Truth matters, as does justice. Fact is, there is no justice without truth. And truth be told, like it or not, America’s story originating way back in its Colonial roots is a tale built upon the institution of slavery and the practice of racial inequality (injustice). Any messaging that denies, distorts or detracts from this reality is a false narrative.
Of course, one could say as many do, that the story of America’s ‘original sin’ began innocently enough. Nobody’s fault, just an unplanned accident of history. Certainly no citizen of the Jamestown settlement in the British Colony of Virginia had a clue as to what tempting cargo the White Lion was carrying as it sailed into the Port Comfort harbor on that fateful day of August 20, 1619. Nor could they have guessed that once freed from the bowels of the privateer vessel, this tempting human cargo holding the promise of economic prosperity would forever shape, mold and challenge the experiment in democracy that would one day birth a new nation, the United States of America.
The opening chapter of the torrid tale of chattel slavery in the British Colonies of the New World began 403 years ago yesterday when according to records, “twenty and odd” Angolans were bought by English colonists. They had first been kidnapped from their homeland in southwest African continent by Portuguese Atlantic slave traders bound for Veracruz in the colony of New Spain. But as fate would have it, the Portuguese ship was hijacked by pirates who in turn found their way to Jamestown. There these dark-skinned natives of Angola were traded in exchange for food and provisions. From this point on, slave labor would become the crucial element to the establishment of successful British colonies in North America.
The arrival of the enslaved Africans in the British Colonies would mark the beginning of nearly two and a half centuries of chattel slavery in North America. Not until the 13th Amendment was adopted on December 18, 1865 was slavery officially abolished. Nevertheless, freed Black peoples’ status in the post-war South would remain precarious during the period of Reconstruction and beyond.
Just how precarious? To help answer that question we can direct our attention to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice which was birthed on April 26, 2018. This new memorial and museum challenges all Americans to confront our nation’s history of slavery, lynching, Jim Crow laws and civil rights abuses. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice is an outdoor structure that includes 800 monuments, each representing a U.S. county where lynchings occurred and listing the names of people killed in that county. There are more than 4,400 victims commemorated on the memorial’s rust-colored steel columns—800 more lynchings than had previously been recognized, according to the memorial’s website. A memorial for six people who were lynched between 1885 and 1921 in our own Chatham County North Carolina stands in the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.
According to the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), researchers have documented 123 “terror lynchings” of African Americans in North Carolina between 1877 and 1950. On May 14th of this year I was among approximately 100 Chatham County citizens to participate in a service to honor the memories of five people who were lynched in our county more than a century ago. The service honored the memories of Harriet Finch, Jerry Finch, John Pattishall and Lee Tyson, who were lynched in 1885, and Henry Jones, lynched in 1899. A series of readers recounted the events leading up to the lynchings, and another group of volunteers scooped Chatham County soil into jars symbolizing the places where the lynchings took place.
To this very day, August 21, 2022, America is plagued by the undying bias of racial prejudice, white supremacy and white Christian Nationalism that an honest narrative of history reveals as America’s original sin. Today, rather than repenting and praying “forgive us our trespasses,” there remains a concerted crusade among many conservative politico/religious zealots to massage, mold and otherwise disguise the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth of America’s original sin.
Seeing life strictly through the rose colored tri-focal lens of American Exceptionalism, Manifest Destiny and white Christian Nationalism gives an out-of-focus, warped and underdeveloped picture of reality, truth and justice. A prime example of this is the current crusade by Florida’s Governor and legislature to twist and distort the lens of American history regarding the story of slavery and racial injustice. They do so by mandating the teaching in public schools of a revisionist history that downplays and obscures this critical thread of race that has been part of the American fabric from1619 to this present moment in time.
I urge you to visit an August 4, 2022 article by Bess Levin in Vanity Fair regarding Florida’s new ‘Civics Initiative” to be schooled in the skewed historical narrative that is being prescribed to sooth the discomfort felt by many white folks who find the story of America’s original sin offensive.
I close with a hope and a prayer that as an aspirational yet imperfect nation of flawed but redeemable people, today and tomorrow we may see yesterday’s history in the white light of objectivity and transparency. May we all go forward together repentantly seeking to recreate an American story based on the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth… so help us God.