The impetus for American Founders came to Proenza-Coles when she was an assistant professor for the Atlantic world/African diaspora program at Virginia State University. While conducting research for her classes, she said, she kept “coming across the remarkable stories of men and women of African descent who did really interesting things — fought in independence wars, led revolutions, petitioned courts and legislatures, established schools, political organizations, newspapers. ... Cumulatively these men and women fundamentally changed how I understood American history and the development of democracy.’’ Proenza-Coles gives the reader a detailed look at how intertwined slavery is with our country’s development, including stories on the enslaved members of the Washington and Jefferson households. “I don’t think you can really understand U.S. history until you understand the bedrock role slavery and racial segregation has played in the lives of all Americans,’’ she said.
Proenza-Coles holds a dual doctorate in sociology and history from the New School for Social Research of New York. She grew up in Coconut Grove and now lives in Virginia.
What’s on your nightstand?
The physical book that is permanently on my nightstand is Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen. I think it ranks among the great American novels. It is close to 900 pages, and I stopped reading just short of the end because I don’t want to finish it. It examines a historical event, the lynching of a white Southern outlaw, Edgar Watson, in the Everglades in 1910. Matthiessen poetically gets at the violence and beauty and tragedy of this settlement in the Everglades and west Florida, violence of and against the environment, of and against individuals and communities, but also the beauty and tragedy of these complicated relationships in the name of American “development.’’ During the day, I’ve been reading Steve Luxenberg’s Separate: The Story of Plessy v Ferguson, and America’s Journey From Slavery to Segregation. It tells the rich and complicated backstories of the individuals and circumstances involved in the infamous 1896 case that legitimized separate but equal. I recently got to talk with him, and we both agreed how critically important it is to not read history backwards, to assume that events were bound to turn out the way they did. There is so much complexity and contingency in history, and I think it’s important to understand both what happened and what was at stake, but also what could have happened differently, as we think how the past continues to shape our present and how we choose to shape our future.
Was there one story that stood out to you above all as you wrote American Founders?
I think that there were so many amazing stories that it was overwhelming, and it is that overwhelming number of people that shape this understanding of our history. I wanted to let all their connections with the global parts of history let you rethink our own national story.