by J. Pharoah Doss, For New Pittsburgh Courier
The New York Times Magazine released a special issue called “The 1619 Project” to commemorate the 400-year anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It contains essays, photo essays, poems, and fiction written by Black academics, journalists, and literary figures in consultation with historians.
The material examines the historical and modern impact of slavery over the 400-year span. It updates notions expressed by Black thinkers throughout the 20th century that Black Americans forced America to live up to its founding principles and the effects of slavery linger in modernity. There’s nothing new to this examination of history and there shouldn’t be, it’s an anniversary, but there is a point of contention.
The New York Times Magazine said it aims to reframe the country’s history by understanding 1619 as America’s true founding.
But that’s not a fact.
This invites critics to attack their agenda and dismiss the 400-year anniversary.
One critic responded, “Jamestown was founded by a British company over a decade before the introduction of slaves; its purpose was to search for gold and establish trade to enrich its owners, not give freedom to anyone. America was born in 1776 when we declared our independence to free the American people, including Blacks, from British rule.”
A defender of the project replied conservatives feel threatened because “it challenges the totalism on which their entire world view has been constructed. It is their mindset, which monopolizes imagination and stifles alternatives, that lays the groundwork for authoritarianism.”
But this was predicted.
In 2017 Michael Guasco, chair of the history department at Davidson College, wrote an essay called, “The Fallacy of 1619: Rethinking the history of Africans in Early America.” The essay was published on Black Perspectives, an award-winning blog of the African American Intellectual History Society, whose expressed aim is to produce and disseminate cutting-edge research and discuss the many aspects of Black intellectual history.
Guasco stated: 1619 is not the best place to begin the history of African people in America. It assumes the arrival at Jamestown was an exceptional historical moment. 1619 was not the first time Africans made their mark on the land that became the United States. In 1526, enslaved Africans were part of a Spanish expedition to establish an outpost in present-day South Carolina. The Africans launched a rebellion and destroyed the settlement liberating themselves. (In 1565 when Pedro Menendez founded St. Augustine, Fla.) he had Black members of his crew and he noted his arrival was preceded by free Africans in the French settlement a few miles north at Fort Caroline. This is half a century before Jamestown.) The elevation of 1619 has the unintended consequence of cementing in our minds that the English settlers were already home but they were not. Elevating 1619 silently condones the notion that this place is, and always has been, White, Christian, and European, and establishes conditions for people of African descent to remain strangers forever. As we near the 400th anniversary of 1619 and new works appear that are timed to remember the “firstness” of a few Africans at Jamestown, it is important to remember that historical framing shapes historical meaning. How we characterize the past has consequences, the biggest consequence is essentializing notions of “us” and “them.”
Now, that’s a premise worthy of debate during the 400-year anniversary of Africans arriving at Jamestown, not whether 1619 was America’s true founding.
(J. Pharoah Doss is a contributor to the New Pittsburgh Courier.)
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