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Why 1619 Matters


This month marks the 400-year commemoration of the first enslaved Africans who arrived in what would become the United States of America. Granted these were not the first Africans to set foot in the New World. In 1572 Estevanico or “Little Esteban” arrived with a group of Spanish explorers who explored what today is known as Florida. For eight years he traveled with Spanish explorers who made their way to what was called New Spain and later the US Southwest. The fact that people of African descent can point to a 400-year sojourn in this nation gives us one of the strongest claims to national ownership excluding that of Indigenous peoples.

Today, many people, when confronted with the fact of slavery, say, “But that was so long ago. People need to get over it!” I want to argue that slavery and its legacy is one of the more enduring memories of this nation. It taints almost everything we do and the recent compendium of essays in the New York Times Magazine underscores how everything from healthcare, to education, to housing reverberates and suffers from the sting of slavery. However, I want to tell a personal story of how slavery lingers in my own life.

I had a number of friends who were a part of the “Jamestown to Jamestown” voyage from Virginia to Ghana. Having traveled to Ghana myself some 20 years ago I remembered many of the sites they shared on social media. Going to the Nkrumah Museum, the W. E. B. DuBois Institute, and the Cape Coast Slave Dungeon brought back many memories. The pain of seeing the “Door of No Return” is an experience that is difficult to articulate. But what is equally painful is watching the legacy of slavery put its mark on my children.

Years ago, after writing an outstanding 8th-grade project on the Black impact on the Revolutionary War Era my daughter refused to participate in the optional “Colonial Days” fair. When I pressed her she responded, “I’m not going to stand up there and be a slave in front of those White people!” As a parent, I was obligated to support her decision. In 9th grade, she railed against having to read Huckleberry Finn. She was the only Black student in her class and having to repeatedly read Twain’s use of the N-word was just too much. An additional insult came when she was repeatedly the top student in her classes filled with White students and one of her classmates asked if she were “mixed” (having at least one White parent) presumably because of her intellect and linguistic abilities.

Almost every stereotype Black people endure finds their origins in slavery. The watermelon, fried chicken eating, slow-talking, lazy but happy slave images are replayed in countless popular culture images. The desire for some Whites to put on Blackface (indeed 2 former state governors recently were found to have done so) and perform as minstrels reminds Whites of a time when they were “masters” and Blacks were slaves. When I hear Southern Whites claim that the Confederate flag reminds them of their “heritage” I ask, “What specifically in your heritage does that flag represent?” The only thing they can honestly say is slavery, the Confederacy (designed to defend slavery), and when Whites could legally terrorize Blacks.

Our Jewish brothers and sisters have a phrase that keeps the horror and their survival despite the Holocaust alive. That phrase is, “Never forget!” No one begrudges them the use of that phrase. It is the way they pass the memories of their collective horror down to their children and their children’s children. Black people have to be willing to do just that. We can’t be afraid to say, “1619 still matters!”