Dismantling the myths of the US’s founding
Black history is American history,” thundered Ralph Northam, Governor of Virginia, at a ceremony on August 24 commemorating the arrival of “20 and odd Negroes” who were traded for food by pirates who landed at Point Comfort, Virginia, 400 years ago this month.
Coming from a man who just six months ago had to explain how a photograph, depicting a man in blackface and another person in a Ku Klux Klan uniform, ended up on his medical school yearbook page, this was a remarkable acknowledgement.
Northam’s declaration spoke of a new-found self-awareness, not just of himself, but also of our nation’s difficult history. Not the sanitised version that puts a smiley face on racism and ignores the lingering power of white supremacy, but the version that recognises and honours the violence and suffering that went hand in hand with the creation of this great nation.
“If we are going to begin to truly right the wrongs of our four centuries of history, if we are going to turn the light of truth upon them, we have to start with ourselves,” Northam said, according to The Washington Post’s story on the event. “I’ve had to confront some painful truths. ... Among those truths was my own incomplete understanding involving race and equity.”
Northam isn’t alone in having an incomplete understanding of our nation’s problematic origin and messy history. Most Americans are unaware of it, of how the “dualism [of] high-minded principle and indescribable cruelty has defined us”, as senator Tim Kaine, said at the same ceremony.
Thanks to the 1619 Project at The New York Times, that is going to change. “1619”, as folks are calling it, is a massive retelling of the American story, with African-Americans, appropriately at its centre. It is the kind of retelling that continues putting the calls for reparations in their proper context and makes the absence of a national apology, all the more galling.
More than a week ago, I read Nikole Hannah-Jones’s masterful opening essay for “1619”. The power and truth of her words, and the other essays, have stayed with me.
Not only because of the beautiful writing but, also, because of the unflinching way they dismantle the myth of America and the white men who founded it.
For many African-Americans, the essays of “1619” present nothing new. They were taught all this in high school or college or by conscious family members, determined that they know their history.
If you listen to my podcast “Cape Up”, you have heard some of this history.
Bryan Stevenson talked about the terror of lynchings. Daina Ramey Berry talked about how even in death, slaves weren’t free. Andrea Ritchie talked about how law enforcement is as aggressive with African-American women, as it is with black men.
Yet having all the knowledge of “1619” laid out in the pages of an entire New York Times magazine, and a dedicated website, gives it the national prominence it deserves and forces the nation to take heed.
And there were moments when I could only gasp at and cheer on, the audacity of the assembled writers, particularly that of Matthew Desmond on how “the brutality of American capitalism” started on the plantation, and of Wesley Morris on how “black music, forged in bondage, has been the sound of complete artistic freedom”.
Hannah-Jones hammers away at the hypocrisy of Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the immortal words, “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”, while ignoring the enslaved men, women and children in his midst. She describes the revered home of Jefferson in Charlottesville, Virginia, as “the forced-labour camp he called Monticello”.
She compels us to face one of the catalysts for the colonists to declare independence from Great Britain.
“Conveniently left out of our founding mythology, is the fact that one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain, was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery,” Hannah-Jones explains. “The wealth and prominence that allowed Jefferson, at just 33, and the other founding fathers to believe they could successfully break off from one of the mightiest empires in the world came from the dizzying profits generated by chattel slavery.”
She then goes on to describe how “when it came time to draft the Constitution, the framers carefully constructed a document that preserved and protected slavery without ever using the word”.
Fast forward to the adoration of the Greatest Generation and Hannah-Jones casts them in a harsh, but inescapable light. “We like to call those who lived during the Second World War the Greatest Generation,” she notes. “But that allows us to ignore the fact that, many of this generation fought for democracy abroad while brutally suppressing democracy for millions of American citizens.”
Which leads to Hannah-Jones’s most compelling statement: “Yet despite being violently denied the freedom and justice promised to all, black Americans believed fervently in the American creed.
“Through centuries of black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals. And not only for ourselves, black rights struggles paved the way for every other rights struggle, including women’s and gay rights, immigrant and disability rights. Without the idealistic, strenuous and patriotic efforts of black Americans, our democracy today would most likely look very different, it might not be a democracy at all.”
All these centuries later, I’m one of those black Americans who believes fervently in the American creed, even with the daily reminders that living while black in America still can be undignified on a good day.
I believe that this country is great because of the foundational role played by the descendants of those “20 and odd Negroes”.
They did this despite slavery, despite the state-sanctioned terror that followed, despite the discrimination and bigotry that continue to be a drag on full African-American equality and advancement. And I believe we can be greater still, once the complete picture of our shared history is learnt, internalised and embraced.
“If we’re serious about righting the wrong that began here at this place,” Northam said at the commemoration in Hampton, Virginia, “we need to do more than talk. We need to take action.”
And the first course of action for anyone truly serious is to read “1619” from beginning to end. All of it.
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