CHARLOTTE, NC: At 3 pm on Sunday, August 25, a brief nationwide ceremony will commemorate 400 years of African presence in America. Participants will ring bells for four minutes, each minute representing a century. Others will light candles.
People at all 419 national parks and Park Service programs, community partners, and all Americans who so desire will ring bells. Bells will sound across the nation in honor of the Africans who landed at Point Comfort, Virginia in 1619.
Bells are symbols of freedom. They ring for joy, in sorrow, in alarm and in celebration. The symbolic gesture will bring Americans from all walks of life together in one historic moment. That moment will capture a spirit of healing and reconciliation and pay tribute to four centuries of African American history and culture.
A statement issued by event organizers, The 400 Years Coalition, declares:
“The 400-year history of African Americans is full of tragedies that have shaped the black experience in America and should be remembered as moral catastrophes. African Americans have contributed to the economic, academic, social culture and moral well-being of this nation.
“As we contemplate the challenges and injustices that African Americans still face, we remember the tragic way in which African American history began and draw inspiration from the heroes and trailblazers who fought under our country’s principle that all people are created equal.”
In a 2017 article for Smithsonian magazine, Michael Guasco took issue with the August 25, 1619 date. He wrote:
“The year the first enslaved Africans were brought to Jamestown is drilled into students’ memories, but overemphasizing this date distorts history.”
“Unfortunately, 1619 is not the best place to begin a meaningful inquiry into the history of African peoples in America. Certainly, there is a story to be told that begins in 1619, but it is neither well-suited to help us understand slavery as an institution nor to help us better grasp the complicated place of African peoples in the early modern Atlantic world. For too long, the focus on 1619 has led the general public and scholars alike to ignore more important issues and, worse, to silently accept unquestioned assumptions that continue to impact us in remarkably consequential ways. As a historical signifier, 1619 may be more insidious than instructive.
“… 1619 was not the first time Africans could be found in an English Atlantic colony, and it certainly wasn’t the first time people of African descent made their mark and imposed their will on the land that would someday be part of the United States. As early as May 1616, blacks from the West Indies were already at work in Bermuda providing expert knowledge about the cultivation of tobacco.”
At first glance, Guasco’s premise looks like an indictment of the African American narrative in North America. In fact, he believes that by focusing on August 25, 1619, we ignore the impact that more than half a million Africans had on the saga over 50 years earlier:
“Privileging that date (August 25, 1619) and the Chesapeake region effectively erases the memory of many more African peoples than it memorializes. The ‘from-this-point-forward’ and ‘in-this-place’ narrative silences the memory of the more than 500,000 African men, women, and children who had already crossed the Atlantic against their will, aided and abetted Europeans in their endeavors, provided expertise and guidance in a range of enterprises, suffered, died, and – most importantly – endured. That Sir John Hawkins was behind four slave-trading expeditions during the 1560s suggests the degree to which England may have been more invested in African slavery than we typically recall.”
Guasco pleads with us not to reduce the African American experience to the lowest common denominator:
“Remembering 1619 may be a way of accessing the memory and dignifying the early presence of black people in the place that would become the United States, but it also imprints in our minds, our national narratives, and our history books that blacks are not from these parts. When we elevate the events of 1619, we establish the conditions for people of African descent to remain, forever, strangers in a strange land.
“(H)istory is … an exercise in crafting narratives that give voice to the past in order to engage with the present. The year 1619 might seem long ago for people more attuned to the politics of life in the 21st century. But if we can do a better job of situating the foundational story of black history and the history of slavery in North America in its proper context, then perhaps we can articulate an American history that doesn’t essentialize notions of ‘us’ and ‘them’ (in the broadest possible and various understandings of those words).”
As poignant as Guasco’s observations are, 1619 has, correctly or not, been etched into our national memory as the date Africans first arrived here. We must commemorate a starting point somewhere, so why not the one already most familiar to us? It gives us an opportunity to establish broad awareness of the subject.
From that beginning, we should build a more complete and accurate retelling of the history today. Otherwise we wait for several more decades to bring it out of the shadows of the past. We should establish that awareness sooner, not later.
Light a candle. Ring a bell for four minutes and set something positive in motion. If you time it right, all you will miss is about eight television commercials and not one second of the program you’re watching.
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award-winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
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