Children of Fire
A History of African Americans
By Thomas C. Holt
Hill and Wang, Hardcover, 9780809067138, 464pp.
Publication Date: October 12, 2010
List Price: $30.00*
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Ordinary people don’t experience history as it is taught by historians. They live 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 do we almost always treat them separately? In Children of Fire, renowned 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.
“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 does resist the temptation to make this a purely academic trade book. The information provided is direct and he does not exploit the use scholarly terminology to impress readers . . . Every party with a desire to learn about the saga of African-Americans, in a concise manner, will benefit and appreciate this book.” —Rosetta Codling, Atlanta Examiner “Holt ably moves through several centuries, and in an attempt to hold on to all of these accounts, he employs pivotal moments as stepping stones to lead the reader through the complex web of history. The 1892 Chicago World’s Fair is one example, as is the death of Frederick Douglass in 1895. The author is at his best in the final chapters, when he shifts his focus to the Civil Rights era of the 1960s. Emmett Till, Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers and many others all find their rightful place in the history, allowing Holt to smoothly reveal the evolution from the initial slaves at Jamestown to the civil-rights heroes that continued struggling for freedom generations later. A story many readers have heard before, but one rarely rendered with such eloquence.” —Kirkus Reviews