In an address given on August 23, 2015, to an audience gathered at Faneuil Hall in Boston, Massachusetts, for an ancestral remembrance ceremony to commemorate enslaved Africans, Massachusetts State Representative Byron Rushing made a remark that struck a chord – that sanctioned enslavement existed in the United States over a longer period than there has been emancipation. In his speech, Rushing marked 1619 as the starting point, but to be accurate when referencing the United States of America we have to begin the timeline from 1513, with the arrival of the Spanish in Florida.
Institutional enslavement of Africans, slavery sanctioned by state and church, arrived on European ships and flourished for more than three centuries, from 1513 to 1865 (352 years), and it will not be until 2217 that national emancipation, which began in 1863, will equal that length of time. What does it mean when measured in time to be not even halfway into freedom and full citizenship for Black people? This prolonged history may explain the continued legacy of racism and prejudice, certainly, and the constant effort required to recognize and push against these vestiges of slavery that are experienced daily. To reverse the attitudes and habits that maintained this level of injustice and inhumanity will mean that each of us will have to raise our personal awareness of this history and its ramifications.
There are young people today who would state that they are not racist and that they are living in a post racial society. There are people who emphatically argue that in no way are they attached to or responsible for enslavement. If, as Ta Nehisi Coates and others contend, racism is part of the very fabric of our national identity, then reparation and healing will require more extensive methods than simply good intention and legislation. As a nation, we have to examine how we got here and where we want to go, especially with regard to economic, social, and cultural structures.
The nation is one year away from another presidential election, and already the candidate getting the most media attention is the one who espouses racist views. Little or no critical analysis is even taking place in the public forum, Many are actually enjoying the entertainment while others are disgusted. For the majority of US citizens there is a wait and see posture, as if someone, some external power force, will decide what the issues are and which candidates we should seriously consider. It is all too passive. There is a saying that all that is needed for evil to triumph is for us to do nothing. Nationally this appears to be the common stance.
It is inhuman that across this country Black and Brown lives continue to be endangered or unjustly ended, but once we understand that we are not that far removed from America’s history of enslavement, it is not surprising. The phrase “the struggle continues” is not a cliche. After all, not until 2217, if all remains the same, can our descendants draw a line in the sand and honestly declare that efforts to nationally repair and heal the wrongs resulting from Black enslavement have failed, because that is when the number of years Africans and their descendants were enslaved equals the number of years we have been free. Unfortunately, the nation may run out of time before that.
Where to start? Learn your national and local history. Visit the places where it all began. Over the next five years cities are celebrating their colonial “births,” and in each of these places Blacks made contributions – from the beginning. There are 41 documented African arrival sites in the United States from New Hampshire to Texas. Are the African presence and contributions publicly recognized; where and how are they acknowledged; and what is the general status of people of color in each of these places? That should at least point us in the general direction of how to proceed.