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The politics of re-writing American history

Practical Politics

David L. Horne OW oped | 8/22/2019, midnight

Recently, the New York Times devoted its entire Sunday New York Times Magazine issue to the new 1619 Project, pitched to the Times by one of its magazine staff writers, Nikole Hannah-Jones. The aim of the accepted project was to examine the ways that slavery in early America still heavily impacts and shapes American society in the 21st century.

With its Aug. 18 front-page story on slavery and the current reparations movement, the Los Angeles Times joined the public story. And with the recent re-broadcast of the California Department of Education’s August deadline for public comments on the new Ethnic Studies Model School Curriculum, this state demonstrated that it still intends to be part of this new thrust for more accurate American history. This is all good stuff that has been and should be lauded.

The 1619 Project starts off with the proclamation, “We’ve got to tell the unvarnished truth!” Of course, that will never happen, but we keep burning this flame and pushing the issue. History, after all, is never all the facts or the unvarnished truth about any given moment of the past. History is always a story told, a report given, or a remembrance recalled based on the point of view of the person telling the tale. None of us can tell the story of everything that happened at any time in the past. At best history is simply a remembrance and recall of those parts of the past to which someone paid attention to and reported on.

When the action was finally over and even the first-hand (called primary evidence) accounts by those present were taken, those accounts inevitably would focus on what the victims remembered about their own ordeals, not what was happening in other parts of the classroom, let alone whatever was occurring in other parts of the school at the same time. But all of it was history, and deserved being recorded and reported.

History is never 100-percent accurate, even with photographic evidence. The camera would still only pay attention to parts of the occurring environment.

So, reminding us all that the 1619 landing of 20 or more Africans in the Virginia colony in August four hundred years ago was a real beginning of American history, while crucially important for the evolution and development of what grew into the USA, is still itself not the whole story.

In fact, as an information check, this writer here repeats what he has consistently said since the 1990s, that 1619 date for the landing of 20 and more enslaved Africans in Jamestown was not the beginning of African-American history and culture in this country. Those 20-something Africans did not join the Virginia population as slaves. Slavery is a legal institution involving private property ownership. That process in human beings did not yet exist in Virginia or in the other colonies. The 20-plus Africans brought on a slave ship to Virginia were assigned and incorporated into Virginia colonial society as indentured servants, as were 80 percent of the White population in Virginia.

In fact, Black and White indentured servants could and did bring suits to court against abusive masters in Virginia and other colonies, winning many of them. Slaves, once legally established, had no standing in colonial court and could neither bring suits nor testify in them.

It would take nearly 50 more years before the Maryland and Virginia colonies made color-based slave legislation.

We must applaud all the on-going efforts to get our history reported as accurately as we can. However, in making the corrections, we must insist that we don’t make what is already a too-vanilla mess into just a tanned version of more mess.

Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.

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