Our View of Black History Has Radically Shifted in a Few Short Years

The case for reparations and The 1619 Project have focused attention on what makes African Americans distinct.

Salim Muwakkil February 11, 2020

The New York Times Magazine's “The 1619 Project,” published in 2019, aimed “to reframe American history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619"—the year the first enslaved Africans were brought to the shores of Virginia—"as our nation’s birth year."

Black His­to­ry Month, if treat­ed seri­ous­ly, could help clar­i­fy a key point about race in Amer­i­ca: African Amer­i­cans were cre­at­ed by slav­ery. As I argued in 2006

While the discussion of reparations has died down again, its emergence in public discourse is another sign that the legacies of slavery—housing discrimination, wealth inequality, educational disadvantage—are being treated with new urgency.

Mil­lions of Africans wound up in Amer­i­ca only because they were kid­napped to fill the needs of a slave econ­o­my. This process forged a new peo­ple, who became Amer­i­can by neces­si­ty, and includ­ed 12 gen­er­a­tions of chat­tel slavery. 

This his­to­ry of slave — rather than racial — iden­ti­fi­ca­tion accounts for the dis­ad­van­tages accrued by the prog­e­ny of enslaved Africans. With this under­stand­ing, the cul­pa­bil­i­ty for redress­ing that spe­cif­ic lega­cy rests on the gov­ern­ment that abet­ted it.

My 2006 piece not­ed that affir­ma­tive action was, at first, cre­at­ed to com­pen­sate the vic­tims of slavery’s lega­cy — but oth­er groups had to be includ­ed to gain polit­i­cal sup­port … [and] affir­ma­tive action became a com­pre­hen­sive attempt to off­set dis­crim­i­na­tion against all minori­ties.’ ” The result­ing prac­tice meant that a busi­ness exer­cis­ing affir­ma­tive action could employ many peo­ple of col­or with­out hir­ing a sin­gle African Amer­i­can. That affir­ma­tive action has diverged so dra­mat­i­cal­ly from its ini­tial con­cep­tion is yet more proof of this nation’s reluc­tance to face the truth of its igno­ble, Afro­pho­bic history.

The issues I raised in 2006 rose to the sur­face of pub­lic dis­course in 2019 in two major ways. The New York Times Mag­a­zine embarked on some­thing it called The 1619 Project,” named to mark the 400th anniver­sary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to the shores of Vir­ginia in what would become the Unit­ed States. Spear­head­ed by Times reporter Nikole Han­nah-Jones, the project’s goal was to reframe Amer­i­can his­to­ry by con­sid­er­ing what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year. Doing so requires us to place the con­se­quences of slav­ery and the con­tri­bu­tions of black Amer­i­cans at the very cen­ter of the sto­ry we tell our­selves about who we are as a coun­try.” Such an auda­cious con­cep­tion — in the Times? As I read through the spe­cial issue, I found a new aware­ness of how the lega­cy of slav­ery is thor­ough­ly inter­wo­ven with America’s found­ing pre­cepts. The recog­ni­tion seemed too good to be true.

Despite pre­dictable grum­bling from con­ser­v­a­tive quar­ters and some aca­d­e­m­ic salons, the response to the project has been over­whelm­ing­ly pos­i­tive. The Times sup­ple­ment quick­ly sold out. What’s more, school dis­tricts in Chica­go, Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and Buf­fa­lo, N.Y., (among a grow­ing num­ber) have incor­po­rat­ed mate­r­i­al from the project into their curricula.

Repa­ra­tions, too, has burst into pub­lic view. In sum­mer 2019, the House held its first hear­ing on H.R. 40, a bill that would cre­ate a com­mis­sion to devel­op pro­pos­als to address and redress the lega­cy of slav­ery. The bill had been intro­duced by the late Rep. John Cony­ers (D‑Mich.) in each House ses­sion since 1989 — where it lan­guished, unat­tend­ed — but this hear­ing attract­ed, among oth­ers, actor/​activist Dan­ny Glover and author Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose 2014 essay in The Atlantic, The Case for Repa­ra­tions,” gave the con­cept an infu­sion of intel­lec­tu­al cred­i­bil­i­ty. Ear­ly in the 2020 Demo­c­ra­t­ic cam­paign, sev­er­al can­di­dates, urged on by can­di­date Mar­i­anne Williamson (who since has dropped out), expressed sup­port.

While the dis­cus­sion of repa­ra­tions has died down again, its emer­gence in pub­lic dis­course is anoth­er sign that the lega­cies of slav­ery — hous­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion, wealth inequal­i­ty, edu­ca­tion­al dis­ad­van­tage — are being treat­ed with new urgency. This refined per­spec­tive on our nation’s his­to­ry direct­ly con­nects slav­ery to the ongo­ing socioe­co­nom­ic sta­tus of slavery’s vic­tims. Find­ing data to trace the multi­gen­er­a­tional path of these wrongs has become a new mis­sion for his­tor­i­cal researchers.

Thank­ful­ly, these new devel­op­ments sur­round­ing the con­ver­sa­tion about race in Amer­i­ca inject a shot of bad­ly need­ed rel­e­vance into the often restrained obser­vance of Black His­to­ry Month.

Sal­im Muwakkil is a senior edi­tor of In These Times, where he has worked since 1983. He is the host of The Sal­im Muwakkil show on WVON, Chicago’s his­toric black radio sta­tion, and he wrote the text for the book HAROLD: Pho­tographs from the Harold Wash­ing­ton Years.
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