For all of us of African heritage living in the USA, this month represents an anniversary that is barely mentioned in the media and gets short shrift in inverse proportion to its historical significance. Fortunately, a major project is under way to reassess this phenomenon that was seminal in the molding of the New World and transformed the lives of so many million humans. The aforementioned anniversary is none other than the introduction of slavery in modern-day America in August 1619 in Virginia. Obviously it began even before that in the New World under the aegis of a friar called Las Casas in Hispaniola decades before.
This seminal project is underway and started a few days ago in the columns of the NY Times. It’s an ambitious endeavor in its breadth and depth, rigorous scholarship and timely relevance that holds special importance to all of us. It’s called “The 1619 Project.” So far each article published is written by intellectuals from academia, journalism, often authors of award-winning publications, thoroughly researched and full of references. Just as importantly, the newspaper has partnered with the Pulitzer Center (pulitzer.org) to establish a curriculum for students (“The 1619 Project Curriculum”) so they can learn about this facet of history poorly taught in school.
A word of caution: the information included contains facts that are crude, raw, nauseous, revolting. Just like the earth-shattering TV series “Roots,” this colossal effort in its quest of evidential data may lead one to come to the conclusion of hatred of an entire race and that would an unfortunate lesson learned. The true value of fluency in historical facts is the ability of answering with cogent arguments to the nincompoops and ignoramuses. They may not know better and may be convinced of their biased beliefs. Knowledge of facts serves as best antidote to vitriolic speech spewed or false information delivered with conviction under the veneer of science. The lesson best learned is to avoid a repetition of the past by being fully cognizant of events the way they happened. Knowledge is power. Being able to influence the future course of history entails mastery of understanding the past.
Some of the startling revelations in the series of articles includes the fact that Jefferson opined without proof that Negroes’ lungs have a lower capacity than Whites’ and this has been accepted as gospel since. Strangely enough, this purported deficiency was used as justification for hard labor for slaves to man them up! This opinion has insinuated itself into scientific dogma since it was reprised by a physician called Cartwright who invented the spirometer that included a normal range for Negroes that’s 20% lower than for Whites. For history buffs, reading the article (“Myths about physical racial differences were used to justify slavery and are still believed by doctors today,” by Linda Villarosa, NY Times, 8-14-19) offers the advantage of reading original publications such as Jefferson’s “Notes on the State of Virginia,” Cartwright’s “Report on the Diseases and Physical Peculiarities of the Negro Race.” The article gives other interesting references about a slave writing a book on the medical tortures he was subjected to, another one is the publication of a treatise by a surgeon operating on slaves without anesthesia to correct vesico-vaginal fistula. No wonder there’s lingering suspicion by African-American patients toward the medical establishment for all of the documented unethical experimentations over the years. Incidentally Jefferson needs to be taken a few pegs down from the lofty pedestal he has been occupying despite the good deeds he has accomplished for the nation.
Other articles document the systematic collusion of racist white citizenry to subjugate slaves and all the deft maneuvers to counter Reconstruction, including withholding federal health care, prevention of access to economic opportunities and so on. These measures were enacted by conservative white Democrats who have since defected and have joined the Republican Party after LBJ’s passage of the Civil Rights Act in the mid-sixties.
The post-Obama animus is redolent of the angst of the conservative Whites after the Civil War. Plus ça change, plus ça reste le même. Slavery defined America and we are still feeling its aftermath. The good news is that there is a critical mass of progressive-minded individuals of white origin who can help us erect a bulwark against the ever-present scrum made up of hidebound, conservative elements espousing toxic ideas always ready for nefarious activites. We can’t afford the luxury of staying misinformed. We have an unheard-of opportunity to offer access to information to our youngsters that has been excluded, elided, misrepresented, ignored, from history textbooks and more often than not written by revisionists. This anomaly has lasted far too long.