I have very mixed feelings about the 400th anniversary of the arrival of African slaves, my ancestors, to Jamestown, Virginia. It is because I know well American history, and it is because while a visiting scholar at James Madison University in Virginia earlier this year, I decided to make my first trip to Jamestown. I know what I had been taught from grade through high school about this momentous date. I barely was taught anything else about slavery, how my ancestors had been stolen from Africa, stripped of their names, languages, cultures, identities. But I knew, minimally, they were not “indentured servants,” as there was never a choice to not be a slave. I knew that from 1619 to 1865, 246 long and soul-stripping years, they were beaten, raped, terrorized, reduced to human property, and killed as they, these profoundly wounded persons, literally built the economic infrastructure of America for free.
As I walked through that Jamestown settlement, I could feel the energy of those first slaves. I struggled to read the history the way it was told in parts, as if slavery was not so bad. Yes, it was so bad, as we still deal with the legacy of it in America. Many of the founding fathers were slave owners even as they were declaring all were created equal. Several of the early presidents of the United States participated in slavery. Much of what slaves were taught continue to trigger Blacks, from divisive conflicts around skin color to our diets, born of necessity and desperation on those plantations, that wreak havoc on our health. 1619 means, to me, the mental brainwashing and physical and spiritual devastation of an entire race of people, and that truism undermined the morality of America right from the very beginning; and we are paying the price for it in this 21st century when we see so many trafficking in the same kind of hatred, violence, and fear-mongering that was levied against my ancestors back then.
What we need in America, what has not happened, is an honest national conversation on race that tells the entire truth about the legacy of slavery, while also acknowledging that, per Dr. Ivan Van Sertima’s landmark book They Came Before Columbus, the history of this part of the world does not and did not begin with European history, that Black people and other people of color have been in these many spaces and places all along. What we need in America at schools, public and private, and from educators of every background, are lessons which do not whitewash slavery, which do not ask Black children, when discussing slavery, to be slaves. What we need in America is a steady gaze in the mirror, accepting that inseparable of any talk about history, about democracy, from 1619 to the Civil War to Dr. King to Black Lives Matter, is the story of those who were brought here as slaves, and how that painful legacy of White supremacist thinking and behavior remains a nasty open sore on the American democracy.
I did not think about any of this until I got to college, because in spite of being a straight-A student K through 12, 1619 and what it wrought was watered down— nor were we ever taught the Civil Rights Movement and its efforts to right the wrongs, ever. As a result, I grew up as dutifully self-hating as a Black slave on those plantations. It was not just me; it was most Blacks in my community. It was not until I got to that college, Rutgers University in my home state of New Jersey, and began to truly study American history through a different lens—my lens—that it blew me away what slavery had done to us.
I cried reading slave narratives and historical texts. I cried as I imagined what it must have felt like to be un-free for one’s entire life. I cried at how ashamed I had been for so long of Africa, of how I had swallowed whole the distorted and racist images of that motherland from whence my people had come. And yes, I cried that day earlier this year when I walked the grounds of Jamestown wondering to myself how any people enslaved could still manage to worship God; to build and create numerous inventions; to put forth songs and sounds that are the foundation for much of American music; to be so patriotic that we have fought in virtually every American war, even as we were being denied our own freedoms; and to be so humanly resilient that we have bounced back time and again, even as what began in 1619 birthed, for many of us, including my single mother and me, generations of poverty and hand-me-down depression and traumas we can never seem to escape. This is why there have been calls for reparations from we descendants of African slaves across decades and eras. There has never been a true and consistent repairing of the human damage done—
So, if 1619 should mean anything now, it should mean it is past time to pause, to be equally comfortable and uncomfortable in our American skins, as we face this tragic history, and ourselves, once and for all. Otherwise, it is just another celebration, another anniversary, that will fade away like the haunting cries of those packed at the bottom of those slave ships so long ago.
Kevin Powell is a civil and human rights activist, and author of 13 books including his autobiography, The Education of Kevin Powell: A Boy’s Journey into Manhood. An upcoming book will be a biography of Tupac Shakur, the global pop culture and hip-hop icon.