To Choose Our Better History:
African Americans and the American Revolution from Independence to Today

Clare Corbould and Michael A. McDonnell

For many if not most Americans, the Revolution is arguably the central event in American history and is ineradicably tied to the nation’s sense of identity and purpose. For African Americans, however, the relationship between history, nationhood, and citizenship is a more complicated one, given that the Revolutionary era also entrenched slavery in the new United States. Three generations after the event, escaped slave and abolitionist orator Frederick Douglass stunned a white audience in Rochester, New York with his famous Independence Day speech of 1852 by calling it a day of mourning rather than one of celebration. “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine,” he declared. “You may rejoice, I must mourn.” Over one hundred years later, in 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. stood in Washington and famously referred to the Founding documents as promissory notes on which America had defaulted, issuing instead “bad checks” to its black citizens.

Even Barack Obama could only invoke the Revolution as a starting point – an idea rather than a reality. He recognized that we all favor particular versions of history for reasons grounded in politics, and as he stood on the mall for his first inauguration, urged Americans to “choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.” While almost every President before him had invoked the Revolution and few other historical events, Obama recounted a long, difficult subsequent history of America that included the horrors of slavery, the Civil War, and segregation. Still, he began and ended his address with the American Revolution. It was inescapable.

In this book, we tell the stories of dozens of African Americans who have wrestled with the contradictions of the Founding, from 1776 to today. Starting with enslaved Africans in the Revolutionary period itself, each chapter will focus on four different people to illuminate the varied experiences of African Americans, and the multiple and evolving meanings of the American Revolution across time. Readers will be introduced to some new figures such as Jeffrey Brace of Connecticut, who literally fought for his freedom in the Revolutionary War, along with some more familiar African Americans such as James Forten and Gabriel Prosser, each of whom challenged the legacy of the Revolution in diverse and unique ways.

In narrative form, each chapter will look at a new generation of African Americans and the ways they contested or co-opted the meaning of the Revolution through education, rebellion, wartime participation, memorialization, music, pageantry, television, and politics. Along the way, readers will also be introduced to new kinds of sources for the study of African Americans, including early black memoirs, pension applications, newspapers, school syllabi, oral stories, church sermons, political speeches, screenplays, art, music, and film.  

The implicit argument in the book is that the American Revolution can be used as a lens through which to study the steady, and changing, ideas among African Americans about their relationship to the United States. This book will map the ways and means by which African Americans have remembered, invoked, and sometimes ignored the Revolutionary past, or replaced it with an alternative tradition of revolution, in order to make sense of the present and to shape the future. It is an ambitious project – really, a social, cultural, and political history of the ways in which a key group of Americans have thought about their Revolutionary past and how this has shaped ideas about citizenship and belonging in a nation that claims to have been founded in freedom.

A cultural and social history focusing specifically on the way that African Americans remembered and then invoked ‘the’ or ‘a’ revolutionary past, allows us to explore the diverse and creative ways that African Americans have engaged with the past over time. African Americans have always had an uneasy relationship with the American Revolution. But their response to the Revolutionary past has changed and evolved from 1776 onwards as narratives of the founding era have changed. While a narrative of the American Revolution as an unfinished story of freedom has compelled many, not least Obama, contemporary black artists from DJ Spooky to Kara Walker have recast the historical memory of the Revolution in unexpected and sometimes jarring ways. While sustaining the place of the American Revolution in their work, some African Americans today use the story of the Revolution to subvert explicitly political narratives about the nation, and promote a multiplicity of identities in a now global world – complicating notions of ‘citizenship’ still further.

By charting, interpreting, and analyzing African Americans’ varied memories and later invocations of the American Revolution, this book will reveal the degree to which many African Americans have dissented from a national narrative of an exclusionary Revolution, and even created an alternative tradition of revolutionary memory. It will provide an account, over the entire history of the American nation, of black Americans’ efforts to challenge their exclusion from the nation’s body politic. In doing so, it will also develop in the American context a better understanding of the changing modes by which individuals and groups lay claim to memories – and to history itself – to seek a place in the nation, or to challenge prevailing definitions of what it means to be an American. Finally, taking this approach means using as a lens the key moment in Americans’ understanding of their own history in order to illuminate the story of perhaps the single greatest failing in the experiment that is the American nation: race relations between black and white.

Explore some of the sources we are using in this study

Have a look at a co-edited collection related to this project: Michael A. McDonnell, Clare Corbould, Frances Clarke, W. Fitzhugh Brundage, eds.,  Remembering the Revolution: Memory, History and Nation Making from Independence to the Civil War (University of Massachusetts Press, 2013).