Real Talk | Commemorating 1619 in the right way

Real Talk | Commemorating 1619 in the right way

Some events are of such magnitude that even those who dread their impact are forced to acknowledge their significance. The looming 400-year anniversary of the arrival in Virginia Colony of the "20 and odd" Africans from Angola, most likely Ambundu people from the Kingdom of Ndongo, in late August 1619 is such an incident.

Given its importance, even the ardent white supremacist, Donald Trump, signed HR 1242, the "400 Years of African-American History Commission Act." The legislation authorizes the commission to commemorate Africans' arrival in North America by planning and supporting programming and research that acknowledges the impact of slavery and legal racial discrimination on the development of the U.S.

As we prepare to commemorate the 400-year anniversary of Africans' arrival, we should be mindful to use this opportunity to reassess the entire narrative of the African presence, not only in the U.S., but more broadly in the Americas. It's important that we take this opportunity to counter white supremacist mythology with history, especially the narrative of settler colonialism.

The late black studies scholar Lerone Bennett Jr. shined a floodlight on a little-known historical fact when he titled his first book, "Before the Mayflower" (1962). By highlighting African-Americans' African ancestors' arrival ahead of the country's most revered European settler colonists, Bennett challenged U.S. history. Bennett and other scholars point out that Jamestown was a sparsely populated, struggling, 12-year-old corporate venture when the Angolans arrived.

The "20 and odd" Ambundu who ironically disembarked at "Old Comfort Point" were most likely captured by Portuguese invaders during the second Portuguese-Ndongo War. This conflict brought Queen Nzinga Mbandi to power and launched her 60-year war against Portuguese invasion and the slave trade.

As the centerpiece of the charter generation of Africans forcibly brought to what became the U.S., the Ambundu both contributed to the Virginia Colony through their knowledge and labor and laid the basis for the construction of a distinct African community.

Many of the Ambundu purchased by the English colonists were familiar with Christianity and likely Catholics. They came from a variety of classes, but from the same region, shared a common language, political affiliation and other cultural attributes.

However, the Ambundu were not the first Africans to come to the Americas or even North America. In 1526, Spain imported enslaved Africans into San Miguel de Gualdape, a settlement in what is now Georgia. Within three months, Africans and the indigenous Guale joined together to destroy the colony and drive the Spanish out.

Historians who emphasize the Atlantic world or the African Diaspora, such as Michael Guasco, view the commemoration 1619 as fallacious. From those analytical frameworks, the 1619 date ignores a longer and broader history of African enslavement in the Americas.

According to Guasco, that date narrowly focuses on the English-controlled North American mainland. He also contends such an emphasis perpetuates a narrative that normalizes the European presence while simultaneously presenting the African presence as "abnormal" and "impermeant," as "forever strangers in a strange land."

Neither Europeans nor Africans are native to North America. Thus, any celebration of 1619 should stress that it is a defining moment in the march toward settler colonialism. Specifically, commemoration activities should emphasize that the decision to adopt slavery, unthinking or not, necessitated the dispossession and genocide of the indigenous peoples.

Guasco's diasporic vision negates ethnogenesis, the process by which the various African peoples deposited in specific locations throughout the Americas remade themselves in the furnace of slavery into particular African descended nationalities, e.g., African-Americans, Afro-Brazilians, Jamaicans, etc. Sixteen-Nineteen is not a commemoration of what historian Walter Rodney called "the European Slave Trade." Rather, it, like Juneteenth, is specific to the African-American sociohistorical experience and should be commemorated as particular to that national group.

Nonetheless, it is important to locate the significance of 1619 within a longer and broader framework. The Atlantic world framework suggested by Guasco and the African diasporic framework are necessary, but problematic and insufficient. In addition to evading the particularity of place these frameworks are preeminently Eurocentric. That is, they stress the role of Africans as part — whether in support of or in opposition to — the European colonizing mission.

It's important that we use the 1619 celebration to introduce an alternative narrative of exploration. Africans were not only "brought" to the Americas by their European capturers, they also came on their own initiative. Shihab al-Umari, a 14th-century Arab historian, reports Mansa Kankan Musa informing him that his brother Abubakari Keita II abdicated the throne to sail across the Atlantic Ocean. Evidence, including from Christopher Columbus, suggests an African presence in the Americas.

Commemoration of 1619 should rightly focus on the development of slavery and racial oppression and resistance to them in the U.S. We should use the "400 Years of African-American History Commission Act" to renew the struggle to make African- American history a permanent course of instruction in elementary and secondary schools. Celebrations of 1619 should contextualize the arrival of "20 and odd" Ambundu as part of a longer and broader slave trade to the Americas. And they should note that the dispossession and genocide of the indigenous nations occurred in concert with the enslavement of Africans.

Sundiata Cha-Jua is a professor of African-American studies and history at the University of Illinois and is a member of the North End Breakfast Club. His email is

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