Essay

The Shackles in the Shadows of History

An illustration from the book
An illustration from the book "Many Thousands Gone." Jamestown's 400th anniversary commemoration includes events this weekend about the introduction of the slave trade.

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By Lynne Duke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 30, 2007

In 1619, 12 years after Jamestown's settlement, two British privateers sailed into the James River with African captives for sale. The Africans had Portuguese names; they apparently knew Christianity, according to John Thornton and Linda Heywood, a husband-and-wife team of Boston University historians. Those first Africans came from the kingdom of Ndongo, now Angola, which had been penetrated by Portuguese missionaries and traders who soon stopped praying with the Africans and started selling them.

The settlement of Jamestown would ultimately wither and die, but the American form of slavery born with those first Africans would endure for nearly 250 years. Slavery and America grew up hand in hand, and the African imprint on the new nation is evident to this day -- a fact being highlighted in Jamestown events this weekend in the ongoing commemoration of the Virginia settlement's 400th anniversary.

Though 142 years have passed since the constitution's 13th Amendment ended slavery, the vestiges of that "peculiar institution" are deeply embedded in our society, as are the cultural memories of slavery that lurk like shadows between the lines of our racial discourse.

But sometimes the memories are explicit and raw, painful to encounter, for who in 2007 can conjure what life was like for the enslaved? Only the slaves themselves can say, in words whispered through time.

"The conch shell blowed afore daylight and all hands better git out for roll call or Solomon bust the door down and get them out."

This is Mary Reynolds, a former Louisiana slave.

"The times I hated most was pickin' cotton when the frost was on the bolls. My hands git sore and crack open and bleed. . . . We prays for the end of trib'lation and end of beatins and for shoes that fit our feet. . . . Some of the old ones say we have to bear all, cause that all we can do. Some say they was glad to the time they's dead, cause they'd rather rot in the ground than have the beatins. What I hated most was when they'd beat me and I didn't know what they beat me for, and I hated they strippin' me naked as the day I was born."

As part of an oral history project in the 1930s, former slaves like 100-year-old Reynolds told of the beatings, the brutality, the rapes, the families forced apart and, at last, emancipation. All of it shapes our consciousness of those slavery days, which became a stain on a new nation that told the world it stood for freedom. It was slavery that perpetuated the misguided divisions of race, based on presumed biological distinctions that scientists these days say are a fiction.

But there it is. Slavery's memory. Blacks here. Whites there. Us. Them.

It is the abiding contradiction of our Americanness, something we bump into at random, even in the aisles of a supermarket. Like Aunt Jemima: Why does that iconic slave-era mammy still sell?

Or reminders of the past arise in the speed with which comedian Michael Richards managed to evoke a lynching with his angry rant about hanging people from pitchforks.

And do we need to mention that a former Ku Klux Klansman sits in the Senate? (Robert Byrd of West Virginia.)


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