TIE Podcast Spring Semester Preview: Pulitzer Prize Winner David Hackett Fischer on African Influences on American Society

African people playing drums and weaving against a gray background, symbolizing African cultural influences in America

TIE is proud to present our first spring semester podcast episode of 2023, featuring an interview with Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Dr. David Hackett Fischer. In this interview, just in time for Black History Month, Dr. Fischer discusses the topic of his most recent book African Founders (2022), which explores how enslaved people’s customs and ideals interacted with those of European colonists in the New World to shape a new culture and society in America.

Listen to the full conversation below:

TIE Podcast · Discussing African Influences on American Society with Pulitzer Prize Winner David Hackett Fischer

Dr. Fischer, who earned his PhD from Johns Hopkins University, is University Professor and Earl Warren Professor of History, Emeritus, at Brandeis University. A renowned scholar, he has written numerous books on American history, including Washington’s Crossing (2004), for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 2005. Much of his research has focused on investigating how different groups of people came to the New World and found ways to assimilate to a new life with people unlike themselves, and eventually to build a free and open society in the United States. He first explored this topic in his book Albion’s Seed (1989), and the question eventually led him to consider the movement of Africans to America and their influence on what would become the United States, culminating in African Founders.

Book cover of African Founders

To research the book, Dr. Fischer traveled across West Africa, traversing the coastline from Senegal down to Congo and Angola, the region from where most Africans first came to America, meeting and talking with people about their culture and their memories. He then did the same in the United States, traveling up and down the East Coast from New England to Louisiana, interviewing the people he met, and the exploring the archives where he went. His primary insight from this study is that the interaction of diverse cultures and histories is what makes American culture unique and fortifies our democratic ideals. He ends with a call for everyone to appreciate the value of diversity and how it has shaped the United States.

We hope you enjoy this insightful interview with Dr. David Hackett Fischer.

Here is a quick peek inside the episode:

On how the interplay of diverse cultures strengthens American ideals:

“The Africans who came to New England were mostly Akan-speaking slaves who came from sort of the coast of West Africa … and these Akan slaves were very interesting people, very much conscious of their own culture … We found that among Akan-speaking slaves who came from the coast of West Africa, we found that they also came from very rich and highly developed cultures, and they brought those cultures as well to New England and [that] interplay was the first of nine parts of this book … It’s the diversity of it that is the key to this. It’s our differences that keep us free, when we learn to be tolerant of others who are not like ourselves, by learning more about them and learning to live with them. And then we began to see an incredible interplay of cultures in which Africans and Europeans borrowed from each other, learned from each other, and created something new, which was a new set of American cultures out of all of this, and creating it in different ways in different regions. I celebrate diversity and I think diversity is the key to what this country is all about and I think we should cherish that and my book celebrates that diversity and tries to learn from the great range of human differences and human experiences.”

On the complexities of regional histories and cultures:

“In some ways, the most creative was the culture that developed in Louisiana in the lower Mississippi Valley, and most of all in New Orleans and around New Orleans. That was a very, very rich culture; it was very mixed, much more mixed than any of the other cultures because it was settled by the French and then by the Spanish and then by the English. And then on top of that, there were many different groups of slaves who went to Louisiana. They were Bamana slaves, or Bambara slaves as they’re sometimes called, from West Africa, and others who came from Benin and still others who came from Congo. And so there was a huge mixture in New Orleans and it was the diversity of that that created that wonderful culture, that has produced so many things. It produced so much of American music—Jazz developed in this region and it was developed from the interaction of the musical traditions of Africans and of Europeans in the New World, in America, and New Orleans was its center.”

On the importance of listening to people’s stories in their own words:

“[There} was a major New Deal project to interview—there were still in the early twentieth century a fair number of people who had been slaves in their youth, often who had come from Africa, and they were interviewed in great detail. And there are thousands—I worked with more than four thousand of these [interviews] and there were many more than that … I spent a lot of my time listening to these slaves in America who had become free, telling their own stories and then trying to listen very carefully to what they wanted us to know and then to try to pass that on to others. I see myself as helping to extend the reach of their voice to others in America.”

Watch the full video recording of the interview here

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Header image is a detail of This is Harlem by Jacob Lawrence. Courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. © 2021 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. For more information, click here.