The best books on how African Americans shaped democracy in America

Christina Proenza-Coles Author Of American Founders: How People of African Descent Established Freedom in the New World
By Christina Proenza-Coles

Who am I?

After growing up in South Florida, a longstanding crossroads of Southern, Latin, and Caribbean culture, I became a student of the African Diaspora in the Americas. I learned that Africans preceded the English in the Americas and arrived in greater numbers than Europeans until 1820. As a history professor and researcher, I continually came across the stories of Black men and women, enslaved and free, who started independence movements, fought in revolutions, established schools, businesses, newspapers, and political organizations - men and women who challenged slavery and discrimination and championed freedom at every opportunity. The number of individuals was overwhelming and fundamentally altered how I understand American history and democracy.


I wrote...

American Founders: How People of African Descent Established Freedom in the New World

By Christina Proenza-Coles,

Book cover of American Founders: How People of African Descent Established Freedom in the New World

What is my book about?

Spanning 1500-1950, American Founders reveals men and women of African descent as key protagonists in the story of American democracy. Sixteenth-century Africans and Afro-descendants accompanied campaigns from Canada to Chile, inaugurating a continuous tradition of Black military service. Seventeenth-century Afro-Americans continued to shape American history as explorers, soldiers, servants, slaves, cowboys, pirates, priests, proprietors, artisans, rebels, and maroons.

While resistance to slavery began in the 1500s, the 18th century saw major military and legal actions for freedom – Afro-Americans paved the way for and participated in the independence wars of the Age of Revolution. Nineteenth-century Afro-Americans negotiated citizenship as soldiers, entrepreneurs, educators, journalists, professionals, and activists. Twentieth-century Black Americans continued to champion universal rights, equality, justice, and civic engagement through endeavors and innovations in politics, law, academia, science, medicine, business, journalism, and art.

The books I picked & why

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Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880

By W.E.B. Du Bois,

Book cover of Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880

Why this book?

Black Reconstruction places the struggle for African American equality at the center of American democracy. Written a century ago, it remains among the best books - not just on the period after the Civil War when the end of US slavery made the ideals of US democracy potentially realizable - but on the founding of the nation. Generations of scholars have followed the pioneering path that W.E.B. Du Bois forged documenting the ways in which the “failure” of Reconstruction was in fact the failure of the state to intervene when groups of white Americans violently excluded Black Americans from the body politic. Du Bois warned that we should not permit the history of slavery and the realities of racism to be “explained as a sort of working out of cosmic social and economic law”.


The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition

By Manisha Sinha,

Book cover of The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition

Why this book?

When I was growing up, I got the impression that abolitionists were either Englishmen or Quakers. While Manisha Sinha’s comprehensive, encyclopedic, and gripping chronicle of abolitionism is international, intergenerational, and interracial, The Slave’s Cause recognizes enslaved Americans and their descendants as the principal agents in the epic struggle to end slavery and establish freedom in the modern world. Sinha clarifies and connects the long, complex, and multitiered movement for abolition in the United States as she situates its Black and white protagonists, men and women, in a transnational context.


A Colony of Citizens: Revolution and Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787-1804

By Laurent Dubois,

Book cover of A Colony of Citizens: Revolution and Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787-1804

Why this book?

During the Age of Revolution, enslaved and formerly enslaved residents of the French Caribbean were among those who most vigorously insisted that the “rights of man” were universal. This book focuses on the colony of Guadeloupe, though Laurent Dubois has written about the Haitian Revolution as well, an event that resulted in the first nation in the Americas to outlaw human enslavement. Enslaved and free Afro-French men and women engaged colonial assemblies and militias to stake their claims to the rights of citizenship. As they endeavored to turn Enlightenment ideals into political realities, Afro-Americans in the Caribbean championed the rise of freedom in the West.


Colored Travelers: Mobility and the Fight for Citizenship Before the Civil War

By Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor,

Book cover of Colored Travelers: Mobility and the Fight for Citizenship Before the Civil War

Why this book?

Rosa Parks is an essential icon of the Civil Rights Movement, but the history of Black women and men turning segregation and discrimination during travel into a platform to negotiate the rights of citizenship has a long arc. Pryor gives us the longer backstory to the 20th-century Civil Rights Movement and 21st-century movement for Black lives when she traces how 19th-century Black men and women traveling in stage coaches, rail cars, and steam ships were often on the front lines of the struggle for Americans’ equal protection under the law.


Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All

By Martha S. Jones,

Book cover of Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All

Why this book?

Vanguard traces generations of African American women who strived to close the gap between our democratic ideals and our political and social realities in the United States. Jones begins in the 1820s with Black women who carved out leadership roles in religious and civic organizations and used their platforms to advocate for equality and challenge slavery throughout the antebellum period. In the late 19th century, African American women continued to write, speak, and organize against the violence of racism and sexism that undermined US democracy. Jones’ very readable rendering of this complex history chronicles the many Black women who continued to recognize and risk their lives for the universal voting rights that are foundational to American democracy in the 20th century and beyond.


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