Children of Fire: A History of African Americans (Paperback)
Bookseller and all-around excellent human, Jim Scott takes us on an exploration of two books, which as he states, "bookend" the history of the Americanization of Africans. Enjoy.
The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story created by Nikole Hannah-Jones and The New York Times Magazine, © 2021
Children of Fire: A History of African Americans by Thomas C. Holt, © 2010
One might think it odd reviewing together two books published 11 years apart. However, the time is ripe because these feature profoundly different historical reflections about the history of the Americanization of Africans. Consider them bookends for your library shelf on the subject.
Prior to the 1970s, students and the public, in general, learned little about the African American experience, beyond that slavery came and went and civil rights were finally assured by the irrepressible efforts of Martin Luther King, Jr. Slavery was reported as an “inefficient plantation enterprise, maintained by benevolent masters to whom enslaved people felt gratitude”. Written history treated the experience in paltry form, despite forceful efforts in the 1940s by the American Communists Party to challenge widespread indifference to that experience in either historical or strategic, forward-looking form. Improvement followed slowly in the ’50s and ’60s through the efforts within the profession, notably by Foner, Franklin, Genovese, Quarles, and others.
In the 1970s, Princeton’s (thereafter, UCLA’s) legendary historian Professor Gary Nash called for a total rewrite of the slavery/Americanization story, to portray Africans, not as victims but as people who actively affected the course of historical change. Calling race America’s Achilles heel, that plantations were actually Gulags, Nash’s vision of the reexamination would be “to create and maintain an antiracist sensibility that can help achieve America’s foundational principles of freedom, equality, and social justice.”
Has Nash’s vision been realized in these two books reviewed here, and is that our only fulcrum of evaluation?
One bookend, The Project retells America’s history through story-telling, postulating that racial prejudice exists in America as an autonomous, dominant force shaping human, interracial relations, manifest in the arrival of the first Africans on American soil. In her attempt to correct “the poor history we’ve been taught,” Hannah-Jones gives birth to her seminal “fact” that America was founded on racist exploitation by Whites.
The Project, a journalistic undertaking, demonizes White America, past and present, by presenting a plausible, if not authoritative, founding storyline argument, which a serious reader might fairly describe as a racialist disputation, i.e., if Martin Luther could nail his 95 theses on the church door to ignite a needed conversation on overall reformation of Christian theologies, then, why shouldn’t Hannah-Jones and the Times do the same for America’s founding race mythologies? Like Luther’s provocative bombshell in ecclesiastical Europe 500 years ago, The Project’s appearance has rocked the modern racial history story. It has been met with vigorous, negative criticism, with some readers fearing that the work could well be the provocative impulse in aggrieved, African Americans as a trigger for vengeful, random lawlessness or domestic revolution. Nevertheless, like water on an electrical fire, the criticisms of this disputation have sparked an avalanche of celebratory acclaim, including a passionate and rapid academic movement to infuse The Project into allegedly “slavery-story-deprived” curricula for grade school, high school, and university social studies and history programs.
The other bookend (Children of Fire) published years before The Project, circumvents the modern, negative Black-victimization woke narrative. Adhering to Nash’s call for “antiracist sensibility,” Holt’s approach reminds this reviewer of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, on the King’s negative thoughts of impending regicide, eclipsed by positives delivered by his loyal Earl of Warwick (Henry IV, Part II, Act 3). There it is mid-night and King Henry IV cannot sleep, feeling rebellion afoot: “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” Lord Warwick joins him, but discourages pessimism: “There is a history in all men’s lives, figuring the natures of the times…” referring to positive affection and loyalty already imbedded in the people’s thinking, ultimately dispelling the fear of revolution.
This book is history, not journalism. It appeared eleven years before both The Project and the fusillade of race-guilt-anger polemics now flourishing in American literature space. Historian Holt held the steadfast belief “people, all people, are agents (not passive vessels) of their own destinies, but may not be free to shape those destinies.” He searched for and found the “history in all men’s lives,” and wrote Fire. Odd, that neither journalist Hannah-Jones nor The New York Times Magazine editors referenced Professor Holt’s Fire or his other (earlier or later) extraordinarily insightful and nearly universally admired works on race and the African American experience. It is professionally recognized as a “historical masterpiece” of the African American experience, cited as a sterling example of historiography: writing history based on a critical examination of sources, within shifting sociological, political, and economic factors, synthesized into a narrative that stands the test of critical examination. Holt’s career, including this book, is a part of and builds upon, the extraordinarily rich, multi-source, multilayered, historical scholarship on race and slavery, published in the last seventy years, much of which is documented in the extensive bibliographies in The Project and Fire. Holt rigorously re-constructs a positive message soaring beyond (though acknowledging) the despicable collective wound of slavery, showing how African Americans in four centuries of American history have fashioned as agents (not merely as victims) a distinct identity amid our persistent turmoil.
Fire is not a racialized epistle. Applying professional standards of faithful historiography, Fire exposes the important continuum of racial prejudice as a contingent (but not necessarily causal) variable shaped by powerful domestic and international economics and social forces unfolding over time. Holt “tried to render this complex history through the stories of people…because they make history’s complexity palpable.” Examples of such persons are how slaves Anthony Johnson and Elizabeth Key in early 17th-century Chesapeake America “assumed their entitlement to civil rights and equal status.”
Also, Holt describes how the free Blacks of the Forten, Jones, and Allen families formed a unifying framework for 18th-century prosecution for citizenship entitlement throughout the Northern colonies and states thereafter. He has researched, explained, and contextualized “people” with the fact-based impacts (on the slave trade and fugitive slave repeal legislation, for example) recurring in centuries of conflict, on race and class, and rights from the Middle Passages, through the roots of African America, the Age of Revolution, and the succeeding generations, to African America in the 21st century.
Hannah-Jones calls her rendition a “story” instead of “history," a flexibility that she exploits in ways that her critics say differs significantly from actual history. The story bathes in victimization narrative while eschewing key facts, while rightfully finger-pointing at real and (unfortunately) imaginary White racism. She boldly admitted in post-publication interviews to never having intended her version of history to be received as unassailably fact-based, only plausibly so. But victimhood, and certainly excessive victimhood, is not a virtue. It breeds a sense of helplessness; self-pity by ruminating over experiences never self-endured; and an overweening superiority complex, “I’m good, you’re evil.”
Mindful of the downsides of preaching victimization, predictably, The Project’s story has been repeatedly and widely reported as factually shoddy and polemical. A serious weakness in her version of the 17Th-century colonies (central to her story’s “origin” pillar, the year 1619) ignores important and revealing analysis of the intense engagement and interaction of Indians, Blacks, and Whites (who were the majority among the servant and slave class), clearly important to ground her story convincingly in 1619 versus 1776 or 1787.
Hannah-Jones critics, including well-known historians such as Gordon Wood (of Brown), James McPherson, Allen Guelzo, and Sean Wilentz (all of Princeton), James Oakes (of CUNY); and technical fact-checkers, including, surprisingly, esteemed African American Leslie Harris, History Professor at Northwestern, who is Black and an expert in early 17th century American slavery. Conservative and liberal detractors (including, also surprisingly, the World Socialist Web (WSW)), are numerous. WSW’s aggressively negative reaction to The Project’s weaknesses in historiographic awareness and supporting content must have disappointed supporters of her work, given the fundamental and longstanding importance of the American Communist Party’s historical support for wider recognition of African American causes. But that hasn’t dampened The Project’s enthusiastic supporters, most prominently The New York Times itself. In oppositive response to the Times, an inconvenient assembly of African American academics (“1776 Unites”), led by Robert Woodson, founder of the Woodson Center, has aggressively mounted a campaign to highlight The Project’s inadequacies.
Strange is The Project’s needless demeaning of Frederick Douglass’ soaring interpretation of the Founders’ intent of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, omitting the unmistakably positive thrust of Douglass’ words through needless misconstruction. Also, The Project’s excursions into seriously error-filled economics and radical, strangely anti-capitalistic rhetoric have subjected the work to the barrage of fact-based refutation.
Nevertheless, Hannah-Jones’ efforts to retell the story are praiseworthy, despite these and other shortcomings. The book is clearly a call for disputation, a good thing. Also, as creative literary expression it reaches for the stars and connects occasionally in chapters by her team of authors: Democracy, Race, Sugar, Rear, Dispossession, Capitalism, Politics, Citizenship, Music, and more, giving the reader an eye-opening review of the panoramic scope of The Project’s history rewrite. The unconventional use of poetry and fictional vignettes complement the fresh approach for the reader.
Her sixteen-page Preface serves well as a prosecutorial “slam dunk” on the horrors and injustice of slavery and its suppressed story in mainstream American history. Upon reflection, this reader recalls Elie Wiesel’s warning to posterity, “If you suppress any part of the story, it comes back later, with force and violence.” To her credit, Hannah-Jones comes on with such force.
In reaching for justification of her vigor to place her slavery and racism storyline front row center, Hannah-Jones salutes conservative historian Peter H. Wood’s decades-old urging that America overcome its denial of its Gulag of slavery. Woods, a vigorous supporter of Professor Gary Nash and others properly researching and reframing African American history, and one whom many would have thought would be a supporter of the Hannah-Jones stratagem, emerged as one of her most vocal and documented detractors. Perhaps, The Project probably now sees its praise of Woods as an unfortunate inclusion in its Preface.
These two books together serve the vision of reexamination and synchronization with America’s founding purposes, though Fire could have achieved it alone; The Project, could not because of its commitment to the singularity of a racialist storyline domination and its unnecessary choice of “bad guys” including Douglass and Lincoln.
But both are important books; the value of their respective bibliographies is worth more than the price of the books. But even in that regard, the bibliography in Fire wins hands down over that of The Project, largely because its explanations/justifications of why the references were chosen are more explicit and include more textual referencing by stronger sources (including, for example, many more citations of the groundbreaking work on African American history by Gary Nash and other historians on the revolutionary war period and 16th and 17th century America; and the perhaps inconvenient revelations in important, sociological research of Herbert Gutman on the remarkable stability of the African American family during the 18th -20th centuries, facts which call into question the heavy political support for family-disruptive, welfare interventions). However, The Project’s bibliography is formidable in its own right, including extensive journalistic and visual media references, perhaps reaching broader audiences than books and research journals.
Despite its failure to convince that the year 1619 better reflects America’s founding than 1776 or 1787, The Project should be read to understand the sheer force of its undisguised support for the “you owe me” side of the disputation that dominates the current debate, which continues to crowd out more sober and less vitriolic discussions on the direction of future American citizenship. But it does get one’s attention.
But also read and reread Fire. Despite the painful reality and persistence of racial tensions in America, readers will understand better that the dominant theme of those tensions (brilliantly stated by Barack Obama at Philadelphia’s Constitution Center, March 2008): “has been the never-ending search since 1776 for a more perfect union.” That more perfect union incorporates African Americans as agents within the search, and not merely victims.
1776 was the founding of America, not 1619. And that continued search should be the path for the future.— Jim Scott
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 this groundbreaking new book, 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.
About the Author
Thomas C. Holt is the James Westfall Thompson Professor of American and African American History at the University of Chicago, and the author of Black Over White.
“Children of Fire is simply brilliant. Thomas C. Holt has produced the first survey of African American history to rival John Hope Franklin and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham's From Slavery to Freedom. Masterfully structured and beautifully written, it reflects the mature work of a great historian with a firm and deep grasp of his subject. I learned something new on every page. It should be required reading not only of students of the African American experience, but of fellow historians as well. This is the crowning achievement of a storied career, the work of a sophisticated mind rendered in the most compelling rhetorical strategy.” —Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
“A brilliant, sweeping portrait of Afro-American history that transports the reader from the first arrival of slaves in Virginia in 1619 to the election of President Barack Obama. Like Alex Haley's Roots, this historic publication vividly reminds us of the long, painful experience of violence that African-Americans have endured and survived. Thomas C. Holt's Children of Fire is a monumental work that should be required reading for every American.” —William Ferris, Professor of History, University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill
“Thomas C. Holt has spent his lifetime pioneering in our understanding race and the significance of African Americans in the history of the United States. Simply brilliant, Holt's latest work is remarkable for its precision, intelligence, and heart. Delving into the real personal experiences of the people who create the narrative, this masterful book takes its place as the best synthesis of a complex story.” —Orville Vernon Burton, author The Age of Lincoln
“A remarkable achievement! Thomas C. Holt has distilled a lifetime of research into this elegant and sweeping volume. With an authoritative voice and a sure hand, he redefines the black experience through the powerful stories of generations of African Americans.” —Vernon E. Jordan, Jr.
“In the spirit of John Hope Franklin, Thomas C. Holt, in Children of Fire, resurrects the wonderful art of historical generalization embedded in richly contextualized stories of real people. Holt brings a wealth of learning and a graceful style to eight ‘generations' of the African American saga. In each case and time period we see black people transplanted, transformed, and sometimes triumphant in a history that is always unfinished and conflicted. For serious teachers of African American history, this book assumes the rank of best one volume work.” —David W. Blight, author of Race and Reunion
“In this important new book, Thomas C. Holt offers a creative and thoughtful rethinking of the African American experience. Children of Fire illuminates previously unknown aspects of black life and then brilliantly reinterprets the entire history of black America, opening up unfamiliar fields of vision that allow us think anew.” —Ira Berlin, author of The Making of African America
“Placing all U.S. history in rich international context, this mesmerizing book shows Thomas C. Holt at his best: wise, subtle, visionary. Children of Fire challenges many truisms about African American life. A new history for the 21st century.” —Linda K. Kerber, author of No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies
“Children of Fire will immediately become a vital resource for all readers interested in studying and understanding African American history.” —Marian Wright Edelman, President, Children's Defense Fund
“Holt does resist the temptation to make this a purely academic trade book. The information provided is direct and he does not exploit the use scholarly terminology to impress readers . . . Every party with a desire to learn about the saga of African-Americans, in a concise manner, will benefit and appreciate this book.” —Rosetta Codling, Atlanta Examiner
“Holt ably moves through several centuries, and in an attempt to hold on to all of these accounts, he employs pivotal moments as stepping stones to lead the reader through the complex web of history. The 1892 Chicago World's Fair is one example, as is the death of Frederick Douglass in 1895. The author is at his best in the final chapters, when he shifts his focus to the Civil Rights era of the 1960s. Emmett Till, Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers and many others all find their rightful place in the history, allowing Holt to smoothly reveal the evolution from the initial slaves at Jamestown to the civil-rights heroes that continued struggling for freedom generations later. A story many readers have heard before, but one rarely rendered with such eloquence.” —Kirkus Reviews