» August 18th, 2019

Today’s New York Times‘ Magazine issue was based on the single and profound conceit that slavery began in the American colonies in 1619. In terms of editorial packaging, it was an editor’s dream. Consider: the 400-year anniversary of the defining scar on our nation’s past–slavery– coinciding with a white supremacist president who has revived the racism our better angels have tried, however inadequately, to resolve and redeem. You’d be a fool not to make the most of this anniversary.

But the problem is that 1619/slavery connection is wrong. It’s factually not the date slavery began in what Jake Silverstein, the magazine’s editor, implies was “our nation.” There was no “our nation” in 1619. There was England. And her colonies. “The country’s true birth date” was not, as Silverstein tells us, 1619. It was in fact 1776. But the problem here is not with the ridiculous ahistorical implication that the US was somehow accountable for what happened a 150 years before its founding. It’s rather with the more complicated origins of North American slavery itself.

I’m not going to belabor things too much here. But I only want to make two quick and essential points: a) the arrival of 20-30 slaves in 1619 cannot be characterized as having “inaugurated a barbaric system of chattel slavery”; and b) it does the world of elite journalism, much less those of us who want to trust it, no good to hinge its truly noble commitment to righting historical injustice on bad history.

Now, to succinctly elaborate the former claim: The 20-30 Africans who disembarked in Virginia might have been slaves on the ship from which they disembarked. But when their feet hit Virginia soil they were by no means slaves, at least in terms of what slavery would become. There were as yet no slave codes in Virginia, only an array of contractual agreements dealing with indentured servants. It was into the wide framework of these indentured arrangements that these 20-30 Africans were incorporated into Virginia’s tobacco economy. These black servants–not slaves– enjoyed some level of legal protection on par with white indentured servants. As Edmund Morgan has shown, black and white servants toiled together, sued their masters’ together, escaped together, and even made it through their servitude and owned land together. Indeed, Anthony Johnson, a black servant who fulfilled his contract, eventually grabbed up land and worked it with white indentured servants!

The origin of American slavery actually came in 1676, when black and white servants linked arms and rebelled, quite violently, against their masters, in an event known as Bacon’s Rebellion. Tidewater masters, realizing that racism could diffuse the class tension that almost left their heads in a pile of rubble, began to impose slave codes as the dust of the this massacre settled.  Perhaps slave codes might ensure that the poorest whites would no longer unite with blacks. Rather, due to legal designations, those whites could feel a sense of superiority to blacks, and even some affinity with the rich whites. Slavery could pull that off.

Trump’s race baiting makes a hell of a lot more sense in this more accurate narrative. But–and to point b– I imagine the NYT Magazine wasn’t willing to wait another half century to get history right. Upshot (a word the journos love): the 1619 gambit is a darling that should have been killed.


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