“When Did We Become Americans?”: 1619 The Making of America

At Norfolk State University in Virginia on September 21 and 22, 2012 a conference focused on the year 1619 will take place at the Student Center. For all who are able, we encourage your attendance and participation. The Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project is committed to promoting discussion and scholarship related to the Black Atlantic experience. In addition, three members of the project’s advisory and honorary boards are guest speakers and facilitator: Dr. Michael Blakey, Director of the Institute for Historical Biology, College of William and Mary and Director of the Remembering Slavery, Freedom, and Resistance Project (Saturday, September 22, 2012 at 10:45am in 138A); Dr. Corey D. B. Walker, Brown University, Let Us See Our Friends and Brethren: Constructing Freedom in the Political Languages of the “New World,” (Friday, September 21, 2012 and Saturday, September 22, 2012 at 12:30pm); and Dr. Joanne M. “Jodi” Braxton, College of William and Mary, Becoming American and the Spirit Voice: Identity Politics, Gender Roles and Religion in the Colonial Chesapeake (Friday, September 21, 2012 at 2:15pm in 138C and Saturday, September 22, 2012 at 10:45am in 138C).

One of the questions raised and addressed during this conference is “when did we become Americans?” That certainly has at least a two part qualification. One is the definition of “American,” and the other is historical. Admitting that all people’s stories must be included would be the first step in the process of defining and qualifying.

In terms of history, the selection of 1619 is arbitrary in the sense that it isolates the U.S. experience. The Africans who arrived at Point Comfort (Hampton, VA) in 1619 were immersed in a European human trade system controlled by Iberians and others, like the Dutch, that had already been in operation for 109 years. A decision made by Spanish monarchs in 1510 established Africans as the primary labor force for the Western Hemisphere to clear the land, produce the crops, work the mines, and develop the territory. The Africans, Angolans, who arrived in the Virginia colony were baptized Christians, and upon their arrival were sorted out basically as indentured servants, not as Europeans with any sovereign rights or protection. We are told historically from the beginning what they were not – free. Over the next fifty years the status of Africans and their descendants in the Virginia colony became more clearly defined, conveniently morphing into lifetime enslavement as the numbers of Africans increased based upon the demand for their labor, particularly related to tobacco.

The laws, customs, practices related to Africans and their descendants for the Virginia colony and the Chesapeake region were based upon codes already used in the British colonies of the Caribbean, especially Barbados, with bits borrowed from the French, Spanish and Portuguese as well. Race was legally defined: white (European) and non-white (African, Native American, mulatto) – simple, efficient. Within that fifty year span the evolution of African and Native American relations to the minority European population was rather clearly developed, tweaking and justification would transpire as needed over the next three hundred years.

Until recently, however, this history has been viewed from one perspective, and taught from that view point. When did the indigenous people of the Western Hemisphere become “Native American”, “Indian”? At what point did the African become the Creole or the African American? Who decided these terms? That depends upon which colony and history is examined. For those only studying Virginia, Ira Berlin states that for the first 100 years of enslavement Africans maintained their sense of African identity with only a gradual loss of language and cultural practices through the first two or three generations in the Chesapeake. Others argue that the African identity began to change during the Middle Passage; while another argument is that those of African descent have always protected and acknowledge their African identity. In other areas of the Black Atlantic where replacement of labor was larger and more frequent African cultural identity is more apparent and lasted longer, e.g. Brazil, Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica, the Gullah Geechee Corridor of the United States. Based on how we define ourselves does that affect behavior and choices made now and previously?

If we limit our study to the US in the Americas the irony is that even as this nation has elected its first president of African descent, some US citizens challenge whether he is truly American, and some within the African American community challenge whether he is really “one of us.” Simultaneously as we pursue these definitions we should also remember that the definition of “American” and “citizen” are two unique aspects, or are they? Legally on a national scale African Americans did not become American citizens until after the Civil War with the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution.

This conference should be stimulating and informing. We hope that many in the region will attend at least one day. Fortunately many sessions will be repeated both days, but if you have to choose we recommend that you come on Saturday, September 22, 2012. We look forward to seeing you there.

 

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