It’s Black History Month and so we’ve the usual clarion call that we must pay attention to black history. OK:
Every February, Americans are invited to think seriously about our nation’s history from the perspective of the African-American experience. Black history is profoundly illuminating: It produces a bright light by which we can make an honest assessment of how well our actions align with the ideals that have led us to proclaim that ours is a special nation. Black History Month is a time that dares us to think about the limitations of the Proud Boys’ white nationalism that excludes the diversity that is one of this country’s strengths. Similarly, it is a time that reminds us that the democratic ideals trumpeted by the 1776 Commission have not been applied equally.
Cool, so let’s try this out:
There are records of Black explorers in North America before the landing of the first slave ship in 1619, but that date serves as a powerful marker for the terms of the Black experience in what would become the United States. Black people arrived in servitude, and it became commonplace that they labored without compensation alongside poor white immigrants who came to the colonies as indentured servants. In response to labor shortages, English settlers soon created a system of racialized chattel slavery.
The terms and conditions of those first blacks were indeed the same as those first whites. Which is not a racial difference at all. It’s also insane to say that people working under an indenture recevied no compensation. Given the 7 year terms they’d have been dead a long time before the end if they gained no food, clothing or shelter.
Sure, food, clothing, shelter, they’re not money. Nor is the passage across the ocean money. But they are all compensation.
It’s also important to note that those first blacks were, in their home places of origin, slaves. And when they arrived in Virginia they became not-slaves – they became indentured labour just like the white folks around them. Those early days were in fact marked by their non-racism.
Further, it wasn’t quite the English settlers that developed the chattel slavery – it was one of those black importees from Africa. Yes, the first known owner of a chattel slave in Virginia was black. Actually, a bloke from Angola who arrived as indentured labour in 1620.
At which point we can indeed say that black history is important and that we can and should learn things from it. The problem with trying to do so in the New York Times is that what we do know about those early days is in direct opposition to what we’ve been told in the 1619 Project. Which, given that that’s a flagship production of the New York Times makes that newspaper a difficult place to utter truths, really.