Blog #2: Before the Mayflower
As part of 400 Years I am hosting monthly book discussions about slavery and it’s legacy. We begin with Lerone Bennett Jr.’s Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America that chronicles evolving forms of racial oppression.
Many might feel overwhelmed by the book. It’s a study of how brutal white supremacy grew from indentured servitude to chattel slavery, reemerging after the Civil War as Jim Crow, the KKK, lynching, political and economic marginalization, segregation, redlining and, more recently, criminalization of poverty and dark skin. It would seem odd to discover such horror and not be overwhelmed.
I use the term “horror” intentionally, particularly in the context of American slavery. The horror arises when intense brutality mixes with a sense of surprise. The brutality is inherent in the system, but the surprise is rooted in the innocence and nativity of those privileged enough to avoid racism much of our lives.
Millions of other Americans of darker hues, however, are not so fortunate. Little seems to surprise them. This grim legacy lives on in impoverished neighborhoods, incarcerated family members, resurging white nationalism, and a history only recently confronted and far from processed. How can you process slave traders who broke the teeth of their cargo so they could force-feed them in preparation for sale? How do you process tossing the diseased to sharks that regularly followed slave ships?
How do you process the story of Antoney, Isabella, Pedro, and 17 other Africans disembarking in Jamestown in August of 1619? When names replace numbers, do victims become real? Bennett writes, “The slave trade was not a statistic, however, astronomical. The slave trade was people living, lying, stealing, murdering, dying.”
When slavery ended methods changed, but oppression remained. Fredrick Douglass wondered, “…what new forms this old monster will assume, in what new skin this old snake will come forth next.” Did he anticipate the grotesque lynching of a pregnant Mary Turner 55 years after the Emancipation Proclamation? Reading about it in the 11th chapter of Before the Mayflower, I had to put the book down.
But my 400 Years project implores us to pick the book up again, to reject the solution of avoidance. My intention is not to overwhelm, but to generate a determination to confront what most whites are privileged enough to avoid. The weight of our history is great, but I hope we can bear it and grow strong enough to begin to deconstruct systemic racism.
Lesson #2: It’s ok to occasionally feel overwhelmed, but stop being surprised.
Lesson #3: Names make statistics more real.
Lesson #4: It’s your choice to avoid or to engage with our historical racial legacy.