As recently brought to the public consciousness by journalistic experiments like the New York Times’ 1619 Project, August 2019 marks 400 years since the first documented arrival of Africans in English-colonized America at Point Comfort, Virginia. These so-documented “20 And odd Negroes” had been kidnapped in Angola and packed along with 350 other enslaved Africans aboard a Portuguese ship on a course for Mexico. Mid-voyage, the ship was attacked by English pirates who sold the human cargo in the American Colonies.While there is some academic and ethical debate over chosing this incident to mark the definitive beginning of the Atlantic slave trade (as Spansh-speaking slaves arrived a full century earlier), the cultural event shaping up around the 1619 commemoration gives us an opportunity to reflect on the massive topic of slavery and its lasting impact on global society. 

The heritage of the Atlantic slave trade still lingers, causing ongoing psyhchological, economic, and physical harm spanning multiple cultural divides. We have a responsibility as humanists to be aware of this in order to seek solutions.

One major myth to confront (partly perpetuated by watered-down treatment of slavery in American schools) is that the nominal end of slavery was the beginning of the end of American racism. One important perspective adjustment we can give ourselves is to deepen our understanding that the opposite is true. 

“Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the white; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions, which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.” -Thomas Jefferson

Racism and white supremacy, historians argue, were invented in order justify slavery. Formerly, religious justifications had been used, as the church sanctioned the slavery of non-Christians. As slaves converted and the church became more diverse, new justifications for African slavery had to be invented. Biblical justifications— such as the notion that Africans inherited a curse placed on Ham for his sins— lingered in the public consciousness and have since mutated into the foundations of modern white supremacy. 

Ideologies like this allowed millions to rationalize the buying, selling, and debasing of human beings for over 400 years. Today, these doctrines continue to influence the collective psychology of  all Americans regardless of race, and continue to influence how we treat problems that afflict modern African Americans. This psychology informs our collective tendency to place the onus for black inequality on a failure of “personal responsibility” while deflecting attention from systemic racism— including inequalities in education, wealth, voting rights, and criminal justice.

As humanists, we must be willing to look unflinchingly at the psychology of racism we've inherited in order to overcome it. 

On this year's occasion, we can start by educating ourselves on the slave trade and ask ourselves what attitudes we may have adopted from it.

Suggested reading:

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