s review for a thoughtful exposition of Douglass as an example of a Chesapeake slave.) 

Although slaves came from various parts of Africa, Fischer estimates that during the slave trading era “about half of all arriving Africans in the Chesapeake came from what is now southeastern Nigeria” and were known variously as Igbos, Ibos, or Biafrans. They “came directly or indirectly from the West Central Africa regions of Congo, Loango, and Angola.” The regions became known for fostering slaves who worked hard and displayed discipline and intelligence.