–by Michael Pierce
AMERICAN FOUNDERS: HOW PEOPLE OF AFRICAN DESCENT ESTABLISHED FREEDOM IN THE NEW WORLD by Christina Proenza-Coles. Published by NewSouth Books. Photos courtesy of NewSouth Books. Available March 15, 2019.
They came usually as slaves. Though they were brought to the Western Hemisphere in bondage, they yearned to once again be free. But, even before they regained that freedom, they became soldiers, politicians, community leaders, doctors and lawyers, barbers and artisans, among many other things. And their offspring followed in their footsteps.
AMERICAN FOUNDERS is a very well researched piece of history. Christina Proenza-Coles has packed a lot into this book. If we remember anything at all about history classes that we took in middle school, high school, even in college, we remember that we learned about a few famous people of African descent, and a few well-known instances of slave rebellions in the Americas.
Christina Proenza-Coles has blown the lid off the cauldron and presents readers with the thousands of others who gave their lives and incomes in support of this struggle for freedom in the Western Hemisphere.
She takes us back to 3500 BCE, to Sumer, the first civilization, where 50 percent of the population was enslaved. Throughout these early centuries, she reminds us, being enslaved did not necessarily mean that one was primarily used for backbreaking labor. Slaves became leaders in a variety of empires. Some of the Medicis were of African descent, and they went on to become important leaders in Vienna.
Proenza-Coles also reminds us that not all slaves were African. Slavery in the Roman Empire included people from what is now the United Kingdom and France, including white slaves on the African continent, and that indentured servitude in the British Colonies often included white criminals from England and Ireland.
Both free people of color and enslaved Africans came, and were brought, to the Western Hemisphere in the early days of European colonial expansion. It was this combination of free people and slaves, along with some whites, that banded together in the Caribbean and South and Central American colonies and fought for the abolition of slavery and freedom for all. At the same time some of them joined communities of indigenous peoples, while others joined local militias and armies that fought against original inhabitants for expansion of colonial rule.
AMERICAN FOUNDERS carries readers through the middle of the twentieth century, telling the stories of hundreds of individuals who were dedicated to bettering the lives of the people in their communities, their nations, and the world as a whole. Christina Proenza-Coles has left her readers hoping that there’s another book coming down the road.
The book is also quite well illustrated, and it is these illustrations, especially the photographs, that struck me as strongly as the narrative. Looking into the eyes of these folks I see a quiet dignity, yet I also see a fierce determination. I felt that I was looking directly into the soul of a people, long oppressed, while at the same time fighting for everything that they had, and using whatever was within their means, no matter how humble, to fight for everyone, no matter their position on the social and economic ladder, no matter the color of their skin.
AMERICAN FOUNDERS, in the end, is a story of people who worked for the betterment of mankind.