Sometimes people have asked me if I am going to write an autobiography or memoir. Nothing could interest me less. Paraphrasing Will Willimon, the subjects I write about (God, the Word of God, the Son of God, the Spirit of God) are so much more exciting than I am.
Having said this, I have been surprised, this past week, to find myself wanting to say something about my family, my background, and my cultural shaping–because of the extraordinary product published this week by The New York Times: “The 1619 Project.” Every serious Christian should get hold of this and read it carefully. The audacious thesis of the project is that our country did not come into being in 1776, but in 1619–400 years ago–when the first trans-Atlantic ship of enslaved black Africans arrived on the Virginia coast. In the print edition delivered on Sunday, August 18, the project is presented in two substantial pull-out sections–a history of American slavery from a particular point of view, and a collection of reflections and poems by various contributors. The paper also published a separate account of how the project was laboriously put together over a period of time with an all-black team of scholars.
The “particular point of view,” which will prove challenging to many and will be rejected by some, is that slavery not only undergirded the American system from the beginning, but also was the indispensable ingredient for the economic growth and development of our nation. It would not to be overstating the thesis to say that slavery made everything else possible in America.
The editors put it this way:
The goal of the 1619 project is to reframe American history, making explicit how slavery is the foundation on which this country is built [note the present tense]. For generations we have not been adequately taught this history. Our hope is to paint a fuller picture of the institution that shaped our nation.
I am a Virginian–not just a Virginian but a Virginian with ancestors going back well into the 17th century. On my mother’s side, I am a descendant of members of the so-called FFVs (First Families of Virginia) through Thomas Jefferson’s sister. My father traced his genealogy to Arthur Allen, the builder of “Bacon’s Castle” in Virginia (1665), an exceedingly rare example of Jacobean architecture in the New World. And so forth. (Not incidentally, my husband is a direct descendant of two Signers of the Declaration of Independence, is related to Jefferson as well, and is a documented direct descendant of Pocahontas and her husband John Rolfe–a point of pride for quite a few living Virginians. [The excellent Terence Malick film The New World convincingly depicts Pocahontas arriving at the court of King James I of England, a well-attested historical event. She, being deemed a royal princess, was ceremonially presented to the King, whereas her husband Rolfe, a commoner, had to come in through the side door!] )
I admit to having been proud of all of this, although in a sort of reverse-snob way; my parents and grandparents were appalled at “family crests” appropriated by American families–a vulgar and ostentatious display, in their view. Old-line WASP families in Virginia were traditionally quiet and inconspicuous about their prominence; it was taken for granted, not to be flaunted. After the Civil War, leading Virginia families lost their money, so that indifference to wealth was the norm; it was education, probity, manners, decorum, public service, and other quasi-aristocratic virtues (such as being an Episcopalian) that counted. My husband and I taught our children to be proud of their heritage, but with qualifications; they knew that many of their ancestors were slave owners, and we tried to convey some degree of compensatory balance in the respect we accorded these forebears.
The town (Franklin) where I was raised is on the western edge of what is called the Tidewater, or Hampton Roads. In the year 1619, a ship arrived at what is now Hampton, Virginia, having crossed the Atlantic with a cargo including 20 enslaved Africans. The primary historical document testifying to this event is a letter written by none other than John Rolfe:
It is this first landing of a slave ship on the coast of America that has led the Times project to identify the year 1619, not 1776, as the founding of the republic. This will be very controversial, but the team of black scholars who put the two Times supplements together make the provocative and, to my mind, compelling argument that the nation could not have come into being and flourished as it did without the unpaid labor of hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans. Thus, as W. E. B. DuBois famously wrote at the turn of the 20th century, “The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line,” and that problem “is a concrete test of the underlying principles of the great republic.”
My family members, both close and extended, were segregationists. It was simply assumed. In my particular family’s case, this stance was kept within certain discreet bounds: we never discussed it in front of our servants, nor were we allowed to say “nigger,” or to have “mammy” dolls, or to be disrespectful to our help. However, they crossed the railroad tracks (literally) and went through the back door and used a toilet with a separate entrance on the back porch. I was in high school in 1954 when Brown vs. Board of Education sent a shudder through the white population of Franklin, Virginia. A special separate “academy” was immediately set up so that the white students would not have to go to school with black students. The state of Virginia declared a program of “Massive Resistance” to Brown, and the schools in Prince Edward County (note the aristocratic names of Virginia counties) were closed for five years so that black and white students would not be mixed. Here is a good brief account of the infamous Prince Edward County controversies: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prince_Edward_County,_Virginia
All of this passed more or less over my head when I was in high school . My sister and I had splendid parents and a supremely happy childhood surrounded by a great many loving relatives. I felt securely placed in this family and never questioned my heritage. Even when I went off to Sweet Briar College in Virginia and heard the college faculty making remarks about the awfulness of Massive Resistance, I was too preoccupied with Boys and English literature (in that order) to pay attention. I did not come to my senses until several years later.
I have recounted this story a hundred times. I was a very young housewife and mother in Richmond, Virginia, on August 28, 1963. Patsy, my weekly cleaning woman (black, of course; she was not called a “cleaning lady” in those days), aged about 50, was in the house that day. My two-year-old daughter was taking her nap. I turned on the little black and white television to see a bit of the March on Washington. John Lewis, by far the youngest speaker on that occasion, was giving a hot-headed, inflammatory, and frankly not very moving address (it was later learned that his elders had insisted he tone it down, but it was still a very uncompromising speech). I was getting bored and would perhaps have stopped watching, but then Mahalia Jackson, whom I had never seen or heard, came forward and began to sing. I was electrified. I called out, “Patsy! Come in here!” I think–I hope–I asked her to sit down with me on the sofa. When Mahalia Jackson finished her powerfully affecting song, Martin Luther King got up to speak. Now it is important to understand that I knew virtually nothing about Dr. King except that he was reputed to be a “communist,” and in the 1950s when I first heard of him, that was the worst thing you could be. I don’t remember why the Montgomery bus boycott made so little impression on me at the time. To say I was not “woke” would be an understatement. Therefore, when King began to deliver his rather dry prepared speech, I was not impressed. (Much later I learned that he had not planned to say more until Mahalia Jackson, sitting behind him, called out, “Martin! Tell them about the dream!”) Suddenly he launched into the part of the speech that became world-famous, and from that hour a young Southside Virginia segregationist was changed from the outside in. It was one of the most consequential moments of my entire life–perhaps the most.
Nearly sixty years later, I am still trying to figure out how to come to terms with my love of my family and its traditions alongside the inherited oppression of black people. My great-great-grandfather, a native of the Northern Neck in Virginia, moved his family to Hinds County, Mississippi, where he established a plantation with 200 enslaved people. After the Civil War, all that was swept away, but the legacy burns in my soul. My husband inherited a stunning amount of Georgian silver, handed down in the family from slave owners since before the American Revolution. I think about that whenever I bring it out. All of it is monogrammed, so that even if I wanted to sell it, it would not be worth much (I tell myself), but it will always be a testimony to the wealth acquired by white people through the labor of black enslaved men and women.
I have always remembered a remark made at a dinner party in Richmond in the early 60s. A few 30-something University of Virginia men were loftily opining about the causes of the Civil War. (I’ll say this for my family, they were never so retrograde as to call it “the War Between the States.”) One young man said, “The cause wasn’t slavery.” Another replied, authoritatively, “Of course not. It was an economic war.” Looking back, that is one of the most absurd exchanges ever…and it could be well used to prove the point of the 1619 Project. The slaves were the economy; and the agents of their oppression could not bring themselves to see it, for black enslaved people were invisible men and women. Thus it is now our responsibility to understand the importance of bringing the history of slavery into white consciousness for an audience with a breadth never before attempted.
Not only was the time of actual slavery itself oppressive. Emancipation was not some great deliverance into a life of opportunity and flourishing. The aftermath of the Civil War was catastrophic for the great majority of freedmen and women. High-minded promises were made, schools and colleges were opened, and teachers came down from the North, but the ideological and political divide between North and South in the decades after the war was too vast to allow for anything really effective in giving these destitute people a start in life. Therefore the freed slaves entered a new kind of servitude, unable to get a banking account, to save, to buy land. Before long, the terror of widespread lynching kept the black population in fear and subjection for several more decades. These are the circumstances that have bequeathed the United States a huge population of underprivileged and underserved black people who did not even gain the vote until 1964, and still to this day have their votes undercounted and suppressed by the kind of political machinations that almost certainly defeated Stacy Abrams in her quest to become governor of Georgia.
These are the kinds of thoughts I have been having for many years as I think about the “problem of the color line.” I believe that we owe our African-American people something very great. I am incensed by the immigration policies of Donald Trump; separating children from parents should be an abomination to any Christian conscience, and the Latino people in our country have made tremendous contributions on many levels (not just “doing labor that no white person wants to do,” in the often heard formulation). The Biblical command to succour the stranger is unconditional. However, I believe that our black citizens are in a class by themselves in their claim to our conscience. They have been here since the beginning, and they have been brought here in chains and auctioned off like like animals. We owe them in a way that we do not owe any other people-group. We owe them as part of us, who cared for our children, cooked our meals, laundered our most filthy clothes, performed stoop labor for years upon end with no recompense or recognition until they were laid in unmarked, nameless graves.
More important still, they are part of us. They don’t need to learn the language in order to become “assimilated” or “acculturated.” They don’t have to “become Americans” as the French want their immigrants to “become French.” They are already Americans, and they have been since the beginning of colonization. (The story of the American Indians is another matter lying outside this discussion.) And perhaps most remarkable of all, the enslaved blacks not only became Christians, they became a particular type of Christian that has blessed us white people in ways we never earned and, God knows, never deserved. African-American Christians, unlike many whites, recognize that they don’t need to be told that being a Christian means meeting with other Christians; solitary faith would be preposterous to them. They love the Lord with the whole of their selves, and their exuberant worship is the envy of white Christians (who cannot clap on the offbeat to save our lives).
Even for a person like myself who has known and cared about the lot of black people since that day in 1963, it is not so easy to figure out what to do about it. I find the black church so attractive that I have to remind myself constantly not to romanticize or sentimentalize it–always a fatal mistake. It is difficult to figure out the right path to take in our current situation; even the most well-meant gestures can cause serious offense. I’ve said the wrong thing many times. But we owe it to them to keep trying. We owe it to them to sit and listen to what they want and not try to impose our notions on them from our supposedly superior position. We owe it to them to try to understand what it is like to give your young son “the talk” about the police, to be pulled over again and again for “driving while black,” to be mistaken for a bellhop when you are a diplomat, to be stereotyped from morning to night every day of the week, to bite your lip again and again every day to keep your anger in check. We owe it to them, our brothers and sisters, to keep trying and to understand their unique place in our history.
I care about Latino immigrants who live in fear. I care about Muslims made to feel like aliens and terrorists. I care about working overtime to learn something about what a newcomer needs to be comfortable in America. But above all I am arguing that our population descended from slaves are a different, more special case. They are not just among us. They are ours. Many of them bear our surnames. Many, many of them are related to us by the blood of our white ancestors. They “are us.” We owe them. Please, please read, mark, learn and inwardly digest The 1619 Project.
After I posted this, I got a message on Twitter. It was angry and insulting, but interesting. The writer said he had no sympathy for my FFV guilt, being from a working-class, hardscrabble family that traces itself two generations back at best. He wanted no part of owing anything to African-Americans on account of the sins of my forebears.
To clarify: when I wrote that “we owe them” I did not mean financial reparations to individuals or individual families. Even Obama thought that would be impossible to administer. What I meant was 1) we owe then our listening ears and our efforts to understand what they have endured and still endure on account of their skin color; 2) we owe them our respect and, when possible, our friendship as our fellow American citizens and (if it applies) our brothers and sisters in the church; and 2) as taxpayers, we owe them vastly enhanced programs of support to enhance their safety, health, dignity, education, and potential for upward mobility.
A second message has come in, in a very different tone! The writer has an important point of view to contribute and I agree with it. He writes:
One note: consider revising the phrase “they are ours.” Does it get to the same point to say “we are theirs”? It’s as if to say “we are so indebted to those enslaved persons that we cannot pretend to have ‘become’ ourselves without them.”
I would like to amend what I wrote.
“They are ours, and perhaps more to the point, we are theirs.”