This casual essay, which began as a series of tweets posted over 3 hours on July 4, 2015, focuses on the English, Caribbean, and mainland U.S. components of the Western Hemisphere’s story: these are the parts that intersect with my lineage. There is much, much more to be told, particularly of the Black Africans that White Spanish and Portuguese traders took to South America. There are also many others more qualified than me to tell the South and Central American chapters of this story.
As far as I can tell the only appropriate place to start this story is 12,000 years ago with the ancestors of the indigenous peoples of Turtle Island.
When they first arrived on this continent, fanning out from the north and from the south, Christianity had not yet been invented. 11,400 years later, when Portuguese, Spanish, and other European sailors got lost in the Western sea, there was no such thing as a Protestant either. The indigenous nations in the northernmost territories of this continent successfully repelled the Norse at the start of the 2nd millennium. But they couldn’t stop the Western Europeans from sailing west.
In most ways, the 15th Century was discontinuous with the era I was fortunate enough to be born in. But it was continuous in two ways:
- Christians claimed the right to subdue the earth and use all its resources, including “human resources.”
- Black lives did not matter.
By 1619, English traders and pirates had been touring the Atlantic for just over a hundred years. Giovanni Caboto made the first trip between Bristol and what’s now Canada for England’s Henry VIII—but that was just the start.
When we say history is usually written by the victors, this is what we mean: every fall, United States residents take a few days off and argue about 1620. Good, plain-minded Americans have their children dress up as turkeys and pilgrims and wave corn husks and reflect on gratitude. Every fall! But there was 12,000 years or more years of history here prior to 1620.
I make it a point to read articles from indigenous writers at every national American holiday including the one some celebrated on July 4. Read, for example, Mark Charles (@wirelesshogan) on how the Declaration of Independence smears and defames indigenous people. Also read Simon Moya-Smith (@SimonMoyaSmith) and the web publication Indian Country Today (@indiancountry) for stories on the ongoing and vibrant-despite-everything indigenous life on this land.
“America, America! God mend thine every flaw, confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.” —Katherine Lee Bates
The first permanent English settlement on what’s now the US was in Jamestown, Virginia. Its birth year was 1607, and it was one of three formed around that time. A comparable company docked in St. George’s, Bermuda (1612), and a third claimed rights to St. John’s, Newfoundland, now Canada.
The Jamestown colony was governed by a contracted stock-based structure called the Virginia Company of London. The Virginia Company had the full authority of the English monarchy to come west, seek gold, and claim land around the Chesapeake Bay. So when English separatists eventually got here in 1620, they found indigenous people, prior European settlements, and a small African population.
Every second of the United States’ history is entangled with migration, human trafficking, labor, and commerce. In the Virginia Company (1606-1624), we can see the corporation preceding the state. The song of the American state has always included a profit bassline. The driving motif has not been wonder. It’s not been escape from tyranny. The driving motif has been resources and power, and “One ring to rule them all.” That ring is commerce, backed by religion.
From the very first boat, the United States’ European settlement project has privileged the corporation. And this makes rulings like Citizens United vs. FEC much more aligned with the US national project than departures from it. We’re simply becoming more explicit about the comparative value of the human life. It’s a calculus usually only implied in common rhetoric: our value is latent in the government’s continuing and routine treatment of indigenous, Brown, and Black peoples on this continent and beyond.
At the National Cathedral’s July 4 organ recital this year, the host quietly and soberly told the crowd, “This nation was shaped from borrowed materials and transported peoples.”
They weren’t borrowed, though. They were stolen and never returned. They weren’t transported. They were kidnapped and used for profit. Even in our effort to face the history every holiday, we continue to resist language that doesn’t occlude and obfuscate.
As I’ve searched for those Black people who were already here when the Mayflower docked, I’ve only come across a few names and thin stories. *
There’s “Juan Pedro,” a Spanish-speaking Angolan who, born free on the African continent, became war booty for the Portuguese. He was born in 1593, and enslaved 26 years later. The Portuguese slavers on the San Juan Bautista marched him to the port of Luanda and set sail for the New World.
Take a moment here to note the name of their ship. The San Juan Bautista. The St. John the Baptist. John the Baptist was a character in the “good news” stories of Jesus who assumed responsibility for preparing people for Jesus’ public work.
But there was no good news in the hold of that slave ship. The crew of the English ships the Treasurer and White Lion boarded the Bautista and took possession of its cargo and all the enslaved on it. That was how Juan Pedro ended up with 349 other Africans working on the plantations of the Bermudan governor.
And then there was the 20 or so slaves already on the Treasurer, the ship that raided the Bautista for England. And the 32 blacks already in slavery in Jamestown in 1619.
There was a woman deposited from Africa to Jamestown via The Treasurer who we only know as “Angela.” And there were “Anthony” + “Isabella,” two of the 1619 cohort, who gave birth to William Tucker, the first known Black child on the continent (1624). What possessed these two—what possesses any of us?—to sustain love and create new life under these conditions? I still don’t know.
“Oh say does that star-spangled banner yet wave, O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?” —Francis Scott Key
The Dene Nation’s Georges Erasmus has said that community isn’t possible without common memory. The one thing that the United States does not have is a common memory. What students and voluntary immigrants like me learn via textbooks, monuments and the media does no justice to the 12,000-year histories of this “land of the free.”
The United States began with White families that saw no conflict between wriggling out from under the Crown and using force to master others. Not only were they and their generations affected by this logic, but, through the baby state, it also ensnared the NDNs they dispossessed and determined the environment in which Africans they imported would be expected to work without pay and freedom for the next 89 years. And so it was incredibly appropriate that the Independence Day recital at the National Cathedral included both Darth Vader’s Imperial March and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Many of us know that Thomas Jefferson included an anti-slavery clause in the first draft of the Declaration of Independence.
The clause didn’t make it into the final version: when the draft went before the majority, they were too comfortable with slavery to remove it. And the English abolitionists noticed. Here’s Thomas Day in 1776:
In 1835, Rev. Dalcho wrote, “The celebration of the Fourth of July belongs exclusively to the white population of the United States.” A minister who owned slaves in South Carolina, Dalcho wrote in his local paper that the US independence war was a fraternal quarrel “among equals,” that it did not concern “Negroes.” All this despite the fact that Black soldiers fought on both sides of that war. Indigenous people also fought on both sides of that war. But a slave-owning Christian minister said the Fourth of July had nothing to do with them.
Oh, how convenient it must be to have religion, ideology, and politics at the ready to crown you the apex of creation.
I recently argued we need to “tell the truth” about US racism. But that requires us to tell the truth about the US. Even more basic than the Union or Confederate battle flags are the battles begun with the first ships and the first New World pulpits. The logic’s embedded in the first drafts of the Declaration and constitution, in the battle-poem-turned-anthem, and the battle hasn’t ended.
“This nation, for all its hopes and all of its boasts, will not be free until all of its citizens are free.” —John F. Kennedy
The battle hasn’t ended.
I remember Juan Pedro, the 26-year-old Bantu man I mentioned earlier who survived the Atlantic crossing only to be traded again. Lord Rich, former Bermudan governor, sent Juan to Essex, England, and then sent him to Plymouth a year later. Juan was the first Catholic in Plymouth, and in the New World war between the Calvinist Puritans and everyone else, Juan Pedro lost.
Plymouth’s slaves gained freedom in the mid 1600s as England went into its civil war: would-be loyal Royalists hoped to attract free Blacks. By the 1650s, Juan Pedro had found land to own. He was also a Black Catholic man caught in anti-Catholic, rising White Protestantism. In 1654, he armed himself in support of the Catholics in Maryland and Virginia being attacked by regional Puritans—and as they fell, so did he. Virginians executed him by firing squad in 1655. He was 62 years old and a long, long way from home.
Not all Western Hemisphere Black people feel this way, but some of us sense, from time to time, that we’re also a long way from home. We make lives here, lives of faith, lives beyond faith, we build houses and families, we have children in hostile territory. We survive. I don’t know why we survive. I only know that we do.
The last year has been hell for Black people in the United States. I was so excited about Independence Day 2014. I didn’t have to work on July 4, for the first time in a decade, and so I stopped everything—all writing, editing, and reading—and instead ate tasty, inauthentic New World pizza and watched the World Cup. I had just that single month where I thought the illusory American Dream might include a viable role for someone like me.
And then Ferguson became a hashtag.
Every month after that, there was some other trauma, some new revelation of trauma, some belligerent sign this wasn’t “home.” The last year, I’ve manifested the most amazing experiences of my life and I’ve also felt the most besieged in my life. The hashtags keep on coming. The war dead keep piling up.
That’s why the only way I could think of to handle the holiday this year was to wear all-black, write my little heart out, and light fire on my TL with this article.
Thank you for witnessing my process and also witnessing our collective story.
ACTION: Mark Charles would like to convene a conference in Washington, D.C. at the end of 2016 to begin building a common memory. There’s so much merit in this goal. Please work with the 5 Small Loaves community to make it happen.
* I drew several of the most humanizing details about Juan Pedro, the Bantu Catholic freeman-turned-soldier, from Tim Hashaw’s book, The birth of Black America: The first African-Americans and the pursuit of freedom at Jamestown (2007). Hashaw wrote this book to help fill in some of the deep silences about African-Americans in history on this continent.
I especially appreciate his work because one of my frustrations as I wrote this, and one of my perennial frustrations about national histories generally, is not being able to hear these ancestors in their own voices. Some weren’t literate and couldn’t write. Others who did write were writing apologetics for the White moderate and abolition movement, a social and political movement structured around persuading voting White Americans that emancipation was a moral good, even when it failed to persuade them that Black people and White people were also equal. I want to hear my ancestors in their own voices. Perhaps, one day, my descendants will also want to hear mine.
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