Friday, March 1, 2019

Hank Sanders: Sketches #1654 - A 400-year sojourn of continuous struggle

  The year 1619 does not mean much to most Americans. For those who understand the significance of 1619, it was the beginning of a journey of 400 years of continuous struggle for Africans in America. It is now 2019, and the struggle continues and continues and continues.

  It was in 1619 that 350 Africans were stolen from the continent of Africa, likely in the area of what is now Angola. They were intended to be taken to Mexico on a slave ship named Bautista. Somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, the ship was robbed by pirates. A number of enslaved Africans were stolen from Bautista. Of the 350 Africans who left the West Coast of Africa, 147 arrived in Mexico. More than 20 arrived in Jamestown, Virginia. Many died in what was known as the Middle Passage.

  Twenty-some of those who were stolen by pirates reached Point Comfort on the James River in Virginia. They arrived on a ship named White Loin. They were sold into slavery and taken to Jamestown, Virginia. It was the beginning of African slavery in what would become the United States of America some 170 years later.

  The enslaved African population in Jamestown increased with more enslaved people arriving by ship and by birth. The population fell from deaths by war with Native Americans and by disease. For example, there were 32 Africans by 1620 but just 21 in 1624. There were more than one hundred in 1628. All Africans were listed as servants (slaves) in the 1628 census. By 1860, there were four million Africans in America in what is now the United States of America.

  There is considerable debate about the status of these early Africans. It is clear that they were servants. However, there is no indication that their children were automatically born into slavery or that Africans were automatically enslaved for life. All of that changed in the 1640s and 1650s when colonies began enacting laws establishing slavery for life for the enslaved persons and their children. In the 1650s, colonies turned the common law upside down; the status of the father had always determined the status of the child. However, White men were the father of so many children by enslaved Black women that the colonies passed laws determining the status of a child of African descent by the status of the mother rather than the father. White children still took the status of the father as they had done for centuries. White supremacy became the law of the land.

  The 400-year sojourn continued. Over time, the worst form of slavery known to humankind developed. Every element of the identity of Africans in America was routinely taken: names; family; language; religion; history; the right to own material things; and the right to defend oneself and family. Each element taken was replaced with whatever the enslaver decided. Enslaved persons were routinely beaten, raped, and abused physically, mentally and emotionally.

  The sojourn took a turn for the worse with the creation of the United States of America. Slavery was made legal from the highest level of government: the U.S. Constitution. It was no longer just state by state or by custom. It was national, with the U.S. Constitution providing for people of African descent, whether enslaved or free, to be only 3/5 of a person for the purposes of political representation. All of this in spite of Africans in America fighting to create and protect this country. The first person to die in the American Revolution was an African in America - Crispus Attucks.

  The 400-year sojourn continued with struggles against slavery. Enslaved people ran away, rebelled, and employed many other means of resistance. Resistance also manifested itself in the abolition of slavery movement. However, the U S. Supreme Court removed any doubt of their status when it stated that Africans in America, whether slave or free, had no rights that a White man was bound to respect. It also indicated that Africans in America were considered a lower species of human.

  Then came the Civil War. Africans in America were initially prohibited from fighting in the war even though slavery was the central issue. This despite having fought in all the previous wars from the Revolutionary War on. Then came the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed no one but provided cover for Africans in America to free themselves by running away from dying. The Civil War was won by the Union in April 1865 after more than 600,000 died. To ensure the freedom of formerly enslaved persons, the 13th Amendment was enacted. It was followed by the 14th Amendment to provide citizenship to Africans in America. The 15th Amendment provided the right to vote to male Africans in America.

  The 400-year sojourn continued with the total disregard of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. A new form of slavery was created. It involved peonage and other limitations on the rights of African Americans to work. Citizenship was suffocated by segregation. Voting rights were crushed through violence and domestic terrorism such as lynchings.

  Africans in America always resisted, struggling in various ways while fighting for this country in World War I, World War II, and every other war the United States engaged in. The struggles grew into the Civil Rights Movements of the 1950s and 1960s. The legal badge of inferiority was lifted with the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibited racial discrimination in public accommodations and employment. The legal shackles of political powerlessness were removed with the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which provided the right of all persons to vote regardless of race.

  The 400-year sojourn of Africans in America continues to this day. White Supremacy is still very powerful. Every advance by African Americans is met by a backlash. Voting is met by voter suppression. Affirmative action is met by shouts of "reverse discrimination". The demise of segregation is met by a wave of mass incarceration so that this country with 5 percent of the world’s population has 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population. The reduction of lynchings is met by increased police killings, the modern-day lynchings. The election of President Barack Obama is met by the election of President Donald Trump. As long as White supremacy is powerful in the United States of America, the 400-year sojourn of racial struggle will grow in additional years.

EPILOGUE – History is powerful. Long history is more powerful. The power of 400 years of Africans in America reaches into every aspect of the existence of this country. It has profound implications for Africans in America but also for all other groups of people in the United States. We must come to grip with that power so it is a positive force instead of a negative force.

  About the author: Hank Sanders represented District 23 in the Alabama Senate from 1983 to 2018.

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