When the modern history of the USA is told, it often begins with ships arriving here, such as Christopher Columbus in 1492 or settlers arriving in Jamestown in 1607 or the Pilgrims arriving at Plymouth Rock in 1620. Each of those arrivals is used as a symbolic marker, a portent of future events. But there is one major arrival that has been ignored. It is the arrival in August 1619 of the first enslaved peoples, when 20 to 30 of them (the exact number is unknown) were brought ashore. Thus began the history of slavery in what became the USA. This marked the beginning of events that have had a lasting impact on America down through the ages and its legacy manifests itself everywhere today if one only knows how and where to look.
The New York Times magazine of Sunday, August 18, 2019 put out a 100-page special issue called The 1619 Project that takes the 400th anniversary of that arrival to look at the deep and wide legacy of slavery in the US, the impact it has had on so many areas of our lives. It shows how many of the ills of the US can be traced back to the racism that sought to make sure that even after slavery was officially abolished, black people were viewed as inferior beings and thus should be and were deliberately deprived of the things that white people felt only they were entitled to.
As the editor of the issue Jake Silverstein writes in his introduction:
It is not a year that most Americans know as a notable date in our country’s history. Those who do are at most a tiny fraction of those who can tell you that 1776 is the year of our nation’s birth. What if, however, we were to tell you that this fact, which is taught in our schools and unanimously celebrated every Fourth of July, is wrong, and that the country’s true birth date, the moment that its defining contradictions first came into the world, was in late August of 1619? Though the exact date has been lost to history (it has come to be observed on Aug. 20), that was when a ship arrived at Point Comfort in the British colony of Virginia, bearing a cargo of 20 to 30 enslaved Africans. Their arrival inaugurated a barbaric system of chattel slavery that would last for the next 250 years. This is sometimes referred to as the country’s original sin, but it is more than that: It is the country’s very origin.
Out of slavery — and the anti-black racism it required — grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional: its economic might, its industrial power, its electoral system, diet and popular music, the inequities of its public health and education, its astonishing penchant for violence, its income inequality, the example it sets for the world as a land of freedom and equality, its slang, its legal system and the endemic racial fears and hatreds that continue to plague it to this day. The seeds of all that were planted long before our official birth date, in 1776, when the men known as our founders formally declared independence from Britain.
The goal of The 1619 Project, a major initiative from The New York Times that this issue of the magazine inaugurates, is to reframe American history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year. Doing so requires us to place the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are as a country.
A word of warning: There is gruesome material in these pages, material that readers will find disturbing. That is, unfortunately, as it must be. American history cannot be told truthfully without a clear vision of how inhuman and immoral the treatment of black Americans has been. By acknowledging this shameful history, by trying hard to understand its powerful influence on the present, perhaps we can prepare ourselves for a more just future.
That is the hope of this project.
This project should also serve to remind people that African-Americans arrived on these shores long before almost every other ethnic group and thus those racists who still see them as somehow Johnny-come-latelies who do not really belong here and that they should “go back to where they came from” do not realize that, apart from the Native Americans, blacks have a greater claim to being original arrivals here than pretty much everyone else.
That insulting view that black people have less right to be here goes way back, as Nikole Hannah-Jones writes in the issue, and has usually been met with the same response, which is effectively, “Why the hell should we go back when we have as much right to be here, if not more, than you?”
On Aug. 14, 1862, a mere five years after the nation’s highest courts declared that no black person could be an American citizen [the Dred Scott decision], President Abraham Lincoln called a group of fi e esteemed free black men to the White House for a meeting. It was one of the few times that black people had ever been invited to the White House as guests.
That August day, as the men arrived at the White House, they were greeted by the towering Lincoln and a man named James Mitchell, who eight days before had been given the title of a newly created position called the commissioner of emigration. This was to be his first assignment. After exchanging a few niceties, Lincoln got right to it. He informed his guests that he had gotten Congress to appropriate funds to ship black people, once freed, to another country.
Nearly three years after that White House meeting, Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox. By summer, the Civil War was over, and four million black Americans were suddenly free. Contrary to Lincoln’s view, most were not inclined to leave, agreeing with the sentiment of a resolution against black colonization put forward at a convention of black leaders in New York some decades before: ‘‘This is our home, and this our country. Beneath its sod lie the bones of our fathers. . . . Here we were born, and here we will die.’
There is a lot that I learned from the document and I will discuss a few of the pieces in the days to come but would recommend everyone read the full issue of the magazine that can be found without a subscription here.