MyAmericanFuture

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Tuesday, July 31, 2018

July 31, 2018: 17th Century Histories: Jamestown’s First Slaves


[On July 30th, 1676 Nathaniel Bacon issued his “Declaration in the Name of the People,” kicking off Bacon’s Rebellion. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that rebellion and other 17th century histories, leading up to a special weekend post on some of Virginia’s historic sites!]
On the transnational details of a crucial human cargo, and a fraught new historical lens for them.
I’m mostly going to cede this first paragraph over to this 2006 Washington Post story, and to the historians cited there (especially Engel Sluiter and John Thornton & Linda Heywood) whose ground-breaking research and writing helped recover and consider the stories, identities, and histories of the 20 African slaves brought to Virginia’s Jamestown colony in 1619. It’s to their efforts, and to Lisa Rein’s reporting in that story, that I owe pretty much all I know about that group of slaves, and you should check out that story to learn more as well!
Okay, welcome back! Obviously the individual and communal stories and identities of those first (or at least very early) African Americans are and should be the central reason to better remember the histories that Sluiter, Thornton & Heywood, and others have helped recover and narrate. But on a contextual level, I would also note the strikingly transnational factors that came together to bring those 20 Angolans to Jamestown. A Portuguese slave ship, the San Juan Bautista, that departed from the Angolan port city of Luanda with some 350 slaves bound for the Spanish (now Mexican) port of Veracruz. Two British pirate vessels, the Treasurer and the White Lion (the latter apparently flying a Dutch flag, likely for reasons of disguise or misdirection), that raided the San Juan Bautista and took its slave cargo for themselves. At least one of them (likely the White Lion, given the longstanding historical narrative that the ship was Dutch) that landed in Jamestown as part of its multi-stop voyage through the Americas, trading the slaves for provisions. It’s not just the transatlantic and increasingly globally connected 17th century world that these details reflect—it’s also, and most saliently for my post and series, how much even a small and seemingly isolated English colony like Jamestown was part of that transatlantic and global society, influenced by Angola and Portugal and piracy and the Caribbean just as much as by its direct English origin points.
I would also extend that point one complex and fraught step further, however. Those 20 Angolan American slaves also comprised a potently transnational community, one that immediately and forever after became an influential part of the new and developing Virginian and post-contact American communities as well. In emphasizing that aspect of this foundational African American community, I don’t mean for a moment to minimize the brutality and horrors and exclusionary white supremacist core of the slave trade and slave system that this moment helped bring to America, and that were inescapable parts of the lives of these 20 slaves as they would be for so many millions more in the next two and a half centuries. Yet if we focus entirely on those historical horrors and exclusions, we risk repeating at least the latter effect, continuing to exclude African American slaves from our narratives of American identity at every stage of its post-contact development. Whereas to my mind, as I argue at length in my current book project, the exact opposite is true: there is quite simply no American identity without this community, and without all that they brought and contributed to the evolving national community. And transnational elements—not just experiences and movement, but culture, language, religion, and so many more—were one key such contribution, as illustrated by the stories and histories of those 20 Angolan American arrivals.
Next 17th century history tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other early American histories you’d highlight?

Monday, July 30, 2018

July 30, 2018: 17th Century Histories: Bacon’s Rebellion


[On July 30th, 1676 Nathaniel Bacon issued his “Declaration in the Name of the People,” kicking off Bacon’s Rebellion. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that rebellion and other 17th century histories, leading up to a special weekend post on some of Virginia’s historic sites!]
On the myths and realities of a 17th century uprising, and why the latter matter so much.
I’m not going to pretend that I can remember my early experiences with Social Studies as a Virginia public school student with any particular clarity or precision (other than the Camp Virginia trips on which my 4th grade Social Studies teacher Mr. Kirby took us), but I do have a general sense of how some of our state’s histories were presented in those settings. And I’m pretty sure that when it came to Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676, the dominant educational frame was one of class revolt, of one of the first moments in post-contact Virginian (and perhaps American) history when settlers of non-elite status rose up against the colony’s elites and power structure. Nathaniel Bacon himself was a landed planter, and a member of the Governor’s Council to boot, and thus entirely part of that elite power structure, and I don’t think those educational narratives presented him otherwise. But nonetheless, as I remember it the principal emphasis remained on the surprising coalition of lower-class white settlers and African American slaves that Bacon assembled in support of his short-lived rebellion (it ended when Bacon died of dysentery on October 26th) against his distant relative Governor William Berkeley and what Bacon and the rebels perceived as Berkeley and his cohort’s various affronts to the colonists.
And then there are the specifics of those affronts. I hope I don’t lose my VirginiaAmericanStudier credentials when I admit that I had not read Bacon’s “Declaration” in full until researching this post, and thus had not realized just how thoroughly it focuses on racist and white supremacist depictions of the colony’s Native American inhabitants. While the first two of the Declaration’s eight criticisms focus on broad abuses of power, the remaining six are entirely linked to “the barbarous heathen” and Berkeley’s unwillingness either to make total war on them himself or to allow the colonists to do so. The Declaration’s concluding section makes clear that such war is precisely the overall goal of the rebellion and its cross-cultural community: “This we, the commons of Virginia, do declare, desiring a firm union amongst ourselves that we may jointly and with one accord defend ourselves against the common enemy.” This PBS page quotes Bacon as saying that the battle was “against all Indians in general, for that they were all Enemies”; I can’t find verification of that quote elsewhere at the moment, but the sentiment is entirely in keeping with the Declaration’s arguments and goals. Bacon’s Rebellion may have featured Virginians of a certain status rising up against those of another, that is, but they did so in service of white supremacist and genocidal goals rather than class warfare ones.
I would highlight two definite and one more potential (but still important) effect of better remembering those details of Bacon’s Rebellion. For one thing, the Declaration is as straightforward a 17th century historical document as one could find; we can’t know why every individual participant in the uprising joined, but we can and should be clear on why its titular leader started it and what his (and thus its) goals were. For another, there’s a broader through-line between Bacon’s combinatory coalition in service of such white supremacist goals and various other American histories: the Confederacy’s reliance on so many non-slaveholding whites to fight and die in service of the slaveholding elite and their white supremacist system; the late 19th century Populist and Suffrage movements’ tendencies to unite white perspectives through racial segregation and prejudice; exclusionary appeals to African Americans to oppose immigrant communities; and many more. And for a third, I would argue that the white supremacist realities of Bacon’s Rebellion offer an important counterpoint to the many well-intentioned 21st century progressives who claim that class, not race, is the most important element in our current political and social debates. It’s not an either-or, of course, but too often in American history, as in July 1676, “class” has been used as a tool to further oppress and exclude Americans of color.
Next 17th century history tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other early American histories you’d highlight?

Saturday, July 28, 2018

July 28-29, 2018: July 2018 Recap


[A Recap of the month that was in AmericanStudying.]
July 2: The 4th in Focus: “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”: A July 4th series starts with the stunning speech that challenges us as much today as it did 150 years ago.
July 3: The 4th in Focus: Born on the 4th of July: The series continues with three evolutions of a classic patriotic phrase.
July 4: The 4th in Focus: Fireworks: The history, symbolism, and limits of an American tradition, as the series booms on.
July 5: The 4th in Focus: “Speaking of Courage”: The July 4th setting and climax of one of my favorite American short stories.
July 6: The 4th in Focus: “Sandy (4th of July, Asbury Park)”: The series concludes with how Bruce captured the more intimate sides of Independence Day.
July 7-8: The 4th in Focus: 2018 Critical Patriotism: A special weekend post on necessary 2018 pessimism and how to push beyond it.
July 9: Representing Race: Jungle Fever and Mississippi Masala: A series on cultural representations of race starts with two sweltering interracial romances that work well in combination.
July 10: Representing Race: Borderlands/La Frontera: The series continues with the tough but vital book that represents an ambiguous, crucial American space.
July 11: Representing Race: To Kill a Mockingbird: On the anniversary of its publication, what Harper Lee’s classic novel fails to do, and where it succeeds.
July 12: Representing Race: Rap Representations: The distinct but complementary visions of race and America in three rap songs, as the series rolls on.
July 13: Representing Race: Seven Seconds: Two ways that the flawed but compelling Netflix show challenges our conversations about race.
July 14-15: Representing Race: Mystery Fiction: The series concludes with a groundbreaking mystery pioneer and the contemporary author extending his legacy.
July 16: KennedyStudying: To the Moon, America: A series on the Kennedy family starts with the Cold War limits yet compelling possibilities of JFK’s “moon shot” speech.
July 17: KennedyStudying: 1963: The series continues with the bitter divisions that preceded, and perhaps contributed to, a tragic day.
July 18: KennedyStudying: Chappaquiddick: Taking the long view, recognizing its limits, and striving for a balance, as the series rolls on.
July 19: KennedyStudying: Conspiracy Theories: Two ways to AmericanStudy the one political assassination we can’t quite seem to accept.
July 20: KennedyStudying: The Loss of Bobby: The series concludes with the possibilities of a Bobby Kennedy presidency and what was lost with his assassination.
July 21-22: KennedyStudying: Historical Films: A special weekend post on how three wildly distinct historical films portray the Kennedy’s.
July 23: Folk Music Studying: “This Land is Your Land”: A folk music series starts with my nominee for a new national anthem.
July 24: Folk Music Studying: Joan Baez and Janis Joplin: The series continues with two alternate visions of the counter-culture and what links them.
July 25: Folk Music Studying: Dylan Plugs In: The limits of the concept of the “counter-culture” and its AmericanStudies benefits nonetheless, as the series (folk) rocks on.
July 26: Folk Music Studying: “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”: The simple and vital song that captures the essence of political music and activist art.
July 27: Folk Music Studying: 21st Century Folk: The series concludes with three artists/groups that are extending the folk legacy into our own moment.
Next series begins Monday,
Ben
PS. Topics you’d like to see covered in this space? Guest Posts you’d like to contribute? Lemme know!