Most of us are aware that American slavery formally started in 1619 and, thus, in 2019 we are observing both the beginning of slavery in our country and, more importantly, intently interrogating the social structure of this country. Moreover, while some of us are aware that the presence of people of African descent in what is now the U.S. began well before Jamestown, we also recognize that the dominant story proffers the American tradition as one of freedom from day one.
In the “America is the home of the free” viewpoint, slavery is viewed as an anachronism that does not represent the fundamental truth of who we are, or, at the very least, the best of who we are. On the other hand, some of us, argue that on the deepest level, America was founded as a divided country along racial, class and gender demarcations and continues to be divided.
Perhaps the truth is a mix: to varying degrees, all of us value and aspire to the freedom view, while we simultaneously struggle for and declare that our freedom must be fought for. Regardless of our viewpoint, there is no easy road to social wellbeing.
I believe knowing our history as well as assessing our current condition are both critical. This is especially the case because we in America tend to be less concerned with history than we are fixated on celebrating and enjoying the pleasures and prerogatives of the present. Thus, as a corrective contribution, I join with forward thinking people who study our past.
Sixteen nineteen is not our beginning, nor will the upcoming 2020 presidential election be our ending. We sometimes forget that black lives in the western hemisphere existed centuries preceding the founding of America and our presence will, in all probability, continue long after America is an afterthought in some future time frame.
In other words, we should be aware of but not consumed by our past. We should understand, but not be limited by our history. Be the Sankofa bird, looking backward as it moves forward. Both awareness of our history and struggling for our future is important.
But, as our African heritage teaches: if we know the beginning well, the end will not trouble us. Whatever we do in the here and now and whatever our future dreams are, we can not and should not ever forget from whence we came. An appreciation of our history is a necessary element in identifying who we are and where we want to go.