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.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880

Why did I love 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”.

By W.E.B. Du Bois,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

W. E. B. Du Bois was a public intellectual, sociologist, and activist on behalf of the African American community. He profoundly shaped black political culture in the United States through his founding role in the NAACP, as well as internationally through the Pan-African movement. Du Bois's sociological and historical research on African-American communities and culture broke ground in many areas, including the history of the post-Civil War Reconstruction period. Du
Bois was also a prolific author of novels, autobiographical accounts, innumerable editorials and journalistic pieces, and several works of history.

Black Reconstruction in America tells and interprets the story of…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Manisha Sinha,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Slave's Cause as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the 2017 Frederick Douglass Prize

A groundbreaking history of abolition that recovers the largely forgotten role of African Americans in the long march toward emancipation from the American Revolution through the Civil War

Received historical wisdom casts abolitionists as bourgeois, mostly white reformers burdened by racial paternalism and economic conservatism. Manisha Sinha overturns this image, broadening her scope beyond the antebellum period usually associated with abolitionism and recasting it as a radical social movement in which men and women, black and white, free and enslaved found common ground in causes ranging from feminism and utopian socialism to anti-imperialism…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Laurent Dubois,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Colony of Citizens as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The idea of universal rights is often understood as the product of Europe, but as Laurent Dubois demonstrates, it was profoundly shaped by the struggle over slavery and citizenship in the French Caribbean. Dubois examines this Caribbean revolution by focusing on Guadeloupe, where, in the early 1790s, insurgents on the island fought for equality and freedom and formed alliances with besieged Republicans. In 1794, slavery was abolished throughout the French Empire, ushering in a new colonial order in which all people, regardless of race, were entitled to the same rights. But French administrators on the island combined emancipation with new…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Colored Travelers as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Americans have long regarded the freedom of travel a central tenet of citizenship. Yet, in the United States, freedom of movement has historically been a right reserved for whites. In this book, Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor shows that African Americans fought obstructions to their mobility over 100 years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus. These were "colored travelers," activists who relied on steamships, stagecoaches, and railroads to expand their networks and to fight slavery and racism. They refused to ride in "Jim Crow" railroad cars, fought for the right to hold a U.S. passport…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Martha S. Jones,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Vanguard as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“An elegant and expansive history” (New YorkTimes)of African American women’s pursuit of political power—and how it transformed America  
InVanguard, acclaimed historian Martha S. Jones offers a new history of African American women’s political lives in America. She recounts how they defied both racism and sexism to fight for the ballot, and how they wielded political power to secure the equality and dignity of all persons. From the earliest days of the republic to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and beyond, Jones excavates the lives and work ofBlackwomen—Maria Stewart, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Fannie Lou Hamer, and more—who…

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