What we get wrong about the roots of slavery in AmericaRoundup
tags: slavery, African American history, early American history
Eric Herschthal is a postdoctoral fellow in African American and African studies at The Ohio State University and is completing a book on scientists and the antislavery movement.
Four hundred years ago, Sir George Yeardley, the governor of the fledgling colony of Virginia, bought “20. and odd Negroes” from an English pirate named John Jope. Having attacked a Portuguese slave ship on its way to Mexico, Jope — technically a privateer, or a government-sponsored pirate — found 350 enslaved Angolans chained inside the fetid, overcrowded ship.
Jope took as many Angolans as he could, then made his way to Hampton, Va., where Yeardley bought several of them. Starved for labor, Yeardley did not think twice about putting these enslaved Africans to work alongside the colony’s many white indentured servants.
The arrival of those Angolans in 1619 has long served as the starting point of African American history, even of racism itself. This year, the 400th anniversary of their arrival, the date shows no signs of losing its prominence. Across the country, symposiums are being held, exhibitions planned and books published. But overemphasizing the date might, in fact, be damaging to today’s fight for racial justice.
Starting at 1619 means foregrounding slavery and white dominance, eclipsing the story of how Africans, both on the continent and in the Americas, successfully resisted Europeans from the start. It also suggests a certain timelessness to anti-black prejudice, when in fact racism developed over time, and was as much a consequence of slavery as it was a cause of it. Finally, placing the origins of slavery in the South not only minimizes racism’s reach — as if the South had a monopoly on slavery and its justification, racism — but also devalues the importance of Africa and the African diaspora to black history.
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