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Aug. 20, 1619, is being remembered this week as the 400th anniversary of when the first enslaved Africans arrived in chains on the shores of this country.

The spotlight that the date is receiving provides an important opportunity for us to take an honest look at how far we’ve come since slavery by examining the damaging legacy the institution of slavery has had on generations of blacks.

But what is missing, however, in the ongoing national dialogue is the need for Aug. 20 to be remembered every year as a seminal moment in this nation’s history because we cannot make any meaningful progress if we are not willing to look at the lessons of the past.

The beginning of African slavery remains a major chapter in history even though some prefer to ignore that hard fact. Hardly, if ever, do we admit that it is the blood of black slaves that laid the economic foundations for this nation.

Slave labor was the engine of the economy, and in the 1800s when cotton became a major global commodity, blacks toiled from dawn to dusk in the cotton fields to ensure cotton was produced that would be exported around the world.  

Even as they helped make the United States a global economic power producing cotton, the slaves did so without pay and under treacherous and inhumane conditions. That is American history. That is the unpolished truth about the America we don’t like to talk about.

That is why Aug. 20 must be etched in our memory because of its significance to the founding of America. We remember dates like July 4, 1776, which marks the Declaration of Independence;, Sep. 17, 1787, when delegates to the Philadelphia convention approved the Constitution; April 30, 1789, when George Washington was inaugurated as the first president; the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor and others. Let’s add Aug. 20, 1619, to the list.

In fact, let’s make sure high schools include it in their American history curriculum so that students can have a clearer understanding about the crucial role that white supremacy played in the evolution of America. Slavery is a crime against humanity that we must never allow to fade into history, and all children regardless of their skin tone should be allowed to study slavery as part of human history.

Unless we are ready to unravel the ugly truths about slavery and come to terms with our racist past, it will be extremely difficult for us to bridge the gap with the present. It will be difficult for us to confront the current tide of violent racism that has become pervasive and enabled by a corrosive political climate.

American history did not start with the Declaration of Independence or George Washington. It started with 1619, a very dark chapter that some have tried to remove from our collective memory. 

In telling the truth about slavery in 2019, we must remember the words the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison delivered in 1854:  

“Every slave is a stolen man; every slaveholder is a man stealer. By no precedent, no example, no law, no compact, no purchase, no bequest, no inheritance, no combination of circumstances, is slaveholding right or justifiable. While a slave remains in his fetters, the land must have no rest. Whatever sanctions his doom must be pronounced accursed."

The black experience since then has been a trial as we continue to battle the ideas of white supremacy, which are not rooted in facts but prejudice. We must continue to remember slavery to fight prejudice.

bankole@bankolethompson.com

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