Black Americans’ country of origin is America itself.
The 1619 Project is a major initiative from The New York Times observing the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.
Portuguese slavers kidnapped 20 or 30 people from Angola. English pirates stole the slaves. And then, in 1619, the Jamestown colonists bought these Africans — these Angolans! — from the pirates.
They were not just generic “Africans.” They were from the country of Angola. But what would “Angola” mean to these people? Outside of Egypt, every African nation is construction of colonialism. The Portuguese drew the lines and declared that the Ovimbundu and the Mbundu and the Bakongo, and so on, all these people now existed inside of Angola.
Whatever their tribes and identities, something happened on that slave ship bound to Virginia. The same thing that would happen on countless ships as 400,000 people were transported to America. Nikole Hannah-Jones explains:
“When it occurred, no one can say for certain. Perhaps it was in the second week, or the third, but surely by the fourth, when they had not seen their land or any land for so many days that they lost count. It was after fear had turned to despair, and despair to resignation, and resignation to an abiding understanding. The teal eternity of the Atlantic Ocean had severed them so completely from what had once been their home that it was as if nothing had ever existed before, as if everything and everyone they cherished had simply vanished from the earth. They were no longer Mbundu or Akan or Fulani. These men and women from many different nations, all shackled together in the suffocating hull of the ship, they were one people now.”
If it did not happen on the ships, then the American slave owners made sure it happened through the process of “seasoning,” in which the slaves were made to forget their language and their religion and learn English and love Jesus.
They were made Americans. Blacks. Slaves. But Americans. African-Americans now, because there can be no Mbundu-Americans.
Hannah-Jones tells the story of a school project in which the students were to write a report about their ancestral lands. But what was this black girl’s ancestral land? Africa?
As she turned to write the assignment on the board, the other black girl in class locked eyes with me. Slavery had erased any connection we had to an African country, and even if we tried to claim the whole continent, there was no “African” flag. It was hard enough being one of two black kids in the class, and this assignment would just be another reminder of the distance between the white kids and us. In the end, I walked over to the globe near my teacher’s desk, picked a random African country and claimed it as my own.
I wish, now, that I could go back to the younger me and tell her that her people’s ancestry started here, on these lands, and to boldly, proudly, draw the stars and those stripes of the American flag.
People of African descent — that sounds nice, doesn’t it? part of the melting pot of America: Italians, Irish, South Americans, Chinese, Africans … Try again …
The descendants of slaves are told that they are strangers in a strange land: blacks in a white country.
And yet, although America was colonized, raped, dominated by white Europeans, black men and women have been here since the beginning — with those very first Jamestown colonists. In what way is America a “white country?”
See my article: ‘America is not a white country’
No taxation without slavery
What drove the American colonists to war against their king and homeland? What them embrace the New World as their home, and reject their place as Englishmen? Why were they not proud citizens of the British Empire? How did they come to see themselves as the colonized rather than the colonizers?
As schoolchildren — and indeed as adult readers of popular history — we are told, vaguely, it had something to do with taxes and democracy. No taxation without representation. The king was taxing the colonists to pay for various British excursions — none of the wealth of which went to America.
I guess that makes sense.
But Hannah-Jones has a radical (to me) explanation that carries the ring of truth.
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. By 1776, Britain had grown deeply conflicted over its role in the barbaric institution that had reshaped the Western Hemisphere. In London, there were growing calls to abolish the slave trade. This would have upended the economy of the colonies, in both the North and the South. 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. In other words, we may never have revolted against Britain if the founders had not understood that slavery empowered them to do so; nor if they had not believed that independence was required in order to ensure that slavery would continue. It is not incidental that 10 of this nation’s first 12 presidents were enslavers, and some might argue that this nation was founded not as a democracy but as a slavocracy.
And our Constitution, venerated as the radical bylaws of an entirely new form of government — the constitutional democracy. A government of, by and for the people?
The Constitution protected the “property” of those who enslaved black people, prohibited the federal government from intervening to end the importation of enslaved Africans for a term of 20 years, allowed Congress to mobilize the militia to put down insurrections by the enslaved and forced states that had outlawed slavery to turn over enslaved people who had run away seeking refuge.
The enslavement of black Americans is baked into our founding documents. The country was founded on binding Africans and their descendants into the land, into the people. Although Lincoln urged that the slaves, once freed, should pick up and leave the U.S. forever, there is no other home.
Through all the years of slavery and through the Second Nadir, the many decades of terror, lynching, disenfranchisement and legal perversion, there was some small glimmer of hope that the aspirational words of the Framers would outshine the “dark and ambiguous” words of codified torture and inhumanity.
When you reflect back on the virulent bigotry we saw on TV news in the 50s and 60s and which stretched back to end of Reconstruction, you must admit it never quite made sense that the whole country believed in civil rights by say, the 80s when the bats were raised in Boston in the 70s and the public ghettos were raised high in the 60s, and strange fruit hung in the trees all the years before.
In these dark days, it is evident that racism still runs deep and angry in America — it came on the first slave ship in 1619 and has never left. Any Trumpian suggestion that America is for white people, or that whites are more American than any other American must be reputed with prejudice.
We were told once, by virtue of our bondage, that we could never be American. But it was by virtue of our bondage that we became the most American of all.