August 20, 1619, Jamestown, Virginia Colony, “Twenty and odd negars,” disembark a Dutch Man o’ War. Strange colored men speaking grotesque tongues surround them; all about, the ring and grate of clanging chains. The vast, green Virginia wilderness looms ahead of them filled with menace, the uncrossable Atlantic rages behind them, its depths, the unscalable walls of a continental prison.
This bleak scene is the founding of African America, or so tradition holds. But the date is a falsehood. Historians know that we don’t know when the first enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia or what is now the United States, but, strong circumstantial evidence shows they arrived before August 1619. In addition, before the English put down anchor, enslaved Africans had been accompanying Spanish conquistadores into the proto-U.S. since the early 16th century. August 20, 1619, then, does not represent some major departure, some great inauguration or any real milestone, it’s just a day, which for decades was the earliest recorded arrival of African chattel slaves into one of the English colonies that would form the United States. That this date seems to mean anything is a historiographical accident, a fiction. I write to celebrate it anyway. Why? Because most milestones are fictions. We mark our individual ages by the anniversary of our births. One day you’re 27, the next you’re 28. Nominally, you’ve aged a year in 24 hours, but, the aging took place over the previous 365 days. Each 24-hour cycle is interchangeable, aging us the same exact imperceptible amount. The process is too gradual to perceive as it happens, but it happens anyway. We fabricate birthdays as a framework for engaging the passage of time. It is therefore perfectly natural that we demand of nations and peoples that they must have been born. States have definite foundings, but peoples and nations are only born in retrospect.
Most nations revel in their semi-mythological pasts, tales of gods, demi-gods and godlike mortals imagine into being the nation’s noble inheritance. Our story has a less auspicious start, Black America was born out of the midst of atrocity. Dehydrated, starving, flesh chafed by rusty iron, open wounds festering with miasma and the poisonous effluvium of dozens of tortured bodies: The founders of a new nation descended onto these shores, leading wave upon wave, 400,000 in total, 40% of them children; thousands of miles from their families and all who cared for them, hopelessly adrift in an unknown land of cruel White faces practiced in nothing so much as the infliction of pain. It must have seemed as if the world had fallen away and hell taken its place. Roughly a half-century after the “20 negars,” arrived at Jamestown, John Milton wrote: “Long is the way and hard that out of hell leads up to light,.” What Milton could only imagine, Black America has lived and survived to tell. As Milton regaled the people of England with wild fantasies of Satan, God, demons and angels, the first woman, the first man, the ultimate battle between evil and good; the mothers and fathers of Black America looked out on a savage world where hope itself seemed to have been strangled in the womb. Some preferred death to slavery, others preferred life over death. The decision to live is the brick of which what we are was built, the intention to be free no matter the cost, even life, is the mortar binding us across the trials of time and space.
A beginning is a strange thing, it has been 400 years since one beginning, 399 since another and 401 years since still another. Yesterday may have been the day my first enslaved ancestor arrived in South Carolina, Georgia or even Barbados, but I’ll probably never know. And I won’t say that doesn’t matter. The slaver’s whip has carved deep, bloody blank spaces into my past, most will never be healed. But, this day, this fiction, is not about what we have lost, but what we have found. Which day it was is immaterial, the beginning happened, whenever or wherever, we may pick any day, and in the name of tradition, I pick this one.
Even if one does not quibble with the date, one may still quibble with the event. One may argue, that if we can pick whatever moment we want as our national birth, we should choose something other than the commencement of a quarter millennium of slavery. To do so would be to denationalize our ancestors twice, to deny them, out of unjust shame, when it is only their perseverance that has brought us over. That our arrival was ignoble matters not, for in our living, and how we have lived, we have ornamented it in gold and marble. We have seized with both hands our place among the peoples of the earth. The African American freedom struggle is a majestic monument before all history and this is an excellent opportunity to consider the totality of it. I cannot see the future, and it may be, that the days of man shall end before we are free. But this I know, that while we live, no chain is safe, the sleep of tyrants is wracked by fearsome Black apparitions and the enslavers of mankind sit uneasily in their thrones because we live. We testify that nobility can tower over degradation and wax mighty in the face of death, bloom in poisoned soil and defy evil to enlighten the world.
Last year, 365 days shy of the more illustriously numbered year 400, I wrote the following encomium:
“On this day 399 years ago, August 20, 1619, a Dutch Man O’ War delivered 20 Africans into slavery in Jamestown, Virginia, the first documented enslaved Africans in the English North American colonies. These 20 women and men were to become the mothers and fathers of many millions. For the next 246 years their children would crusade against slavery and at long last outlast it. No doubt this first score of captives hungered for a freedom which they would never know again. Down through four centuries this hunger has traveled and grown to vast proportion, out of many peoples it has forged a new one proud and indivisible, it has reaped hope in the land of hopelessness, courage in the face of unrelenting brutality, defiance in the face of overwhelming and shameless force. Through this hunger burdens unbearable have been borne and miracles wrought in the darkest hours. A culture of towering beauty has arisen out of their hunger against which no evils, however brazen, can prevail; and through its fortitude, they have gained life and freedom everlasting.”
I don’t know that I can surpass what I wrote last year, but I will simply say: On this date 400 years ago “20 and odd negars,” arrived at Port Comfort in the English colony of Virginia, the first documented enslaved Africans in the North American English colonies. Today, in proud and stubborn spite of 10,000 obituaries, African America lives, irrefutable proof of the heights mankind can scale out of the depths of horror, a testament to the African personality’s almighty conjuring power, which forged out of the stolen strands of dozens of nationalities, a new nation, a singular people, a novel path through the perils of human history, blazing itself toward the triumphant and final victory of human freedom.
Martin Luther King Jr. observed, that when the unknown Negro spirituallist beheld in the Hebrew scriptures the question “Is there no balm in Gilead, is there no physician there?“ She or he “ Straightened the question mark into an exclamation point” and proclaimed “There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole, there is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul,“ she or he continued “sometimes I feel discouraged and I feel like I can’t go on, but then the Holy Spirit revives my soul, again.” I am not a religious man, I would not presume to speak on matters of the Holy Spirit, I do not claim to know what lies beneath reality or above the sky, but I will simply observe, how difficult it is to look into the 42 million faces of the people my soul loves from its quanta, and doubt that there is something of God in the world. Therefore, whatever the ultimate truth may be, it is 400 years that we have stood upon the earth, fortunate we are to see it and it is glorious in my sight if nobody else’s, for the miraculous works we together have done, and the grandeur of the works that we have still to do. May we forever find in each other that ancestral balm of renewal, and may we forever make exclamations out of uncertainty. Ashe.
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