Perhaps when you think of the founding of the United States, you think of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Federalist Papers. Now, the New York Times wants to "reframe" your understanding of the nation's founding.
In the Times' view (which it hopes to make the view of millions of Americans), the country was actually founded in 1619, when the first Africans were brought to North America, to Virginia, to be sold as slaves.
This year marks the 400th anniversary of that event, and the Times has created something called the 1619 Project. This is what the paper hopes the project will accomplish: "It aims to reframe the country's history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are."
Every schoolchild recognizes certain images of this nation’s darker side: slaves kidnapped from their native lands, shipped in disease-ridden holds, traded like animals, and then whipped and worked on America’s plantations.
Don Jordan and Michael Walsh, both of whom have made documentaries and both of whom live in London, retell that familiar tale — although the victims here are not Africans but English, Irish and Scottish people, sent to the colonies largely against their will in the 17th and 18th centuries.
“White Cargo” begins with the discovery of a 17th-century skeleton in Maryland in 2003; it turned out to be that of a boy, about 16 years old, who had suffered from tuberculosis and injuries consistent with hard labor. Presumably he had been a slave, since his body had not been properly buried, but thrown into the basement of a home near Annapolis, “in a hole under a pile of household waste.” He was northern European, probably British, one of tens of thousands of victims of a century-long practice, stretching from Boston to Barbados, that treated whites as slaves and that largely predated both the black slave trade and American independence.
Mainstream histories refer to these laborers as indentured servants, not slaves, because many agreed to work for a set period of time in exchange for land and rights. The authors argue, however, that slavery applies to any person who is bought and sold, chained and abused, whether for a decade or a lifetime. Many early settlers died long before their indenture ended or found that no court would back them when their owners failed to deliver on promises. And many never achieved freedom or the American dream they were seeking.
This vividly written book tells the tale from both sides of the Atlantic. Its condemnation is aimed at both American planters and the English elite, who were blinded by greed, arrogance and a desire to get rid of their “society’s sweepings.” Horribly, one of the first groups sent to America was made up of street children, ages 8 to 16, who arrived in 1619. This slave trade, which the authors say was often “dressed up in bright humanitarian clothes” for the public, later extended to beggars, Gypsies, prostitutes, dissidents, convicts and anyone else who displeased the upper classes. Founders like George Washington do not fare particularly well, but Sir John Popham and Oliver Cromwell come off worse. Benjamin Franklin is one of the few good guys.
“White Cargo” is meticulously sourced and footnoted — which is wise, given its contentious material — but it is never dry or academic. Quotations from 17th- and 18th-century letters, diaries and newspapers lend authenticity as well as color. Excerpts from wills, stating how white servants should be passed down along with livestock and furniture, say more than any textbook explanation could. The authors are not only historians, but also natural storytellers with a fine sense of drama and character.
While their work received praise in 2008, now it must be thrown down the memory hole to "reframe" our history to suit "the narrative."