Four hundred years ago, in August 1619, a year before the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock, English pirates sold 20 to 30 enslaved Africans to colonists in Jamestown, Virginia. It was the first time black men and women set foot on the shores of what would later become the United States.
And it was the beginning of slavery in America.
Last weekend, the New York Times published a special magazine issue devoted to essays about how slavery shaped our country and how it continues to influence us today. The “1619 Project” encourages Americans to re-think our history and look beyond the narratives we were taught in school.
As Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Project’s lead reporter, wrote: “The United States is a nation founded on both an ideal and a lie.”
As we now know, when Thomas Jefferson wrote those inspiring words in the Declaration of Independence – We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal — he was being waited on by a teenage slave, his wife’s half-brother, who could enjoy none of those rights and liberties.
It’s not easy to admit that our nation, which we like to think of as a beacon of liberty and freedom, bears the stains of slavery and a deep-seated racism. We see their legacy in today’s income inequality, incarcerations, debates over affirmative action, and police shootings of unarmed black teenagers.
But unless we honestly face our past, America will never be the country that whites like to think it is but that blacks know it has never actually been.
Conservative pundits have criticized the 1619 Project because it views history through “racial lenses.” But those pundits view history through “racial lenses” — “white” ones. Their version of history refuses to recognize the fundamental role that slavery and racism have played in our country.
We’ve also seen echoes of this in the controversy over the murals depicting the life of George Washington painted by Victor Arnautoff in the 1930s at Washington High School in San Francisco. Panels in the murals depict Washington as a slave owner and show pioneers stepping over the body of a Native American.
Opponents of the murals don’t want students, especially those that are African American or Native American, to have to see the violence portrayed in the murals every day as they walk through school.
Supporters, however, argue that Arnautoff painted those scenes specifically because he was critical of attempts to gloss over the racism in our founding fathers and our country as a whole.
Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, said in a recent interview about the murals, “Why try to hide the reality of our history — which is terrible? If you really want to educate people, leave the stuff and teach [students] what it means…”
The issue is how to do that while ensuring that current students are not made to feel less valuable — or less American — because of it.
The Washington murals can help jump start the kind of honest discussions about slavery and racism that the 1619 Project suggests we as a country need but have avoided for too long. But only if the murals remain accessible. (The school board has voted to cover them up).
America does have noble ideals at its core — freedom, democracy, equality — and it does not diminish those principles to admit that we have fallen short of them.
Ironically, Hannah-Jones notes in her essay that black people may have the most deep-seated belief in the fundamental promise of America – freedom and equality.
“No one cherishes freedom more than those who have not had it,” she writes. “Our founding fathers may not have actually believed in the ideals they espoused, but black people did. … For generations, we have believed in this country with a faith it did not deserve. Black people have seen the worst of America, yet, somehow, we still believe in its best.”
We should never forget what happened 400 years ago, in August 1619, and the centuries of anguish that came afterward.
Sally Stephens is an animal, park and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner.