400 Years Later: Why Aug 20,1619 is a date all Black Americans need to know
This date should be looked at as possibly one of the single most significant in American history
Over the last few years there has been a movement on social media to reclaim dates that mean more to us than the whitewashed ones we were taught in school; specifically anniversaries like Juneteenth, which unlike the more commercialized 4th of July, was the real “Independence Day” for Black slaves living in America.
But this year a whole new date has made its way to the forefront of these conversations about re-imagining our history: the year 1619, specifically, August 20th, 1619.
For those of you who many be unaware, on this date (exactly 400 years from the date this was posted), Africans who had been taken from their homelands and taken to British North America, landed in Port Comfort, which is known today as Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia.
But please don’t let the name Port Comfort fool you, these two dozen or so Black people were brutally removed from their homeland by force, and their arrival to the New World quite decidedly marks the official onset of slavery in North America, an act of white supremacy which would destroy, and take the lives of countless Africans for another two and a half centuries with no interference from the government.
To be fair, according to The Atlantic, “These 22 or 23 Africans who arrived this week 400 years ago were not the first to land in North America. Some Africans probably came before Christopher Columbus.”
But as with most displaced peoples, African Americans often find themselves yearning for a birth date. It is understandable why a community that if often maligned, dismissed and preyed upon, would want a concrete and tangible marker of when their ancestors made the best of a heinous situation, and ended up building a country that never meant to claim them as its own.
In an effort to fill this glaring void in the narrative, some scholarly African Americans got together, looked over any paperwork they could find, and agreed on August 20, 1619, based on the fact that this was the legitimately the first documented recognition of our arrival in Virginia.
For those who are a bit disappointed by this tedious and unglamorous origin story, just remember that many things we say we hold sacred, like the Constitution (and just about every religious text), came about in much the same way.
On this dark day in 1619, 20 Africans were forcibly brought to Jamestown, Virginia- marking the beginning of two and a half centuries of slavery in North America
Today, we bear witness to the legacy of slavery through mass incarceration, white supremacy and racial violence. pic.twitter.com/tDcyC6ffci
— Kristen Clarke (@KristenClarkeJD) August 20, 2019
What does 1619 have to do with 2019?
Since 2010, the city of Hampton, Virginia along with several organizations, including Project 1619, have observed August 20th as an annual African Landing Commemoration Day.
And while it may seen morbid to “celebrate” such an anniversary, much like someone who remembers the day they received a devastating health diagnosis, or the day they lost a loved one, there is power in commemorating moments that changed the course of your life or deeply affected your community.
In the midst of what’s happening with the current Trump administration and across the globe in general, stopping to meditate on just how long our people have been going through this ish, and the seemingly unsurmountable odds we’ve had to beat to even get here, puts a lot of things in perspective.
Not to mention, as the Zinn Education project points out, ironically, “1619 also was the year that a semblance of democracy came to Virginia, as the colony held its first election for the inaugural House of Burgesses, the forerunner of today’s Virginia General Assembly.”
This not so fun fact illustrates how systemic oppression and a “semblance of democracy” go hand in hand like peanut butter and jelly in this country. None of this is new.
Thank you to the @NYTmag, @nhannahjones and all the brilliant writers and thinkers who gave us the powerful 1619 Project, commemorating the 400-year anniversary of the arrival of enslaved Africans in America. https://t.co/4yQF2Mhj8T
— John Legend (@johnlegend) August 19, 2019
And while this little history lesson may make for cool trivia to share at your next afro-centric dinner party, I want to point out that the call to acknowledge 1619 and other forgotten parts of America’s history with Black people isn’t merely symbolic.
This year as we gear up for the 2020 elections, reparations has suddenly become a hot topic, with candidates of all races and genders being made to take a stance on whether they are for or against reparations. I will admit that I have heard some very compelling arguments both for and against giving reparations.
But when you start this backslide into our forgotten past, you quickly realize that when those first documented slaves arrived from the Portuguese colony of Angola in 1619, the American colonies were struggling and barely hanging on. In fact, the desperation born from those struggles is what incited many of them to resort to such barbaric measures in the first place.
To keep it all the way funky, in 1619, the first spark of what would later become our “great nation” was a hot mess.
Yet by 1860, not only was America no longer struggling, there were actually more millionaires living in the lower Mississippi Valley than anywhere else in the United States. And to be clear, every single one of those millionaires were slave owners.
In fact, according to James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, “In , the nearly 4 million American slaves were worth some $3.5 billion, making them the largest single financial asset in the entire U.S. economy, worth more than all manufacturing and railroads combined.”
So yeah. As awkward as it may be for some people to acknowledge — particularly historically misinformed white people and the Black allies who defend them on social media — slavery, quite LITERALLY built this country.
For hundred of years, disempowered and intentionally uneducated Black bodies were the greatest asset in America, and some would argue in many ways that remains the case. So is it really all that farfetched to think that maybe, somebody (i.e the government) needs to cut the descendants of those slaves a check?
One could argue that 400 years is more than enough time to pay back a loan.
Follow writer Blue Telusma on Instagram at @bluecentric