The New York Times Magazine devotes the entirety of this week’s issue to a single event that brought America into being, at least according to the compelling arguments of its conributors. The telling of that origin story (a real one, not the fictional one about the supposed desire for freedom among the so-called founders) begins:

“In August of 1619, a ship appeared on this horizon, near Point Comfort in the British Colony of Virginia. It carried more than 20 enslaved Africans, who were sold to the colonists….”

Photograph by Dannielle Bowman for the New York Times

These pages, part of the 1619 Project launched by the New York Times, should be required reading for every White American, especially for those blinded by the obscurantism of American Capitalism and those who love the laws that protect freedom for some by restricting the freedoms of others. Anyone who hopes to learn rather than hide should read it. The take away, offered in compelling detail and elegant prose: Black lives built this country, and they began doing so more than 150 years before Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and other slave-owner founders sought to emancipate their own vile inhumanity from England, a nation that was already repulsed by slavery.

[For a short review of the backwardness of America’s founders in comparison to the restrictions on slavery in England and elsewhere, go here: https://www.freetheslaves.net/about-slavery/slavery-in-history/.

or check out this map.]

The 1619 Project gives us a clear expression of the way that slavery’s past continues to infect the present. From the emotionally gritty to the wonky structuralist, these essays do some amazing work by recollecting what happened, by pointing out the worms that deform collective memory, and by illustrating the costs our society currently pays as a result of its racialized legacy.

For an example of race-based structures that continue to pay dividends for racists and cost the rest of us a hell of a lot, read Kevin M. Kruse’s report “How Segregation Caused Your Traffic Jam” (page 49).

Atlanta’s Downtown Connector
photo by Humza Deas

By the way, I first learned that highways built through towns in the 1960s were designed to divide when I entered a graduate program in City Planning at MIT in 1982. Our first case study looked at the construction of the I-10 Freeway through San Bernardino, CA. San Bernardino was my home town. I still feel the embarrassment I felt at having traveled 3000 miles to learn, in Cambridge, MA, that my home turf offered a classic example of the use of roads to segregate populations! The statue of Martin Luther King that I remember being awkwardly plopped onto an obscure plot outside of city hall in the 1970s succeeded at its design too, which was to disguise with a little band-aid any recognition I might have had of my city’s uncomfortable history.

It hurts to hear the truth. Some readers will undoubtedly pretend that it is fake news – get ready for diversionary rants and obfuscations, like the constant whining about self-reliance. Other readers may be moved to feel the pain and persistence of their ancestors, recognizing that the series of difficult freedom struggles is not yet complete. Slaves gained their freedom; Black Americans, women, and White men without property expanded suffrage; immigrants like the Mexican laborers I knew in my youth, and laborers of many backgrounds, organized against their own exploitation at great cost; a Civil Rights Movement relieved some of the burdens of what we demurely call segregation (as if we can hide the evils of othering with disclaimers like “there are nice people on both sides”); but there is still much to do. Perhaps the revelation of this bit of history will move another group of readers – the one that at times has been called the silent majority or the moral majority – to participate in the ongoing struggle to earn love and build respect.  

Cesar Chavez

2 thoughts

  1. Cheers, Michael, the study of the trans-Atlantic and inter-colonial/state slave trades and of slavery–these are not exactly the same thing–must absolutely be encouraged. I (grudgingly) accept that ‘anniversaries’ can draw helpful, welcome attention to historical issues. But this sort of ‘project’ makes me see red: in the first instance, 1619 probably did not mark the arrival of the first Africans at Jamestown; as with most of this history, the events are shrouded in obscurity although there were certainly enslaved people living on Bermuda (Virginia’s counterpart) by 1615 while the first Jamestown census lists 32 ‘Negroes’ (the term invariably used by seventeenth-century English people) living there while the letter from John Rolfe to Sir Edwin Sandys that constitutes the first mention (in passing) of Africans in the colony references ’20 and odd’.

    The worst part of this enterprise, though, is that it perpetuates the ahistorical (although it is an important historical phenomenon in itself) view that the United States and its history are somehow exceptional and that everything else revolves around this ‘special place’.

    So we should absolutely make this medieval as it says on the tin here: ‘1619’ did not constitute an ‘event’ but was rather part of a much larger series of events in both chronological and geographic terms. The pirates who intercepted the San Juan Baptista that was carrying these unfortunate people from Angola to the ‘New World’ [sic] were part of a group that had been operating for about five years and continued to do so were part of the extension of European involvement in the ‘Guinea trade’ (including commerce in human beings) that the Portuguese began in their fifteenth-century battle with Castile and that gave rise to the plantation system (grotesquely romanticized in ‘Gone With the Wind’, etc.) in the Atlantic islands from 1440. The Iberians seamlessly translated these innovations to their American colonies and then the Dutch and English (although Swedes, Danes, Brandenburgers, and ‘Italians’ were also involved) pitched up from the end of the sixteenth century. Jamestown was incidental to all this and the involuntary movement of over 12 million–this figure continues to climb and does not include the number of enslaved people who never even made it to the European traders–from Africa to the Americas between 1494 and 1886 (Brazil, the largest and most important recipient of slaves, did not abolish slavery until 1888).

    What do you think?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Lou, for supplying those important details. I appreciate the reminder that any origin story, this one included, is always one reading among the possibilities. You are also right to remind us that it is not always useful to distinguish single events from events in a series, especially when events around the ones we take interest in may be equally important but hidden from our view either because of what time can do to our sources or because what professional historians know is not part of a more general awareness.

      Still, it seems to me that the essential aspiration of the 1619 project is that a better-informed public will see it as important to fight complacency, resist the impetus to perpetuate the legacy of slavery and other social ills, and strive for something better. I would hope that any arguments over data points move us toward not away from that laudable goal.

      Liked by 1 person

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