Two weeks ago in Hampton, Virginia, thousands gathered to commemorate the grim 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first African people brought against their will to the British North American mainland. Thanks to a distinguished commission, the occasion was marked by speeches, music, tours, and exhibits honored the resilience and contributions of Africans and African Americans.
The week before, the New York Times published a special supplement to acknowledge 400 years of oppression and attempt to reframe our national dialogue on race. As reported by The Nation, some angry white men “freaked out.” Newt Gingrich sputtered, “This is simply a LIE.” Ilya Shapiro of the Cato Institute scolded the Times for attempting to “delegitimize mankind’s grandest experiment in human liberty & self-governance….”
Even progressive white folks sometimes resist similar commemorations as offered at Hampton and in the Times. My talks about my own 400 Years project can trigger resistance. Often folks distract or downplay by explaining what other horrors of history should get my attention or pointing out what I got wrong. I appreciate some critiques. (One led me to add the following bolded words to my home page: “To mark the 400th year since the first people were brought against their will to the British North American mainland from Africa….”)
I also appreciate historian Michael Guasco who says that emphasizing 1619 doesn’t do justice to history. He’s correct that Africans were enslaved and tortured by Spanish and Portuguese kidnappers a century before 1619. He’s right that British whips were scarring African workers in Bermuda before it happened on the mainland. But we in the United States mark this grim 400th anniversary to acknowledge that our so-called “grandest experiment in human liberty” was soaked in blood from Black bodies.
Nikole Hannah-Jones in the August 18 Times supplement explains: “[o]ur founding ideals of liberty and equality were false when they were written;” which was a full 157 years after 1619. Most importantly, Hannah-Jones explains that Black Americans “fought to make these ideals true” – that Africans and their descendants were “the perfecters of this democracy.” Through it all, unlike any other group, “Black people have seen the worst of America, yet, somehow, we still believe in its best.” Now we must answer her closing question : “What if America understood, finally, in this 400th year, that we [Black people] have never been the problem but the solution?”
Lesson #171: The 400 Years of African-American History Commission Act, signed into law January 8, 2018, established a 15-member commission to coordinate the 400th anniversary and to plan, develop, and carry out programs and activities throughout the United States. Its chair, Joseph L. Green Jr., said, “This is a labor of love for us … to honor our ancestors, and the contribution and resiliency, of our ancestors … and to rewrite the history for our children’s children.” He continued, “This is such an important … time in our nation … to make sure we give proper homage for those who have sacrificed for us to be here.” It is work that we as a nation should carry forward.
Lesson #172: Some conservative critics of the Times Supplement do what many do to resist an honest exploration of our racist history – they blame the exploration for being “divisive” rather than seeking to heal the wounds our history has caused.
Lesson #173: Jeet Heer of The Atlantic was correct to point out the hypocrisy of conservative criticism of the Times Supplement on the 400th anniversary. He explains that, “the conservative meltdown is deeply shameful” because it’s “a betrayal of basic conservative principles…. Conservatives, of all people, should be aware of the power of the past in shaping contemporary reality and of the need to make a reckoning with history.” He cites the conservative Edmund Burke in describing society as “ ‘a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born’.” Heer concludes, “We’re in partnership with the past, including those in the past who were immeasurably wronged, and part of our debt to them is paid by remembering their stories. It’s a strange conservatism that wants to wave away history.”
Lesson #174: Strikingly the Times Supplement honors the ideals of our country in many ways. As Heer explains, anyone who reads the essays in the Times Supplement “will be struck by the fact that they are very sober, thoroughly grounded in the most recent mainstream scholarship, and also surprisingly and fiercely patriotic.”
Lesson #175: Michael Guasco offers an intriguing criticism of solely emphasizing 1619 – it places white people as the ones who were native and those from Africa as coming second, somehow less legitimate residents of North America. He says that focusing on 1619 “normalizes white Christian Europeans as historical constants and makes African actors little more than dependent variables….” He’s correct in saying that “Europeans were the outsiders…invaders or occupiers. When we elevate the events of 1619, we establish the conditions for people of African descent to remain, forever, strangers in a strange land.”
Lesson #176: Lessons learned by focusing on 1619 will mean little if efforts to use history to end racism do not continue to grow.