For Book Club Meeting Jan 11, 2022
Preface: Origins — by Nikole Hannah-Jones
NHJ tells the story of how she first discovered the significance of 1619 as the year when the first enslaved Africans arrived on North American shores, as a high-schooler in the 1990s midwest, always on the lookout for books that gave her a better sense of the role of Black people like herself and her family in US society, and discovering in a class on the African-American experience, to her surprise, “that so many books existed about Black people and by Black people, that Black people had so much history that could be learned.” Her teachers gives her the book Before the Mayflower and realizes that there is a history about Virginia and “the start of American slavery” with the arrival of the White Lion that she has never learned. She ties this in with the findings from the Souther Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Hard History report (2018) that US children and adults (including social studies teachers) have a very poor sense of US history because of the bad curriculum and lack of resources and preparation of teachers. This means that although academics have produced a sizable body of scholarship on the history of slavery and of Blacks in the US, getting this into the mainstream is a challenge. She quotes historian Hasan Kwame Jeffries calling this “educational malpractice.”
She then jumps ahead to the start of 2019, when she suggests using an issue of the NYT Magazine that year to commemorate the 400-year anniversary of 1619. The project is approved and she gathers scholars and journalists to conceptualize the project, despite the emotional burden. When the magazine issue comes out in print, it sells out and becomes the beginning of a huge wave of praise and transformation into social-media groups, live discussions, curriculum development, etc., but also criticism/backlash. This came partly because of some overgeneralizations in the Magazine issue (she admits that there is historical disagreement over the motivation of the colonists for seceding from Britain and the role slavery played in it, but points out that the scholarship is well established: “we had breached the wall between academic history and popular understanding”). But primarily the backlash was not about the facts but about the foregrounding of slavery and its lasting impact on American society until today–and led to the attempt of Republicans in various states and Trump himself to prevent the 1619 project from being used in schools. The alternative “1776 Commission” project was quickly derided because its historical scholarship was nonexistent, but the by July 2021, 18 states had passed or were considering regulations that would keep the 1619 Project out of the curriculum [NHJ does not say this, but the Project is a huge part of the origin story of the Critical Race Theory backlash/moral panic].
The book came out of the desire t create “a more fully realized version of the project” with “a broader range of subjects” and more nuance. Seven new essays and 36 poems and short stories by Black writers were added, as well as photographs of “regular Black Americans,” often anonymous. “The legacy of 1619 surrounds us, whether we acknowledge it or not” — and public history has, in the past, not typically acknowledged it, because it is shaped by those in power. The task of the project is to “expos[e] our nation’s troubled roots” and make sure that whites do not have the privilege to forget “a past they do not remember, while Black Americans remain bound to a past they can never forget.” She quotes from Frederick Douglass’ famous “Fourth of July” speech from 1852, which reminded readers that Blacks in the US in times of slavery cannot possibly find this day meaningful, and by reminding us that “true democracy has only been attempted” in the US since the passing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.The Project wants to challenge the American “myths [that] have not served as well” with the goal of making us a better country and learn from the insights into the key role of Black lives in our history–reminding us that even W.E.B. du Bois, when listening to Franz Boas talking about African societies to his own students learned about cultures and people he had never heard of because “the silence of neglect of science can let truth utterly idisappear or even be unconsciously distorted” (Black Folk Then and Now 1939).
August 1619: Arrival of the White Lion with 20-30 captive Africans at Point Comfort, VA.
“The White Lion,” by Claudia Rankin
Chapter 1: Democracy — by Nikole Hannah-Jones
NHJ starts with her father’s insistence on flying the US flag at their home, which she never understood: to her mind, the country had done nothing for her father. She tells the story of her father’s family, sharecroppers in Mississippi, and their arrival in Waterloo, IA, in the 1940s as part of the Great Migration. In 1962, her father joins the army, but is not able to make this a career–working hard in service jobs for the rest of his life, even though he was “one of the smartest people” NHJ knew. Today she understands better what he knew: that without Black people’s contribution, the US “simply would not exist.” Specifically, it wouldn’t exist without slavery, which entered North America in 1619 with the purchase of those first 20-30 enslaved people. in the course of time, 12.5 million people would be kidnapped from Africa, 400,000 sold into slavery in what is now the United States. Not only did they contribute significantly to the economy with their labor that enriched their owners throughout the years of slavery, but, as NHJ stresses, the idea of “freedom” and of all men being created equal fundamentally depended on the UNfreedom and the INequality of Black people in the view of the founders–and the actual obtaining of that freedom and equality for all (including Blacks, but also other excluded and marginalized people) would not have happened if these Blacks hadn’t believed in and fought for that kind of universal freedom that they were denied. She points to Crispus Attucks, who died in the American Revolution, as just the first of many Black people who fought for that. And she contrasts him with Thomas Jefferson, who was writing about freedom at the very same time as he owned enslaved people, including the half-brother and half-sister [?] of his wife, Robert Hemings and Sally Hemings (the concubine with whom he had several children).
She reminds us that “chattel slavery” as practiced in the US “was not conditional but racial. It was heritable and permanent, not temporary” and it was protected by slave codes that, although they varied, protected and benefited the owners of enslaved people. Ironically, even as they enslaved others, the Colonists who sought freedom from the British describes themselves as slaves to Britain and the British king, “a powerful rhetorical tool” because the colonists knew very well how horrible it was to be an actual slave. This is also why they lived “in constant fear of insurrections” such as the one in Haiti, and why many enslaved opted to fight under the British, ever since the British governor of VIrginia, John Murray, the Earl of Dunmore, strategically published a proclamation that gave enslaved Blacks who fought one the side of the British their freedom in the November of 1775. This really kicked the Virginians at the forefront of the rebellion into gear and they became revolutionaries, partly because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery. [NHJ’s main source here is Woody Holton, Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, laves, and the Making of the American Revolution (Chapel Hill, 1999). Others cited later are Michael Groth and James Oliver Horton.]
NHJ admits that both the British (who, I would like to add, were also hypocrites about the whole thing, and smug as all-get-out about their “abolition” of slavery except, say, in colonies like Jamaica) and the Revolutionaries themselves could see this hypocrisy. But they (many of them–Jefferson, Washington, Madison– slave-owning Virginians) ultimately only addressed it in the Declaration in one spot, somewhat obliquely, blaming the British king for having “excited domestic insurrections amongst us.” Modern public history has sidestepped the issue and the influence of the wealthy Southern enslavers from Virginia (where chattel slavery was first “enshrined” in the slave codes) on the Declaration, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, and the financing of the Revolution. She points out that in 1776, Virginia held 40% of all enslaved people in the existing mainland colonies, and that Virginian politicians knew that since these slaves had no legal rights and the white poor population was relatively small, there was no political or legal recourse against whites in power, especially as they managed to convinced poor whites that they were “equals” with other whites because at least they were not slaves.
She does point out that nonetheless, the Founding Fathers were conflicted about slavery, and the Constitution’s six clauses that directly deal with slavery, and five more that have major implications “shroud” the hypocrisy of their approach (even the fixed 1808 abolition of the slave trade is here seen as a way to curb the number of imported captives so that there would not be an insurrection, and she points to the horrors of the internal slave trade of 300,000 to 350,000 people in VA alone as just as bad). The end result was that later both defenders of slavery and abolitionists were able to look to the Constitution to find ways to justify their ideas legally. Even Frederick Douglass approached it from both ends, seeing it first as a pro-slavery document and later as a “liberty document”–and both South and North thought they were on Constitutional grounds during the Civil War.
No matter whether it is possible to lay the blame on the British or not, after 1776, slavery was not a British problem but “the sin became the nation’s own,” and in order to justify it, defenders of slavery clung to the evolving idea or “doctrine” of Black inferiority and of Blacks being a “slave race,” a “caste apart” that the constitution, as per the 1857 Dred Scott decision, had “not regarded as a portion of the people or citizens of the Government.
When Lincoln met with Black leaders in 1862 before formulating the Emancipation Proclamation, he himself was still on the fence about abolition–he opposed slavery but also Black equality and thought the solution would be colonization, i.e. resettlement of Black people in West Africa, embraced by some abolitionists (even some Black activists among them) and by defenders of slavery. His initial preliminary Emancipation Proclamation from September 1862 still included the idea, but the final version from Jan 1 1863 did not, and the hope that Blacks would join the Union army (even though they were much more likely to be killed) became a reality. Lincoln as the Great Emancipator is not entirely a myth and he did evolve towards calling for partial franchise for Black before his death, but the story of his abolitionism needs to be told with nuance, and Douglass saw him correctly as “preeminently the white man’s president” while Blacks are “at best his step-children.” (The main source here is Christopher Bonner, Remaking the Republic: Black Politics and the Creation of Black Citizenship.)
She reminds us that the 4 million Black Americans that were freed at the end of the Civil War had little to no interest in leaving the US, and they were not even trying to exact revenge on the Confederacy and their former owners, but instead were “zealously engaged with the democratic process” throughout the Reconstruction, i.e. as long as they COULD in that “fleeting moment” before the 1877, seeing Reconstruction as their chance to establish civil rights–13th, 14th, 15th Amendment, the CRA of 1866; the founding of the National Equal Rights League, political office in state and local bodies, and public education for Blacks and whites alike. Then the hammer came down (although again, she says like so many others that the federal troops were withdrawn from the South as part of the Great Compromise, but Heather Cox Richardson always insists that this is not true) and “the Great Nadir” (Rayford W. Logan) began and lasted into the early 20th century.
She moves forward to 1945 and a brutal beating of a Black veteran in the South, as part of the “systemic violence” that had been happening in the South from Plessy v. Ferguson and the post-Reconstruction race codes to the end of segregation in the South, while in the North, the segregation was often less formal but still very clear. She points out that the Black experience with a better, more equal status as soldiers in WWI and WWII had made the “racial terrorism” very visible, and actually led to more violence against veterans. She points out that this violence was not just intended to “control Black people” but “important, it served as a psychological balm for white supremacy: you would not treat human beings this way.” But during WWII, the call for a two-prong fight–against the enemy abroad and the oppression within, became louder and led to the “second mass movement for Black civil rights, after Reconstruction.”
[I don’t want to pick a big fight with her here, but there are some issues here: the two-prong approach was first suggested during WWI; the 1910s and 1920s (especially the NAACP) paved the way for the mass movement after WWII, and the violence against Blacks was statistically enormously worse until the early 1920s than afterwards, partly because of the Great Migration.] That second civil rights movement benefited non-Blacks as much as Blacks, so she sums up: “as much democracy as this nation has today, it has been borne on the backs of Black resistance and visions for equality” as they fought against the dehumanization by people who made them “Black and turned them into property, and produced a vibrant culture (she stresses naming practices in particular). She remind us readers that, as born in the [late!] 70s, she is part of the FIRST generation of Black Americans to have full rights at birth–and she wants to remember that Blacks became “by virtue of our bondage [,] the most American of all.”
December 1662: Virginia passes the law that stipulates that a child’s free / enslaved status depends on the status of the mother (partus sequitur ventrem), not that of the mother.
“Daughters of Azimuth,” by Nikky Finney — a poem that is VERY hard to process about Black enslaved women using passed-on knowledge of a toxic substance to make themselves barren / perform abortions [?] to thwart the intention (reproduction/more slaves) of the rapes their owners commit. I cannot quite figure out how the geometric idea of the azimuth as an image work here.
1682: The first law to penalize interracial marriage, unique to the American colonies, is passed in Virginia.
“Loving Me” by Vievee Francis. A speaker (female, enslaved, presumably Black) describes the moment of discovering love with another (a white? man?) with allusions to the Fall (tree, serpent, apple, knowledge).
Chapter 2: Race — by Dorothy Roberts
Trigger warning: the chapter is really hard to read; even the summary is. But I think that every white woman has to grapple with this impact on racism on rape culture all the way back to 1619. Rape is a vehicle of disempowering women and asserting the power of the patriarchy regardless of race, but intersectional impact can only be described as exponential here: racialized sexual violence is horrific in ways that perhaps can only be addressed in the blunt ways that Roberts does here.
Roberts starts with a contemporary example of race still interfering with marriage: a couple in Virginia was denied a marriage license because they refused to chose a single race for each of them or choose “other.” The same happened in Virginia as well, although they were able to get past the “race requirement” — ultimately, a federal court decided that the racial identification requirements are not constitutional; it had been on the books since 1924 as part of a miscegenation law, and even though the interracial marriage ban in Loving v. Virginia in 1967, the racial identification requirement remained. The 1924 law itself was tied to eugenics and a paranoid racial-purity obsession, and the entire focus of the racial identity / “drop of Black blood” regulations fundamentally go back to Colonies “policing interracial sex,” both preventing interracial marriage and “incentiviz[ing] the rape of Black women by their white enslavers” and by that token also policing “Black women’s sexuality and controlling Black women’s bodies.”
Because the children of mixed-race relationship did not fit into the racial categories, they were a problem and socially stigmatized. An early colonial example of punishment of the white male was quickly followed by another case where the Black female was more harshly punished. Then in 1682, the Virginia legislature of the time decided, against British law, that the children born to an enslaved Black woman would be slaves “according to the condition of the mother” based on the principle used to determine THE OWNERSHIP OF ANIMALS, and encouraging the rape of Black women by their owners FOR ECONOMIC PURPOSES.
Other Colonies, then states, followed suit and made enslavement a “heritable condition” while marriage between men of color or of mixed race and white women was also made illegal, and ultimately this was extended to all interracial marriages. This became part of a rigid caste system in which Blacks and mixed-race people were not granted any legal rights and infractions by Blacks, especially Black males, were horrendous, while the rape of enslaved Black women was not recognized as a crime at all–she cites an 1850s case that did not recognize rape OR marriage between enslaved people: “their sexual intercourse is left to be regulated by their owners” as per the lawyer who defended the rapist. This meant that Black women had absolutely no protection from rapists (white women had *some*) –she cites a horrific case of a woman who was executed in 1855 for killing the owner that raped her for years and years.
Roberts points out actually had the repercussion that Black enslaved women have a disproportionately high representation in today’s US gene pool–3x that of European women by one estimate. And the interference with Black women’s “bodily autonomy” continued far beyond Emancipation, in the form of the continuing construction of Black women as hypersexualized “Jezebels” who cannot control themselves and seduce white men. The consequence was enforced sterilization in the 20th century into the 1970s, stereotypes about bad “Welfare moms” who needed government interference and destroyed the Black family (Moynihan report in 1967), who give birth to “crack babies,” and allegedly come “of age” and are “sexually experienced” very early in or before puberty (“adultification”). Black women are thus seen as not deserving help and support from law enforcement or the legal system (2008 case involving an 11-year old is an example), and are more likely to be sexually and physically abused by police (more horrific cases). She addresses the resistance and activism of Black women who fight back; her example is Loretta J Ross, founder of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective in 1997, but also mentions Angela Davis in the 1970s.