Point Comfort, VA
Point Comfort, Virginia

400 years ago, in August of 1619, Virginia colonists purchased “some twenty and odd” enslaved Africans from English pirates, who had stolen the Africans from Portuguese slavers off the coast of Mexico. That documented transaction marked the beginning of the slave trade in what was to become the United States of America.

This month, the New York Times Magazine launched an initiative called the 1619 Project to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the event. After selling out issues of the 1619 Project, the Times made 7,000 more copies available. They sold out in a day.

I’ve spent some time this month reading some of the literary works created for the 1619 Project and listening to historians discussing how the institution of slavery affected the United States economically, politically, legally, and socially, what it was like for people living in slavery, and the lingering effects on us all. From what I have seen in the news, reaction to the 1619 Project has been mostly positive, but there has been a backlash in predictable quarters.

Slavery came into existence alongside civilization, and every ancient civilization used slaves. War and piracy were the most common ways to acquire slaves, but committing a crime, even the inability to pay a debt, could end in enslavement. The word “slave” is derived from the ethnonym Slav.  So many Slavs were captured and enslaved during medieval wars that their name became synonymous with enslavement. Slavery flourished throughout history. Although illegal in every country today, forms of slavery survive in human trafficking, forced marriages, and forced labor, especially targeting women and children.

Why is the American experience of slavery unique?

  • The Declaration of Independence declared the equality of all, yet the Constitution codified slavery (Article 1, Section 2; Article 1, Section 9, Paragraph 1; Article 4, Section 2).
  • By the beginning of the Civil War, the United States was the most powerful slave-holding society on earth.  Four million enslaved human beings lived in the South.
  • While other advanced nations (Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, The Netherlands) had peacefully abolished slavery or were doing so, the United States’ slave-holding states doubled down against the growing abolitionist movement.  Americans fought a bloody four-year civil war in order to get rid of slavery.
  • American slavery was racially defined, perpetual and inheritable.  The default: an African slave in America was a slave for life; by law, a child of an African slave woman inherited her slave status, regardless of the race or status of the father.
  • Southern clergy defended slavery using selected biblical texts.  To attack slavery was “to attack the Bible and the Word of God”, and because the New Testament did not expressly forbid slavery, that meant it was not prohibited.
  • The positive birthrate of the enslaved population was unique to American slavery. Forced reproduction eliminated the cost of purchase and filled labor shortages after the Act Prohibiting the Importation of Slaves passed in 1807. “I consider a woman who brings a child every two years as more profitable than the best man of the farm. What she produces is an addition to the capital.” (Thomas Jefferson to John Wayles Eppes, June 30, 1820).

One might say that America perfected the institution of slavery.

Smith's Plantation, Beaufort, SC
Library of Congress:  Five Generations on Smith’s Plantation, Beaufort, SC, 1862

Some of my reading, viewing, and listening in conjunction with the 1619 Project:

1. The 1965 James Baldwin-William F. Buckley debate at the University of Cambridge. Baldwin and Buckley debated the question “Has the American dream been achieved at the expense of the American Negro?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oFeoS41xe7w

2. PBS News Hour discussion of slavery and the sugar trade.  https://watch.opb.org/video/rethinking-history-1566507238/

3. June 2014 Atlantic Magazine article by Ta Nehisi Coates.   While I do not agree with Coates on reparations, his story is powerful and moving.  https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/

4. Colson Whitehead’s recent novel “The Nickel Boys,” a historical novel based on the infamous Dozier School for Boys in Florida.  Beautifully written, painful to read, unforgettable.  More information on Dozier: https://www.npr.org/2012/10/15/162941770/floridas-dozier-school-for-boys-a-true-horror-story

5. Fascinating Atlantic Magazine article (Sep 2019):  Deconstructing Clarence Thomas by Michael O’Donnell, a review of The Enigma of Clarence Thomas by Corey Robin.  https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/09/deconstructing-clarence-thomas/594775/  “Thomas ‘sees something of value in the social worlds of slavery and Jim Crow,’ not because he endorses bondage but because he believes that under those regimes African Americans developed virtues of independence and habits of responsibility, practices of self-control and institutions of patriarchal self-help, that enabled them to survive and sometimes flourish.”

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