400 years of Blacks in America

This July 17, 2018 copy photo shows a 1850 Daguerreotype of Renty, a South Carolina slave who Tamara Lanier, of Norwich, Conn., said is her family's patriarch. The portrait was commissioned by Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz, whose ideas were used to support the enslavement of Africans in the United States. Lanier filed a lawsuit on Wednesday, March 20, 2019, in Massachusetts state court, demanding that Harvard turn over the photo and pay damages. (Courtesy of Harvard University/The Norwich Bulletin via AP)

Some 400 years ago, Africans first arrived in America aboard a Dutch ship. Today, concerned citizens across the country – including several local individuals – have worked to draw more attention to what some are calling the African American Quad-Centennial (AAQC). 

In August 1619, approximately 20 Africans reached Port Comfort in Hampton, Va. They were the first Africans on record to be forcibly settled and sold into slavery in what was then the North American British Colonies. 

Though there is ample scholarship suggesting a much older African/Black presence in the Americas, 1619 is a date the vast majority of scholars point to as the kick-off point for the mass enslavement of African human beings in what eventually became the United States. 

“One of the reasons the AAQC is significant is because our ancestors were in this land 157 years before America became a country,” said Niara Dorsey, a local musician and college student.

 “The people who tell us to ‘Go back to Africa,’ questioning our citizenship, need to check themselves because more often than not, our ancestors were here decades if not centuries before theirs.”

According to Kimathi Nelson, presiding bishop of the Shrine of the Black Madonna, 2019 offers Black people a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity.

“At the 100- and 200-year markers of our presence in America – 1719 and 1819 – the vast majority of people of African descent were enslaved,” said Nelson. 

“At the 300-year marker, Blacks across the nation suffered the ravages of the ‘Red Summer of 1919.’ This year offers us a divine gift for reflection upon the meaning of our 400-year sojourn, enlightenment regarding our contributions to this nation and advocacy for policies and programs that better reflect an acknowledgement of our humanity and our citizenship.”

In a nutshell, Nelson has sought to use the AAQC as a rallying point to marshal the energies of Black people to confront current challenges and spark a new era of consciousness and activism. 

THE IMPACT

Nelson was able to convince the powerful Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, a national gathering of some of the nation’s most progressive pastors and religious scholars, Smithsonian Institute and Association for the Study of African American Life and History to participate in educating people nationally about the AAQC and about various aspects about the 400 years’ worth of history in the U.S. that literally propelled America into a position of global leadership. 

He even had audience withmembers of the Congressional Black Caucus who introduced House Resolution 40 to study reparations and the impact of slavery on American life.

Dr. Alvia Wardlaw, director of Texas Southern’s University Museum, sees the value in the AAQC.

“Has our journey from 1619 to this day been one filled with heartbreak and woe?” Wardlaw asked. “Certainly. But so too has it been one of achievements of the human spirit – our human spirit – worthy of acknowledgement and celebration, and deserving of the moniker, ‘miraculous.’”

“Without stolen Black labor, intelligence, creativity, ingenuity and genius the America you see now would not exist,” said Dr. Jawanza Clark, a former local pastor who is currently an associate professor at Manhattan College and Union Theological Seminary. 

“The fact that our contributions to the building of this country are not taught in schools is a crime in and of itself, but this ignorance plays out daily in negative attitudes and beliefs about Black people. These negative views then become encoded into laws and policies that have deadly consequences for our daily living.”

Realizing that the significance of the 400thanniversary of 1619 wasn’t on many community and organizational leaders’ radars, Nelson criss-crossed the country visiting organizations, institutions, conferences and universities to publicize it.

Around that same period Congressman Bobby Scott (D-Virginia) passed HR 1242 in the U.S. House on May 1, 2017, and seven months later U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) got the companion bill passed in the U.S. Senate. The bill in question, 400 Years of African-American History Commission Act, became public law on Jan. 8, 2018. 

Scott, like Nelson, hoped his efforts would inspire others to commemorate Black people’s contributions to this nation, even amid horrendous hardships. One local group that was inspired, Sankofa 400 Points of Light, seeks to get Houstonians involved in the national commemoration.

ACTION & EDUCATION

Sankofa 400 recently held a two-day “400 Years Commemoration” conference at Riverside United Methodist Church on day one and at Emancipation Park the following day. The event also spearheaded a movement to get more Blacks tracing their genealogy.

It was led by Joan Hubert, Texas educator; Ann Chinn, executive director of the Middle Passage Ceremony; and Omowale Luthuli-Allen, social activist icon and community involvement coordinator for Houston’s My Brother’s Keeper, 

“The event was really moving, especially the presentation by Dr. Chinn and the choir,” said University of Houston freshman Maisha Walker, who with several of her classmates attended the event. “I was inspired to learn more about my own family history.”

Regarding next steps, Luthuli-Allen believes the 400-year marker should be less about celebration and more about action and education.

“Raising awareness of our triumphs and tragedies in the past 400 years is only productive if it is done with the intent to improve upon our future lives,” Luthuli-Allen said. “Thus, as we review our past, we should be doing so with the intention of developing transformative projects that improve Black lives.”

Nelson believes the goals for 2019 and beyond for Black people should be teaching the history of resistance and resilience to our children, honoring our ancestors daily, organizing for and participating in the 2019 and 2020 elections and fighting to protect Black women and girls.

“In this way the AAQC can serve as a catalyst to inspire a new generation of activism to push back against the modern-day domestic terrorism our people face in the streets, in classrooms at the workplace and everywhere else our humanity and our citizenship dare be questioned and belittled,” said Nelson, whose church will convene a national Quad-Centennial Convention in Atlanta Oct. 4-6. 

Nelson said the AAQC will come to a close during Kwanzaa 2019, but believes, like Luthuli-Allen, that the momentum will continue long after 2019 ends.

 “The endgame has always been to raise the level of consciousness of the African-American community,” Nelson said. “By making people aware of who we are as a people we can begin to think and act as a people. This is the gift that keeps on giving. Once the consciousness torch is lit, it begins a self-generating process of personal discovery that leads naturally to group self-determination.”