1619 has served as the “official” date espoused by U.S. history scholars as the year that Africans first arrived in America for centuries. Its validity, that is, the accuracy of the date and the reasons behind the journey of Africans to America, however, has not enjoyed unanimous agreement, particular among Black scholars.
Now, 400 years later, the D.C.-based Association for the Study of African Life and History [ASALH] has launched its first public event in a yearlong commemoration of the forced migration of Africans to Jamestown, one of the first, successful British colonies established in Virginia in 1619, with discussions on the meaning of the year and its relevance throughout the centuries.
With the theme, “400 Years of Perseverance,” Dr. Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, ASALH’s national president and chair, History Department at Harvard University, moderated a panel discussion on Friday, Feb. 1 at the National Press Club in Northwest which examined the historical importance of the date and the role of historical preservation and memorization in illuminating the past, among other topics.
Panelists included: Gloria Browne-Marshall, Brent Leggs, Spencer Crew and Roger A. Fairfax, all scholars in history, with Lonnie G. Bunch III and Alison Fitzgerald Kodjak providing words of introduction and greeting. A dedicated website [asalh.org/400-years] to the 400th Commemoration, launched on the birthday (Dec. 19) of Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the “Father of Black History” and the founder of ASALH, provides pertinent information and updates on commemorative events scheduled for Jamestown and other places throughout the U.S.
But as the noted scholar Lerone Bennett, Jr. posited in his seminal text, “Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America,” in detailing the Black struggle for freedom, he deemed it essential to “detach epochal black events – the Founding of Black America, for example – from the white shell and reinsert them into a black time-line extending from the African past to the transformation of Black America in the 20th century.”
Not all Blacks came to America in shackles, Bennett reports. Some from both the African continent and parts of the Caribbean, including the West Indies, financed their own travel, crossing the waters for reasons similar to Europeans: in search of wealth, opportunity and a better chance for self-determination. But whites, recognizing the unlimited supply of free labor and heedless of the consequences, “decided to base the American economic system on human slavery organized around the distribution of melanin in human skin.”
Thus, white America, in of its first steps, set about “the creation of an ideology of racism that justified the subordination of blacks,” Bennett writes, simultaneously putting in motion “the destruction of the bonds of community between black and white servants who constituted the majority of the population” as early as the 1660s.
Author and scholar James W. Loewen agrees with Bennett’s premises, as noted in “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.”
“Profit was the primary reason most Mayflower colonists made the trip, he writes. “Textbooks neglect to analyze the profit motive underlying much of our history.”
Fact, Fiction or Creatively Invented History
Baby boomers and those from generations prior, probably remember learning the rhyme, “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue” — a learning tool intended to help children memorize a historical landmark of the origins for a newly-discovered land that would one day be called America.
Today, many refute this claim as illustrative of carefully-derived, revisionist history that has long ignored non-Europeans who had even earlier found refuge upon our shores, Native Americans being just one example of those who clearly came well before Columbus.
Yet, these and other myths, including the “love feast” to which the Pilgrims allegedly “invited” the natives – savages in search of salvation and sustenance, continue to provide a shared history, albeit not totally accurate, which remains as the foundation for Thanksgiving and which continues to be maintained, defended, promoted and perpetuated within mainstream U.S. society.
That said, there’s justification in wondering if we’re putting too much emphasis into the “celebration” of the 400th year (1619 to 2019) since Blacks first arrived in this country, specifically in Jamestown.
Perhaps, as these celebrations take shape, unfold and inevitably occur, undoubtedly amid great pomp and circumstance throughout the year in the Commonwealth of Virginia and other parts of America, we, African Americans, specifically and especially, should examine both its merits and its validity.