Leonard Pitts Jr

‘Where do we go from here?’ After 400 years, African Americans continue to walk a long and winding road

It is said that the ship came in out of a raging storm to land at Point Comfort in what is now Hampton, Virginia, just downriver from the English settlement at Jamestown. No one thought to record the date, except that it was in late August of 1619 — 400 years ago.

George Washington would not be born until 1732. The Mayflower would not bring the Pilgrims to North America until the following year.

The vessel that landed that day was an English ship called the White Lion and she carried cargo taken in an attack upon a Spanish ship in the Gulf of Mexico. Arriving in Virginia, the captain agreed to trade his stolen goods for “victuals.”

It may have been the most portentous bargain ever struck.

Because the White Lion brought rhythm and blues to America. It brought B-Boy swagger, Jesus moans, stormy Monday and melancholy trumpet solos that seemed to stretch for Miles. It brought uh huh and uh uh and mmm hmm and okra and banjo and bongo and juke and jive and what is hip. It brought the color purple and the bluest eye, brought Porgy and Bess and Jesse B Semple, brought the invisible man and ain’t I a woman, too. It brought nightmares and an incandescent dream.

In other words, it brought black people — “20 and odd Negroes” kidnapped from Angola and rechristened with European names: Antoney, Isabela, William, Angela, Frances, Margaret, John, Edward and more. They were hardly the first Africans in the so-called New World. African explorers had traipsed these shores for at least a century — far longer, by some reckonings.

But though they weren’t the first Africans in America, they were the first forced into indentured servitude, the system that became slavery. A few years later, Antoney and Isabella had a child they named William Tucker, after their white master. He was the first black child born in America. He is where African-American history begins.

Bob Adelman Library of Congress

Four hundred years later, that history deposits us here, on a monumental anniversary in the midst of a strange and unsettling time. The most nakedly racist president since Andrew Johnson. Victories long ago won being unraveled. Voting rights under assault. Unarmed black people routinely killed under color of authority. Mass incarceration devastating whole communities. The wealth gap and the health gap and the education gap yawning wide. And barbecuing while black is a thing.

Four hundred years later, it seems fair to wonder. Where are we? The Miami Herald posed that question to six people, a cross-section of observers. The answers that came back were uniform in their sense of sober disheartenment.

Robin DiAngelo, who is white and the author of “White Fragility,” says we are living through a “particularly terrifying moment.”

Jemele Hill, former ESPN host, staff writer for the Atlantic and host of the “Jemele Hill is Unbothered” podcast, says it feels like “we’re in a state of limbo.”

And Yvette Nicole Brown, an actress known for her roles in “Community” and “Avengers:Endgame,” as well as for a feisty Twitter presence that tackles issues of race and inequity head on, says simply, “I’m scared. If I’m honest, I’m really scared.”

Maybe William Tucker was scared too. About the first African American, we know almost nothing. It is not unreasonable to believe, however, that the child born in 1623 or ’24 may have lived long enough to see the system of indentured servitude in which he was reared change into something more sinister.

As Dr. Hilary Jones, associate professor of history at Florida International University, reminds us, indentured servitude was not a hard and fast racial caste system. “For example,” she says, “at Jamestown, there were intermixed and intermingling between enslaved African people and European indentured servants. There were mixed-race populations, there were some liberties and freedoms that we might not associate with the plantation economies that grow up a century or so later. By 1700, the laws have changed, the interaction between what we say as white and black now or slave and free completely changes in order to subjugate black people to structures of power that are based on ideologies of slave ownership.”

That ideology mandated the complete cradle-to-grave possession of one group of people by another based on color of skin, a 17th-century construction called race. “Four hundred years later,” says Jones, “we are living with the legacy of that racial segregation, of the laws, the way in which the commercial system was organized, to rely solely on African slave labor or black slave labor.”

So where do we go from here? The Herald posed that question to the same six people, and the answers that come back were uniform only in their lack of uniformity.

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Dump Trump, says anti-racism activist Jane Elliott. Realign the resources, says noted pundit Roland S. Martin.Truth and reconciliation, says Tim Wise, an anti-racism author.Educate white people about what racism means, says DiAngelo. Black people must own what they create, says Hill.

And Brown, known on television for funny faces and snappy comebacks, says speak up, tell truth to power, whenever and wherever you can.

“Every time you see darkness,” she says, “you’re supposed to shine a light on it, every time you see a marginalized person, you’re supposed to speak up for them, every time you’re asked to give of yourself, be it time, money or intellect, you’re supposed to give it for the greater good. That’s where we go from here, everybody picking up their part of this puzzle and putting it together so we have a brighter tomorrow.”

It takes a moment to understand why her words feel incongruous. And then you realize: This is the same woman who said she was scared. Indeed, this is the woman who said she was without hope. The slaves, she said, “broke chains and ran away and fought for freedom — because they had hope. And I feel like now I don’t feel hope. I don’t feel hope within myself.”

But there she is in the next breath exhorting people to speak up, speak out. “Staying quiet hasn’t helped anybody,” she says. “I’ve had people say to me that I’m too vocal and because I’m a public person and because I’m on television or I’m in movies, I need to watch what I say. And I promise you: I will never watch what I say because of finances. McDonald’s is always hiring. If I lose everything I have because I spoke up about what is right, then take it all. I will never be silent when I see something crazy — ever. Even to my own detriment. That needs to be the mindset that everybody has: They cannot fire all of us. They can’t kill all of us. Right?”

Think about it for a second. It’s a manifesto of courage. From a woman who says she is scared.

And the funny thing is, you believe both. Why can’t she be both frightened and brave? Courage without fear, after all, is just recklessness. Courage despite fear is, well … courage.

And that has been — has had to be — the defining feature of the African-American experience from slavery to Trump, the thing that brings us to this place 400 years later and will take us forward from here. Not a cowardly, knee-knocking terror, mind you, but the ability to make a sober assessment of the circumstances, the odds and the dangers and then decide to act, despite them all.

Surely the slave was scared when he thought of running away. But he ran.

Surely the freeman was scared when it came time to leave the old plantation. But he left.

Surely the sharecropper was scared when he asked for a ballot. But he asked.

Surely the seamstress was scared when the bus driver told her to give her seat. But she sat.

Now the actress is scared, watching Donald Trump grin and give the thumbs up as the 1940s come rushing back on black people like a freight train. But there’s always work at McDonald’s.

Because in the end, you make the most of it. You do what you have to do. You get on with it.

Maybe their history is what made black people brave. Maybe their bravery is what made black people’s history. Maybe both.

All we know is that, 400 years ago, a ship came to America out of a storm. The men and women it carried found themselves in an unknown land for an unknown purpose with an unknown people jabbering in an unknown tongue. They could have no sense of what the future would bring. Surely, they were scared.

And then they disembarked.

For African Americans, ‘The long arc of increasing freedom is not yet completed’

Where are we?

Elliott Courtesy, Jane Elliott

“Unfortunately for all of us, we have now forgotten what this country was founded on and we have turned it over to someone who wants to turn it into an oligarchy. We’re in danger right now of losing the democracy those men fought so hard to put together and what people for the last 400 years have fought to keep together.”

- Jane Elliott, anti-racism activist

Martin; Gustavo Caballero Getty Images

“I think clearly there’s been significant progress in terms of African Americans moving closer to being full Americans, but the reality is, we have not actually achieved that. It is hard for white Americans and others to understand the depths to which white supremacy was used to denigrate, degrade and stifle the progress of African Americans. and we’re still dealing with the remnants of that.”

- Roland S. Martin, host of the “Roland Martin Unfiltered” daily digital broadcast

DiAngelo; YouTube

“We’re back in a moment where explicit forms of racism are much more legitimized and condoned at the highest levels. I mean, we’re definitely not post-racial. That veneer has been ripped away, that thin veneer that people claimed during Obama’s presidency. Politicians have always been able to manipulate the white populace through racial animus. We certainly saw that through Trump’s campaign and current presidency. It’s been said when you’ve been used to 100 percent, 98 feels oppressive. I think that’s where we’re at.”

- Robin DiAngelo, anti-racism activist and author of “White Fragility”

WiseNEW Conversation.jpg
Wise; speakout.org

“Obviously, over the course of 400 years, there have been some monumental strides forward, freedom movements over the course of that period. We don’t want to take those for granted or downplay their importance. But also we can recognize that the long arc of increasing freedom is not yet completed, and we have a long distance to travel.”

- Tim Wise, anti-racism activist


“When it comes to setting the tone in music, fashion, sports, entertainment, black people do that. We create what’s cool. When you go to Japan, they’re wearing Air Jordans. When you go to China, they may not know who a lot of people are that are from America, but you know who they definitely know? Kobe Bryant and they know LeBron James. America is very reliant on the culture that black people produce. The problem is, while we are making progress in terms of owning that culture, even still, black culture is owned largely by white people.”

- Jemele Hill, staff writer for The Atlantic, host of the “Jemele Hill Is Unbothered” podcast

Brown; Christopher Polk Getty Images

“This racial division that’s taking place in our country right now because of that horrible man that’s quote-unquote ‘in charge,’ it’s just making everything feel small and tight and claustrophobic. And like hope is right on the other side of that and we’re all just trying to fight our way out of these tight little bubbles to get back to hope. That’s what I think our ancestors had, even in the midst of their darkest moment, I feel like they still had hope. That’s why they broke chains and ran away and fought for freedom — because they had hope. And I feel like now, I don’t feel hope. I don’t feel hope within myself.”

- Yvette Nicole Brown, actress, “Community,” “Avengers: Endgame”

Where Do We Go From Here?

“First, we elect a man, or a woman, whatever, who is not a dinosaur’s t-rump. We have to put someone in the position of the presidency who can help this country regain the status worldwide. We have considerably lost status worldwide because of the ignorance, close to insanity, of the person who is in the White House today.”

- Jane Elliott

“What it is going to require is not just massive realignment of resources, but it is really going to take leadership acknowledging and confronting so many aspects of this issue of race. America desperately wanted Obama to be the answer to all of its racial problems. But his presence really exposed the reality that all is not well. It is going to take … white America having to look itself in the mirror and own their stuff. It’s going to take them to stop saying, ‘Well, I wasn’t born then, so therefore, I have nothing to atone for.’ That’s simply incorrect.

“They’re going to have to realize that this history, every facet of it, has been used against African Americans and until that is fully acknowledged, from politics to Wall Street to the insurance industry to the education industry to the criminal justice complex, we’re going to be fighting these battles. You cannot fix or repair what we refuse to fully acknowledge and accept.”

- Roland Martin

“I think, at the very, very foundational level, we have to change what we understand it means to be racist and to participate in racism. The mainstream definition of a racist is a person who consciously doesn’t like people based on race and is intentionally mean to them. That definition virtually guarantees white defensiveness. It also guarantees that almost all white people will exempt themselves from the system we’re living in.

“When we understand it as a system, we understand it as a different question. Right now, that mainstream definition leads us to ask, ‘Is he racist, or is he not?’ And if he’s a nice person, then the answer will be, ‘He can’t be racist. He’s nice.’ Understanding the systemic nature of racism, you ask a different question which is, ‘How is racism manifesting in this context, in this policy, in this outcome?’ And then you seek to address that policy or outcome.”

- Robin DiAngelo

“We do a lousy job of preserving historic memory. I’m sure all countries have their versions of it. But it just seems we’re so enamored of our own origin story and our own myths that we have a particularly difficult time staring into the face of our historic abyss. I do think we need to engage some of this truth and reconciliation process at our local community level, as well as at the national level.”

- Tim Wise

“We can’t depend on changing racist mindsets or convincing people of our humanity if they don’t want to be convinced. But what we can do is take the power we have been able to attain — and I believe it’s a lot more than we realize — and concentrate that power within our community and be willing to forsake mainstream dollars. I think we can have a very good chance of strengthening our position.

“College sports has become a billion-dollar industry. The athletes aren’t being paid. Yet they willingly sign up to build these [white] institutions and conferences into empires. What if we did that for our own people, for our own schools and basically made networks like ESPN come to us, as opposed to us feeling like they make us into stars? Then that money gets regenerated in our schools and suddenly, whether they want to deal with us at all, people have to negotiate because sports has become so embedded in American culture that fans feel like they can’t live without it. We have the product, we are the product, but we so willingly give it up.”

- Jemele Hill

“I’m at a place in my life where I believe everybody is given a different platform. For some, it might be your family at your dinner table, for others, it might be millions of Twitter followers. Whatever your sphere of influence is, whatever your platform is, I feel like where we go from now is, every single person has to use whatever platform they have to spread the good news. And the good news is that we’re better together. The good news is that we can rise above this. The good news is, what someone says about us does not define who we are.”

- Yvette Nicole Brown