The news cycle is loud, but we need to hear those who can’t shout
Does the date Aug. 20, 1619, mean anything to you? It’s the day the first African slaves were traded into North America.
As recorded by Jamestown settler John Rolfe, a Dutch warship “brought not anything but 20 and odd Negroes, wch the Governor and Cape Marchant bought for victuale at the best and easyest rate they could.” Rolfe made an honest mistake, as the ship was armed under Dutch colors. But current research identifies the White Lion as a British privateer that had confiscated the slaves from a Portuguese trader bound for the Indies. The stop at Jamestown was perhaps an afterthought. The sailors needed provisions and the “20 and odd” bought enough for them to get to Bermuda.
The human cargo hailed from Angola, a Portuguese colony. Their countrymen had traded with Europeans for decades, and many were baptized Christians. Some earned their freedom after years of indentured servitude, on the same terms as poor whites. But too soon the expedient hardened into an evil system whereby millions of Africans were kidnapped and carried across the Atlantic as chattel. The system corrupted all it touched, kindling a slow fire that blazed into our most costly war, and haunts us still.
This month, on the 400th anniversary of the White Lion’s arrival in Jamestown, The New York Times Magazine introduced its “1619 Project,” with the stated purpose of reframing American history. Everything wrong about America, from “the brutality of American capitalism” to “the sugar that saturates the American diet” can be traced to August 1619. The Times is planning further essays on this theme, plus development of a school curriculum in cooperation with the Pulitzer Center.
The keynote essay by Nikole Hannah-Jones begins with her father, a WWII veteran who was discriminated against both in the Army and out, but proudly flew the stars and stripes in his segregated backyard. “He knew that our people’s contributions to building the richest and most powerful nation in the world were indelible, that the United States simply would not exist without us.”
Hannah-Jones then traces the black experience in the New World, with its many outrages and tragedies, concluding with, “Our founding fathers may not have actually believed in the ideals they espoused, but black people did.” The very concept of civil rights would be unthinkable without them.
The essay is worthwhile, though flawed. While the history is largely true, it’s also selective. Those ideals, whether or not the founding fathers believed them, provided the rationale for emancipation and (much later) full citizenship.
But the 1619 Project as a whole is likely to harm, not help.
Racism, rooted in the African slave trade, is said to be “America’s original sin.” An original sin is the primary fault from which every other fault stems. For that, we should look to the misapplication of American freedom, which translated into expanded opportunities to exploit as well as to succeed. Exploitation is not essentially racist. It is egotistic and acquisitive, and no one is exempt. America’s original sin is actually the Original Sin. Racism is an effect, not a cause.
What to do? Proposed solutions are mostly about money. But the problem is spiritual not material, and so is the solution: forgiveness.
Is forgiveness fair? No, but Someone who was owed a much greater debt showed us that forgiveness is the only way out of the bondage of sin. “For freedom Christ has set us free.” To forgive centuries of wrong, traces of which persist to this day, means to lay it down and walk away. The history still stings, but the farther you walk the less you will feel it, especially when walking toward the light.
What do we want—fellowship, or alienation? Peace, or warfare? Our Father desired peace and fellowship with us enough to pay dearly for it. Guilt must be borne, and the one to bear it was His own Son. He considered the gain worth the price. God willing, may my brothers and sisters, so long out of Africa, make that reckoning. I can never compensate them, but Christ can.