What does it mean to be an American? The story of the African American past demonstrates the difficulty of answering this seemingly simple question. If being "American" means living in a land of freedom and opportunity, what are we to make of those Americans who were enslaved and who have suffered from the limitations of second-class citizenship throughout their lives? African American history illuminates the United States' core paradoxes, inviting profound questions about what it means to be an American, a citizen, and a human being.
Jonathan S. Holloway's The Cause of Freedom: A Concise History of African Americans (Oxford University Press, 2021) considers how, for centuries, African Americans have fought for what the black feminist intellectual Anna Julia Cooper called "the cause of freedom." It begins in Jamestown in 1619, when the first shipment of enslaved Africans arrived in that settlement. It narrates the creation of a system of racialized chattel slavery, the eventual dismantling of that system in the national bloodletting of the Civil War, and the ways that civil rights disputes have continued to erupt in the more than 150 years since Emancipation. The Cause of Freedom carries forward to the Black Lives Matter movement, a grass-roots activist convulsion that declared that African Americans' present and past have value and meaning. At a moment when political debates grapple with the nation's obligation to acknowledge and perhaps even repair its original sin of racialized slavery, The Cause of Freedom tells a story about our capacity and willingness to realize the ideal articulated in the country's founding document, namely, that all people were created equal.
Marshall Poe is the founder and editor of the New Books Network.
Marshall Poe is the founder and editor of the New Books Network. He can be reached at email@example.com.