Children of Fire A History of African Americans

Thomas C. Holt

Hill and Wang



Trade Paperback

464 Pages



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Ordinary people don't experience history in the way that it is taught by historians. Real lives span across the convenient chronological divides we impose on the past. The same people who lived through the Civil War and the eradication of slavery also dealt with the hardships of Reconstruction, so why are they almost always treated separately? Historian Thomas C. Holt challenges this form to tell the story of generations of African Americans through the lived experience of the subjects themselves, with all of the nuances, ironies, contradictions, and complexities one might expect.

Building on seminal books like John Hope Franklin's From Slavery to Freedom and many others, Holt captures the entire African American experience from the moment the first twenty African slaves were sold at Jamestown in 1619. Each chapter focuses on a generation of individuals who shaped the course of American history, hoping for a better life for their children but often confronting the ebb and flow of their civil rights and status within society. Many familiar faces grace these pages—Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Martin Luther King, and Barack Obama—but also some overlooked ones. Figures like Anthony Johnson, a slave who bought his freedom in late seventeenth century Virginia and built a sizable plantation, only to have it stolen away from his children by an increasingly racist court system. Or Frank Moore, a WWI veteran and sharecropper who sued his landlord for unfair practices, but found himself charged with murder after fighting off an angry white posse. Taken together, their stories tell how African Americans fashioned a culture and identity amid the turmoil of four centuries of American history.


Praise for Children of Fire

"Children of Fire is simply brilliant. Thomas C. Holt has produced the first survey of African American history to rival John Hope Franklin and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham's From Slavery to Freedom. Masterfully structured and beautifully written, it reflects the mature work of a great historian with a firm and deep grasp of his subject. I learned something new on every page. It should be required reading not only of students of the African American experience, but of fellow historians as well. This is the crowning achievement of a storied career, the work of a sophisticated mind rendered in the most compelling rhetorical strategy."—Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

"A brilliant, sweeping portrait of Afro-American history that transports the reader from the first arrival of slaves in Virginia in 1619 to the election of President Barack Obama. Like Alex Haley's Roots, this historic publication vividly reminds us of the long, painful experience of violence that African-Americans have endured and survived. Thomas C. Holt's Children of Fire is a monumental work that should be required reading for every American."—William Ferris, Professor of History, University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill

"Thomas C. Holt has spent his lifetime pioneering in our understanding race and the significance of African Americans in the history of the United States. Simply brilliant, Holt's latest work is remarkable for its precision, intelligence, and heart. Delving into the real personal experiences of the people who create the narrative, this masterful book takes its place as the best synthesis of a complex story."—Orville Vernon Burton, author The Age of Lincoln

"A remarkable achievement! Thomas C. Holt has distilled a lifetime of research into this elegant and sweeping volume. With an authoritative voice and a sure hand, he redefines the black experience through the powerful stories of generations of African Americans."—Vernon E. Jordan, Jr.

"In the spirit of John Hope Franklin, Thomas C. Holt, in Children of Fire, resurrects the wonderful art of historical generalization embedded in richly contextualized stories of real people. Holt brings a wealth of learning and a graceful style to eight ‘generations' of the African American saga. In each case and time period we see black people transplanted, transformed, and sometimes triumphant in a history that is always unfinished and conflicted. For serious teachers of African American history, this book assumes the rank of best one volume work."—David W. Blight, author of Race and Reunion

"In this important new book, Thomas C. Holt offers a creative and thoughtful rethinking of the African American experience. Children of Fire illuminates previously unknown aspects of black life and then brilliantly reinterprets the entire history of black America, opening up unfamiliar fields of vision that allow us think anew."—Ira Berlin, author of The Making of African America

"Placing all U.S. history in rich international context, this mesmerizing book shows Thomas C. Holt at his best: wise, subtle, visionary. Children of Fire challenges many truisms about African American life. A new history for the 21st century."—Linda K. Kerber, author of No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies

"Children of Fire will immediately become a vital resource for all readers interested in studying and understanding African American history."—Marian Wright Edelman, President, Children's Defense Fund

"Holt eschews the traditional topically driven historical narrative here in favor of a more human attempt to relate history as it was lived chronologically. He chronicles the major events, as well as the unexplored tragedies and triumphs of ordinary and extraordinary African Americans through the successive eras of the last 400 years, beginning with the first recorded slaves to arrive at Jamestown in 1621 and ending with the election of Barack Obama as President. Holt's thoroughly researched material and scholarly tone make this work well suited for use as a college text, comparing favorably with standards like Darlene Clark Hine and others' African Americans: A Concise History and John Hope Franklin's seminal From Slavery to Freedom. Academics and educational institutions, along with all interested readers, will want to add this to their African American history collections."—April Younglove, Rochester Regional Library Council, New York, Library Journal

"Holt . . . constructs an interlocking historical chain of the lives of Olaudah Equiano, Richard Allen, Frederick Douglass, and W.E.B. Du Bois, whose trajectories reveal a more complex history of African-Americans than the one that simply moves in a linear fashion from slavery to the civil rights movement. Holt connects these men through their corresponding but still unique lives; for example, Equiano, Allen, and Douglass had been slaves, but in different times and places, and in different global contexts. Though moored by these extraordinary figures, Holt's history, replete with vignettes of the lesser known, is inspired by a sense 'that ordinary people don't live history as it is taught by historians.' A work of historiography as well as history, this book provides a fluid synthesis of the growing body of research in African-American history and letters as well as a thoughtful reconsideration of the work of previous historians. Provocative and bound to spur debate, Holt's study is readable, passionate, and partisan at moments, but balanced, resting upon rigorous scholarship."—Publishers Weekly

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Read an Excerpt

Children of Fire

Europe, Africa, America, and the Slave Trade

In his Generall Historie of Virginia, published in 1624, Captain John...

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  • Thomas C. Holt

  • Thomas C. Holt is the James Westfall Thompson Professor of American and African American History at the University of Chicago. A past president of the American Historical Association, Holt has been a Fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the Woodrow Wilson International Center, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is the author of Black Over White, The Problem of Freedom, The Problem of Race in the Twenty-First Century, and co-author of Beyond Slavery.