As I have been reflecting on the 400th anniversary of the landing of Africans in Jamestown, Virginia, in August 1619, it has been interesting to read articles from prominent historians like Davison College’s Michael Guasco, who have explained that these captives were not the first slaves in the U.S. In a 2017 piece for the African American Intellectual History Society, Guasco pointed out that as early as 1526, a Spanish expedition carried enslaved Africans to “an outpost on the North American coast in present-day South Carolina.” The slaves later rebelled, forcing the Spanish to leave their settlement.
It is apparent that many school textbooks set 1619 as the beginning of American slavery, which is now well disputed, but historians agree that the Jamestown date was significant in ushering in this dark era of servility.
Discussing the legacy of slavery in this country is still very difficult centuries later. Much of the tension is due to the racial prejudice and discrimination that unfortunately remains. Having an honest dialogue can also be awkward and uncomfortable when recalling the horrors of the trans-Atlantic trade. Over 11 million Africans were forced to become human cargo. Many died from disease and filth. And the chattel system of the South — with its grueling, backbreaking labor in the fields and rape and sexual abuse of black female house servants — is by no means a pleasant topic to revisit. In current political and scholarly discourse on present racial disparities in employment, education and the criminal justice system, references are often made to slavery and the post-emancipation period that followed with segregation and Jim Crow laws. So it is no surprise that many Americans believe that slavery still impacts the lives of blacks today.
In June, the Pew Research Center published a survey that showed 26% of whites, 29% of Hispanics and 33% of Asians agree that slavery affects the position of blacks “a great deal.” Fifty-nine percent of blacks strongly agree with this statement. When asked about racial equality, 64% of blacks are doubtful that we’ll get there, and an overall 45% of respondents think our country has not done enough to provide blacks equal rights. Whites were much more optimistic, with 80% believing that blacks will continue to progress toward equal rights.
Count me in on the optimism. I say this not in ignorance of the systemic problems that still persist, but I draw from strength of faith and personal testimony in my family. I am the fourth generation removed from slavery on my mother’s side. My maternal roots are in Athens, Georgia, and I grew up hearing about the industriousness of my great-grandfather, who became a land- and homeowner during the height of the Jim Crow South. When he proposed to my great-grandmother, who was a sharecropper in Walton County in the late 1880s, he promised her she would never have to pick cotton again. Ma Ida, as my great-grandmother was affectionately called by her children, became a stay-at-home mom decades before that phrase was coined, and my great-grandfather made a decent living doing landscaping work.
I often think about my great-grandfather’s favorite hymn, “A Charge to Keep I Have,” particularly focusing on the first line of the last verse, which says, “Help me to watch and pray, And on Thyself rely.” As a young black man living in Georgia during a time when lynchings were prevalent and long before the modern civil rights movement of the ’60s, my great-grandfather chose to put his trust in God and prayed for a better future for himself and his family. He chose hope over fear and love over hate, despite the fact that the color of his skin relegated him to second-class citizenship.
I know that my family is just one small example of racial progress in this country. But when thinking about slavery’s legacy after 400 years, I am grateful that I have the opportunity to live an abundant life. My great-grandfather was successful just one generation removed from slavery. With God’s grace and favor, I am the essence of that success today.
Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at The Ohio State University-Lima. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. @JjSmojc