This past August, as Carroll’s Hundred was gearing up to launch its new website, in a curious twist of synchronicity, the New York Times Magazine announced a ground-breaking historic initiative, The 1619 Project. As I read Jake Silverstein’s introduction, I remember thinking, the objectives of 1619 sound very similar to the ones Carroll’s Hundred has been pursuing for many years, with theirs on a much larger scale.
Simply put, since that day in 1619, when twenty Africans from Angola were brought as slaves to Jamestown, Virginia, America has always been an African American country. The 1619 Project makes the point that there is not a business, institution, or individual in this nation that would have thrived without the economic backbone of slavery at our beginning. Whatever exceptionalism we claim today can only be thought of within the context of chattel slavery and the immense wealth it engendered for this country and the standard of living most white people have come not only to enjoy but to expect.
The irony is that many Americans’ opinions of this reality range from the genuinely clueless to the defiantly dismissive. Though there are gray areas, generally white Americans response to questions about the legacy of slavery, especially if it is linked to the question of reparations goes something like this, … I really don’t feel in any way responsible. My family never owned any slaves! … We need to move on. Slavery is over. That was then. This is now. … or, People need to stop giving themselves excuses and start pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps … and there is the familiar … I have great sympathy for the plight of the blacks, but sometimes they are their own worst enemy. And, then there is the whole Jordan Peele, “Get Out” white liberal syndrome.
I personally do not believe that European American white people are inherently more mean- spirited than any other ethnic group. But, we have been enthralled by the inspirational vision of our founding mythology. In and of itself, it is truly inspirational. The noble intentions of the founding fathers notwithstanding, the hypocrisy of their slaveholding led them to embed a kind of magical thinking in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. I have never read a better description of this than the one made by Nikole Hannah-Jones in her essay for “The 1619 Project” in the NYT Magazine’s August 25, 2019, issue.
There she explains how the framers of both documents danced around the economic hypocrisy of slaveholding on which they were dependent while proclaiming the rights of all “men” to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. According to Hannah-Jones, Jefferson and others tried to insert language in the Declaration to justify this, but in the end took it out. Their own hypocrisy became a bridge too far.
From the ancient Code of Hammurabi, through the Analects of Confucius, the Magna Carta, and the English Bill of Rights, through our own Declaration of Independence, societies have struggled to define a universal set of values through which they could ensure basic human rights and liberties. Separating out the “universal” from the particular is always where the trouble comes. What does “liberty” mean; what does “freedom” mean, and for whom? These are questions our founding documents challenge us to answer with the perspective of 400 years of successes and failures behind us — the failure of the institution of slavery being the most egregious. How do we learn from our triumph over evil in WWII, as well as from our failures on the cotton plantations of the South and the rum-running Triangle Trade of the North?
Our Founding Fathers were highly educated people who came of age on the heels of the European Enlightenment or the Age of Reason — a world view inspired by the relatively new discipline of science. They believed that through logical reasoning, guided by scientific principles, a new, more just and “enlightened” world order could be created. In the nearly 250 years since the Declaration of Independence was written, what perplexed the authors then, still haunts us. We have not come to terms with its inconsistencies. What began with denying freedom to enslaved people continues through a myriad of injustices (poor health care, inadequate educational resources, gross income inequality). Always the cause is the same, the economically successful come to assume (more than to believe) that their liberty, their lives, and their freedom by necessity require greater consideration and greater resources than those of “everyday” people.
We are interested in encouraging a lively and thoughtful discussion on these pages about the issues that affect us all. In the free society that we would all like to have, where does one’s success leave off, and exploitation begin? If one group has been exploited for 400 years, what obligation do its fellow citizens have to make amends? If a society is only as good as its weakest link, what are the obligations of its citizens to help those less fortunate? What exactly are the requirements for Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness? And so on …
Of course, getting the history right would be a good place to start.
Let an Enlightened discussion begin ….
Opinions presented on this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Carroll Park Foundation or its board of directors, or those of any of its partners, including Sacred Spaces.