Recently, 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. Since then, the 1619 Project has come under some historical fire for referring to the first African people brought to the American colony as “slaves” rather than as indentured servants. These are important distinctions but 1619 makes a hugely valuable contribution by bringing the awareness of this history to a vast national audience.
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. Carroll’s Hundred like 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 generated 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, 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 within 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. But as Rana Dasgupta, recently argued in The Silenced Majority: Can America still afford democracy?, in the December 2020 issue of Harper’s, enlightenment only took the framers so far. Dasgupta sees them as wealthy oligarchs, who carefully crafted our constitution to reflect their capitalist interests. He writes, “Even their decision to exploit American land with African labor demonstrated their world-bending pursuit of wealth.” And, “… they presided over a political system as brutal as it was exclusive. Why? The answer is simple. They could not afford democracy, but crucially, they did not need it.“
In the nearly 250 years since the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were written, what motivated the framers then, continues to haunt us. We still have not come to terms with its inconsistencies, indeed, its baked-in elitism and hypocrisy. What began with denying freedom to enslaved people continues through a myriad of injustices (poor health care, inadequate educational resources, gross income inequality, a brutal penal system). Always the cause is the same, the economically successful come to assume (often subconsciously) that their liberty, their lives, and their freedom by necessity require greater consideration and greater resources than those of “ordinary” 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.