This week, across the nation, we remember with sorrow the 400th anniversary of the first forced arrival of Africans in what is now the United States.
Or do we?
We have the sorrow right. The trouble is that we probably have the wrong date. The question is what difference it makes.
The many observances across the country and around the world are being held now because on or about Aug. 20, 1619, an English privateer arrived at Point Comfort, Virginia, where the captain sold “twenty and odd” captive Africans to the colonists – apparently in return for food. Thus did the future United States become involved in the burgeoning Atlantic slave trade. That’s what the nation’s school kids have been taught for half a century or more.
Historians, however, argue that 2019 is the wrong year to commemorate the beginning of the young nation’s original sin because 1619 isn’t when the whole thing started. African slaves had been brought unwillingly to these shores many decades before.
These historians are right, of course. But remembrance can be a complicated business, and sometimes it’s worth choosing a date and sticking to it, even when we know the date to be wrong – much the way that once we learned that the Declaration of Independence was probably not signed until Aug. 2, 1776, we didn’t stop celebrating the Fourth of July. (The Continental Congress adopted the declaration on July 4, 1776, but the historical iconography has always been the Founders signing their names.)
So if most people believe that U.S. involvement in the slave trade started in August of 1619, then it’s surely appropriate to use August of 2019 as the date to remember our national involvement in the man-made disaster – and the horrific legacy that lingers even today.
The dissenters aren’t happy with this approach, and now and then their arguments grow heated. They concede the need to remember, but worry that remembering the wrong date imposes costs on our ability to understand the past. “The most poisonous consequence of raising the curtain with 1619,” writes the historian Michael Guasco in a well-known and excellent article, “is that it casually normalizes white Christian Europeans as historical constants and makes African actors little more than dependent variables in the effort to understand what it means to be American.”
Fair enough. And it’s certainly true that as long as we keep saying 1619, it will be difficult to get people to pay attention to any historical nuance. But if we don’t choose that year, what date should we remember instead?
Well, there’s 1502, when the governor of Hispaniola was authorized to import “slaves born in the power of Christians” – in practice, the children of Africans carried to Portugal or Spain by slavers.
Another candidate is 1510, when King Ferdinand agreed to the establishment of a formal trade in slaves, approving the sale of several dozen to buyers in Santo Domingo.
Those dates, however, don’t quite get us ashore in what is now the United States. For that, we might select 1526, when the colony founded in what would become South Carolina by Lucas Vásquez de Ayllón, a wealthy Spaniard, seems to have included enslaved Africans – who promptly staged what might have been the first slave revolt in the New World.
Or we might prefer 1527, when an enslaved Moroccan known to history as Estevanico helped his Spanish owner establish a settlement in Florida, and later was part of expeditions exploring the territories that are now Mexico and the American Southwest.
Then there’s 1586, when Sir Francis Drake carried to Roanoke Island scores of Africans he had captured in a raid on Cartagena. They had been enslaved in Colombia, but aboard ship their legal status was uncertain. Most likely Drake intended to leave them behind in the New World – which seems to be what happened, because when he arrived back in England all but three had vanished.
We could also go in the other direction, concluding that even 1619 is actually too early, because Virginia at that time had no laws authorizing slavery. A case might then be made for 1662, when the colonial legislature adopted the first statute specifically providing for lifelong indenture, and clarified that the children of enslaved women were also slaves. Or perhaps we could push the date as far forward as 1705, the year when Virginia formally declared that black slaves were property.
You see the point. We can debate endlessly about which date marks the “true” beginning of African slavery in the U.S. And whatever year we might choose, there will be other strong candidates as well. As the study of the nation’s involvement in human enslavement continues, no doubt more history will be uncovered. We’ll never find the “true” date.
This is not to say that the correct answer doesn’t matter. I am a fervent and often nit-picky believer in the value of learning and teaching accurate history. When we get the past wrong, we can’t truly understand the present.
But if the goal of the 400th anniversary commemorations is to focus public attention on the disaster that was African slavery – and to highlight the way those events and their underlying ideology continue to affect our culture today – the sensible course may well be to put down a marker, even as we recognize its arbitrariness. Else we risk letting disagreement over when to start the clock distract us from the serious conversations we should be having about the present-day consequences of the horrors that occurred while the clock was ticking.
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Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” and his latest nonfiction book is “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster.”