The original 2019 special feature of The New York Times Magazine has been expanded into a weighty and impressive book. I read all 480 pages. It is a major contribution to telling the undertold story of Black people in this country, from the first slaves bought by Jamestown settlers in 1619 to the present.
Standard American histories of the sort demanded by conservatives today give short shrift to this story because it doesn’t fit well with the image of intrepid pilgrims and pioneers conquering a continent and creating the World’s Greatest Democracy. Yes, we did wipe out most of the Indians, but what a wonderful society replaced them, “a shining city on a hill.” Yes, we did unfortunately have slavery, but we got rid of it after the Civil War, and we got rid of remaining discrimination with the civil rights laws of the 1960s. Since then, it’s just taken some tinkering.
This book is a highly readable antidote to that standard history. Consisting of individual chapters by such authors as Jamelle Bouie, Carol Anderson and Ibram X. Kendi on topics such as “Race,” “Sugar,” “Capitalism,” 'Church,” and “Music,” each chapter is framed by original poetry and short fiction by authors such as Jesmyn Ward, Natasha Trethewey and Sonia Sanchez. It is an elegant way to tell a hard story.
Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of the project, appropriately introduces it and writes the first chapter, “Democracy.” She reports that she didn’t understand why her father insisted on flying the American flag When his country treated Blacks so badly. She says that he
“knew what it would take me years to understand: that the year 1619 is as important to the American story as 1776. That Black Americans, as much as those cast in alabaster in the nation’s capital, are this nation’s true founding fathers. And that no people has a greater claim to that flag than we do.” (p. 11)
Khalil Gibran Muhammad’s fine chapter on “Sugar” follows that industry in Louisiana from its easiest days in the 18th century up to the present, documenting the cruelty of enslavers driving their workers, often to the point of death. He shows how, even today, sugar oppresses Black people. I was surprised they didn’t have a chapter on “Cotton,” whose influence reached much farther.
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Leslie Alexander and Michelle Alexander extensively explore the pervasive fear that
Whites have felt about Blacks, from the earliest days to the murder of George Floyd on the streets of Minneapolis in 2020.
The book acknowledges Native or Indigenous Americans as, with Blacks, the only populations that didn’t ask to be part of this country. Tiya Miles’ chapter, “Dispossession,” explores that theme in some depth.
Nikole Hannah-Jones’ concluding chapter, “Justice,” makes a strong case for reparations which I am not prepared to deny, even though our society is not presently at that place. We hear the argument that slavery was bad, but that was then. Today we treat everyone as an individual. Or, slavery was bad, but my ancestors immigrated long after that, so how could we be guilty? There are many such rationalizations.
White people need to accept that just being White in American society conveys an advantage because we are not subject to the many burdens imposed on Blacks in the 400 years since slavery was established in Jamestown. This starts with the difference between limited-term servitude for White indentured servants and slavery for life for Blacks.
It carries right up to the present day: many Whites are not aware that Blacks were systematically excluded from such New Deal programs as Social Security, because agricultural and domestic workers were not covered, and that was what most Blacks did for a living. Confined to poor, segregated neighborhoods, Blacks could not get a VA or FHA mortgage because their neighborhoods were “red-lined” as bad credit risks.
The long term result was that Whites built a solid middle class and Blacks were not permitted to do the same. Today, Blacks have only 10 percent of the wealth as Whites with comparable qualifications.
It’s not because of Black character flaws. We have screwed them over for 400 years. We owe them.