We are living in a “memory boom” he says. From Charleston to New York, the national mall and university halls, on land and at sea, we’ve been busy. Taking down and putting up. And taking down and putting up. Again. Monuments and memorials.
Remember they say. Remember. The accomplishments, the foundings, the triumphs (abolition not slavery).
Remember they say. Remember. The founding fathers (never founding mothers).
But whose memory?
Remember we say. Remember. The genocides. The wars. The crimes against humanity. Remember we say. “You stole us. You sold us. You owe us.”
Remember we say. Remember.
What do I remember about 1619?
It was summer, late summer. The heat was unbearable. The stench revolting. The agony excruciating. July–August 1619. The headlines read: “‘20 and odd Negroes’ from Africa [arrive] in Jamestown.”
20? Negroes? Africa? Their memories.
According to the historical record, “one of Virginia’s most distinctive event [was] the arrival in 1619 of ‘20 and odd Negroes’ from Africa in Jamestown.”1 This landing marked the arrival of the first Africans in America.
Imperfect. Impermanent. Unstable.
The historical record comes into dispute.
Not all historians agreed that the arriving 20 and odd were in fact Africans. Some argued the 20 and odd were “native to America” having ancestors forced into the Spanish islands a few generations before.
Africans? Native to America? Indigenous peoples’ erasure. Pardon the interruption.
March 1619. The Virginia Census lists thirty-two Negroes, 15 men and 17 women, already in Virginia “in the service of … planters.”2
Imperfect. Impermanent. Unstable.
The historical record is in dispute.
The historical record changed again in 1997 when one historian named Engel Sluiter revealed that the captives in 1619 were in fact from Africa and not the Caribbean. The 20 and odd were captured when the Sao Joao Bautista, a Portuguese slave ship inbound from Angola, was attacked by pirates piloting a Dutch man-of-war, the White Lion, and British ship, the Treasurer, off Campeche, on the Gulf of Mexico, in late July 1619. Diverted from their initial Vera Cruz destination, the pirates sold their stolen cargo in Virginia.
For others, colonizing Virginia was still a dream in 1619, well beyond the reach of English adventurers. When the English finally brought Virginia to heel almost half a century later, it was after many “false starts.” English conquest and plantations in Ireland, the lost colony of Roanoke, and the “laboratory” of the Caribbean and Bermuda collectively, though not equally, shaped Virginia’s (and by extension America’s) founding and early development. Not just 1619.3
The English were latecomers to the Americas. When the English finally arrived at the end of the 1500s, Spain was already transitioning from the genocidal forced labor of indigenous peoples to exploiting Africans in various degrees from Mexico and Peru, Hispaniola and Cuba, to Florida and the Carolinas. Africans worked as pearl divers and pilots and performed both skilled and menial labor in Spanish fields, factories, mines, and homes. They were also integral to Spain’s expeditions of conquest and military defense as captains and musketeers. Africans were both free and enslaved. The African presence in the Americas did not begin in Virginia in 1619, and their presence and interactions with Europeans, beginning with the Iberians, was defined by more than “possession and dispossession.” Economic transactions forced the 20 and odd from the Sao Joao Bautista, but all Africans were not yet reduced to slaves who would then be reduced to Blacks. The racialization of people of African descent and the legal codification of African enslavement remained in flux in 1619.
Racialization nonetheless. Enslavement nonetheless.
Research. Rethink. Revise.
The nature of history.
What to Africans and their descendants is 1619?
Kongo, the Kingdom of Kongo 1616. It was a time of war, many great wars and a few small ones too. But the biggest of all was between King Alvaro III and his uncles. Everyone wanted to be king, and everyone thought their claim was more legitimate than the other. I remember very few people died in those wars, but many disappeared.
I remember the stories. Man-eaters they said had invaded our lands, taking our people to be cooked and eaten. The man-eaters paid plenty to the witches: their craft, the alchemy of turning flesh into gold. After a while, we were no longer sure if the wars were just — if ever there was just war — or it was just war to create more supply.
Either way, the result was the same. The war for slaves and the wars of succession that turned humans to commodity were plotted by “greedy and selfish people … unconcerned for” the people, the families, the communities disrupted, dispossessed, destroyed.
It seemed all of us were destined to be eaten. 1619 was my turn.
War captives, they called us: judicial enslavement, justly captured, fairly traded. There were those of us who spoke Kimbundu and Umbundu languages, others Kikongo. There were those of us who were from the province of Nsundi, to the east and others of us from the South, just across the Kwanza River. But to the Imbangala mercenaries and their royal and foreign brethren, we were just “delectable flesh,” to be consumed.
To each other we became kin, for though we spoke different languages, had different names, and bore different marks, the horror, the uncertainty, the brutality, and our shared fate tied us inextricably in kinship and community.
Remember I say, remember it all.
Be not dismayed by their archives. For their tabulations, calculations, and violent ministrations do not define us. For we are not bundle one and bundle two to be divided between Mary Ann and Margaret Sue. I am. Silence. Absence.
My silence is my voice, my silence is my choice.
My secret is my choice to tell when I choose, but listen closely for not all who hear can know. One by one we build our community. Two by two we bind our wounds. Three by three we rise, stronger still.
Forged in the blood of mothers, fathers, and our babies. Our rituals, our beliefs, melded together to heal and bring us together. Just like my mother and her mother and her mother before we go to the river to wash and to pray. Water to cleanse, earth to bind, fire to strengthen, wind to guide. Sisters together we pray, sisters together we say, come now spirit enfold and protect, mother and child, healer and deliverer.
Remember I say, remember it all.
Take these with you, they are the vessels for the spirit to guide and protect, to open and embolden, for thorny is the path and difficult the travail. But come again, for before your time is nigh, we must again entreat and invoke, the spirits to guide.
We must again tell stories to remember who we are, to distract and hide the pain from spirit mother. Our groans and our moans will tell the wrong story, a rejection of the great gift of mothering.
Our silence is our voice, our silence is our choice to embrace this new life, to bare bravely the pains of travail. To carry the legacy of the 20 and odd, the 351, the millions.
Remember I say, remember us all.
Remember I say, remember them all.
- Peter C. Mancall, “Introduction” The Atlantic World and Virginia, 1550-1624 edited by Peter Mancall, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007, p. 16. ↩
- William Thorndale, “The Virginia Census of 1619,” Magazine of Virginia Genealogy, 33 (1995), p. 155-70. ↩
- Philip D. Morgan, “Virginia’s Other Prototype: The Caribbean,” The Atlantic World and Virginia, 1550-1624 edited by Peter Mancall, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007, p.342-380. ↩