STORY: “Litany of the Generations” by Gail Forsyth-Vail and James C. Leach
Today we are commemorating an important anniversary. It was 400 years ago that the first Africans were brought to this continent, the one we now call America. Today we’ll try to imagine what 400 years looks like, measured in people. We’ll be making a human timeline.
(One at a time, 17 volunteers come forward to make a line across the front of the Sanctuary.)
- You represent the first generation of West African people who were kidnapped and brought to Jamestown as slaves in year 1619 — arriving before the pilgrims came to Plymouth Rock.
- You represent the children of those people, born between 1625 and 1650. You remain enslaved alongside others as slave trading develops.
- You represent the children’s children, the 3rd generation, of those Jamestown slaves. Born between 1650 and 1675, you remain enslaved throughout the colonies in both north and south.
- You represent the children’s children’s children, the 4th generation, of those Jamestown slaves, born between 1675 and 1700.
- You represent the fifth generation, born between 1700 and 1725. Many more European Anglos have arrived here now and continue to claim the land as their own. Certain cities and towns are centers of great wealth, in part because you remain enslaved.
- You represent the 6th generation, born between 1725 and 1750. Many Indigenous, Native Americans have been driven out to make way for the expanding population in these British colonies. But you are still here and still enslaved.
- You represent the children’s children’s children’s children’s children’s children, the 7th generation, born between 1750 and 1775. The colonies have begun a push for independence, stating that “all men are created equal.” That claim does not include you since you are still enslaved.
- You represent the 8th generation, born between 1775 and 1800. The British colonies are now the United States. Some enslaved people from northern towns were even forced to fight in the American Revolution. The early presidents include enslavers. Thousands more West African people arrive here in chains. You remain enslaved.
- You represent the 9th generation, born between 1800 and 1825. This country’s population is booming. Textile mills in the North demand more cotton and make more profits for privileged owners. So farmers in the South, with free labor, grow more and more cotton, and thus need more and more slaves. As enslaved people continue to arrive here, you too remained enslaved.
- You represent the 10th generation, born between 1825 and 1850. Native Americans are still being forced from their lands, many die or are slaughtered. The United States has taken a huge piece of Mexico and now rules over its Spanish-speaking citizens. There are now groups of people writing and speaking against slavery, and yet . . . . you remain enslaved.
- You represent the 11th generation of the Jamestown slaves, born between 1850 and 1875. The country has fought a Civil War. After 244 years, slavery has officially ended. You are emancipated. You are the eleventh generation to live here but the first to do so out from under the specter of slavery. You are poor, uneducated; many people in the north and south are working hard to limit your rights.
- You represent the 12th generation, born between 1875 and 1900. After a brief period of empowerment, the Supreme Court has now ruled that separate is not only permissible, it is necessary. You are no longer a slave, but the law says you have fewer rights and privileges than white people.
- You represent the 13th generation, born between 1900 and 1925. The NAACP comes into existence. A world war is fought with black soldiers amongst the U.S. troops. They return home to intense oppression. Lynchings take place from Maine to California. A black migration from south to north fosters new forms of segregation and exclusion in northern cities. You still live and work under laws that separate you from white people and your children attend schools that are clearly inferior.
- You represent the 14th generation, born between 1925 and 1950. The country suffers the Great Depression, fights in the Second World War. Just as in the rest of society, people of color in the army are kept separate from white people. Whole towns full of new homes are built after the war for the returning soldiers. People of color are not allowed to live in those towns.
- You represent the children born between 1950 and 1975. You witnessed Brown vs. Board of Education, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the March on Washington, Selma, Civil Rights legislation. Martin and Malcolm. Cities north and south continue to fight vigorously against school desegregation for the 15th generation of the Jamestown slaves.
- You represent the children born between 1975 and 2000. In that time there’s a Black Power movement and the declaration that Black is Beautiful. We have finally elected a few African Americans to Congress. School integration is finally the goal but not really the practice for the 16th generation of descendants of the Jamestown slaves. And, housing is still woefully segregated in cities north and south.
- You represent the generation born since 2000. In that time we’ve had an African American president and one following him, bent on repealing every step forward. We have an astounding incarceration rate for African Americans. We have some blacks in position of authority locally and nationally. It’s been almost four centuries since, 17 generations back, your forebears arrived here. And some people still question whether black lives really matter.
“1619,” words (edited) by Nikole Hannah-Jones, from the New York Times 1619 Project
They say our people were born on the water.
When it occurred, no one can say for certain. Perhaps it was in the second week, or the third, but surely by the fourth, when they had not seen their land or any land for so many days that they lost count. It was after the fear had turned to despair and the despair to resignation and the resignation gave way, finally, to resolve.
They knew then that they would not hug their grandmothers again, or share a laugh with a cousin during his nuptials, or sing their baby softly to sleep with the same lullabies that their mothers had once sung to them. The teal eternity of the Atlantic Ocean had severed them so completely that it was as if everything they ever knew had simply vanished from the earth.
Some could not bear the realization. They heaved themselves over the walls of wooden ships to swim one last time with their ancestors. Others refused to eat, mouths clamped shut until their hearts gave out. But in the suffocating hull of a ship called the White Lion, bound for where they did not know, those who refused to die understood that the men and women chained next to them in the dark were no longer strangers. They had been forged in trauma. They had been made black by those who believed themselves to be white. And where they were headed, black equaled ‘slave.’ So these were their people now.
In August 1619, just 12 years after the English settled Jamestown, Va., one year before the Puritans landed at Plymouth Rock and some 157 years before the English colonists even decided they wanted to form their own country, the Jamestown colonists bought 20 to 30 enslaved Africans from English pirates. The pirates had stolen them from a Portuguese slave ship that had forcibly taken them from what is now the country of Angola. Those men and women who came ashore on that August day were the beginning of American slavery. They were among the 12.5 million Africans who would be kidnapped from their homes and brought in chains across the Atlantic Ocean in the largest forced migration in human history until the
Second World War. Almost two million did not survive the grueling journey, known as the Middle Passage.
Massachusetts was the first slave-holding colony in New England. Samuel Maverick, apparently New England’s first slaveholder, arrived in Massachusetts in 1624 with two slaves.
By the early 1700s New England merchants pursued the slave trade aggressively. From fewer than 200 slaves in 1676, the Massachusetts slave population jumped to about 2,000 in 1715. In 1752, Boston was about 10 percent black. A 1754 census listed nearly 4500 slaves in the Massachusetts colony.[1
The chief families were among the chief slavers. Cornelius Waldo, relative of Unitarian minister Ralph Waldo Emerson, was a slave merchant on a large scale. His ship, Africa, plied the Middle Passage packed with 200 black people at a time crammed below-decks. Peter Fanueil, meanwhile, inherited one of the largest fortunes of his day, which was built in large part on his uncle’s slave trade. His philanthropy gave Boston its famed Fanueil Hall.
We don’t know much about practices here in Melrose, which in those days was part of Malden. But we do know that in neighboring Medford, in 1734, 27 enslaved people were held by the merchant Isaac Royall. Some of their names: Joseph, Plato, Phebe, Abraham, Cooper, Stephy, George, Nancy and Betsey.
Slavery and the American Economy words (edited) by Matthew Desmond, from the New York Times 1619 Project
Slavery was undeniably a font of phenomenal wealth. By the eve of the Civil War, cotton grown and picked by enslaved workers was the nation’s most valuable export.
Cotton was to the 19th century what oil was to the 20th: among the world’s most widely traded commodities. .. . But cotton needed land. A field could only tolerate a few straight years of the crop before its soil became depleted.
The United States solved its land shortage by expropriating millions of acres from Native Americans, often with military force, acquiring Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and Florida. It then sold that land on the cheap — just $1.25 an acre in the early 1830s ($38 in today’s dollars) — to white settlers.
Enslaved workers felled trees by ax, burned the underbrush and leveled the earth for planting. As slave labor camps spread throughout the South, production surged. By 1831, the country was delivering nearly half the world’s raw cotton crop, with 350 million pounds picked that year. Just four years later, it harvested 500 million pounds.
Southern white elites grew rich, as did their counterparts in the North, who erected textile mills, which propelled the Industrial Revolution and changed the course of history. Cotton planters, millers and consumers were fashioning a new economy, one that was global in scope. The beating heart of this new system was slavery.
During slavery, writes the historian Joshua Rothman, “Americans built a culture of speculation unique in its abandon.” That culture has been a defining characteristic of American capitalism ever since. It is the culture of acquiring wealth without work, growing at all costs and abusing the powerless. It is the culture that brought us the Panic of 1837, the stock- market crash of 1929 and the recession of 2008. It is the culture that has produced staggering, growing inequality.
If today America promotes a particular kind of low-road capitalism — a union-busting capitalism of poverty wages, gig jobs and normalized insecurity; a winner-take-all capitalism of stunning disparities; a racist capitalism that ignores the fact that slavery didn’t just deny black freedom but built white fortunes— one reason is that American capitalism was founded on the lowest road there is.
Emancipation words (edited) by Nikole Hannah-Jones, from the New York Times 1619 Project
On Aug. 14, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln called a group of five esteemed free black men to the White House for a meeting. It was one of the few times that black people had ever been invited to the White House.
The war was not going well for Lincoln. The president was weighing a proclamation to emancipate all enslaved people. But Lincoln worried about what the consequences of this radical step would be.
After exchanging a few niceties, Lincoln got right to it. He informed his guests that he had gotten Congress to appropriate funds to ship black people, once freed, to another country.
You see, like many white Americans, Lincoln opposed slavery but he also opposed black equality. He believed that free black people were a “troublesome presence” incompatible with a democracy intended only for white people. “Free them, and make them politically and socially our equals?” he had said four years earlier. “My own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not.”
After that meeting, the five black leaders made it clear that they were not interested in taking Lincoln up on his offer to leave the country of their birth. By choosing to stay, black people were saying, this is our country. We are American, and we’re actually going to work to make these founding ideals a reality.
The Legacy of Slavery words (edited) by Nikole Hannah-Jones, from the New York Times 1619 Project
The United States is a nation founded on both an ideal and a lie. Our Declaration of Independence proclaims that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” But the white men who drafted those words did not believe them to be true for the hundreds of thousands of black people already in their midst. “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” did not apply to fully one-fifth of the country.
Yet despite being violently denied the freedom and justice promised to all, black Americans believed fervently in the American creed. Through centuries of black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals. Under Reconstruction, African Americans, finally and only briefly serving in Congress, pushed for the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, which opened up rights to citizenship, voting, and non-discrimination beyond white men. 100 years later, during the Civil Rights era, black Americans forced America to uphold those rights. These black struggles paved the way for every other rights struggle, including women’s and gay rights, immigrant and disability rights.
Without the idealistic, strenuous and patriotic efforts of black Americans, our democracy today would most likely look very different — it might not be a democracy at all.
When I was a child — I must have been in fifth or sixth grade — a teacher gave our class an assignment intended to celebrate the diversity of the great American melting pot. She instructed each of us to write a short report on our ancestral land and then draw that nation’s flag.
As she turned to write the assignment on the board, the other black girl in class locked eyes with me. Slavery had erased any connection we had to an African country, and even if we tried to claim the whole continent, there was no “African” flag. It was hard enough being one of two black kids in the class, and this assignment would just be another reminder of the distance between the white kids and us. In the end, I walked over to the globe near my teacher’s desk, picked a random African country and claimed it as my own.
I wish, now, that I could go back to the younger me and tell her that her people’s ancestry started here, on these lands, and to boldly, proudly, draw the stars and those stripes of the American flag.
We were told once, by virtue of our bondage, that we could never be American. But it was by virtue of our bondage that we became the most American of all.
RITUAL “The Deep Well of Black Lives” by the Rev. Kristen L. Harper