Four Hundred Years: Commemorating African American History

In recent years we’ve commemorated the English and Spanish heritage of our nation’s founding. In 2004 we marked the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, Virginia by the English colonists in 1604. In 2015 we celebrated the 450th anniversary of the founding of St. Augustine, Florida. Both the English and the Spanish commemorations included activities sponsored by federal commissions, which were voted on and passed by Congress. August 2019 will mark 400 years after the first documented arrival of Africans who came to English America by way of Point Comfort, Virginia. Not only is it appropriate to establish a commission that would recognize the African heritage of African Americans, it is historically significant to acknowledge that although in 1619 slavery was not yet an institution, the “20 and odd” Africans (as it was recorded) were the first recorded group of Africans to be sold as involuntary laborers or indentured servants in the colonies.
On Thursday, February 11th, I joined leaders from the NAACP, Senator Mark Warner, Congressmen Bobby Scott and Don Beyer and Chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus G. K. Butterfield to introduce the 400 Years of African-American History Commission Act. This bill would establish a commission that would plan programs and activities across the country to recognize the arrival and influence of Africans and their descendants in America since 1619. The commission would be charged with highlighting the resilience and contributions of African Americans, as well as acknowledging the painful impact that slavery and other atrocities have had on our nation.
The four hundred-year history of African Americans is full of tragedies like slavery. Those horrors have shaped the black experience in America and should be remembered as moral catastrophes. However that is not the whole story of African American history. African Americans have contributed to the economic, academic, social, cultural and moral well-being of this nation.
Without African Americans, some of America’s crowning achievements would not have been possible. Would American literature be as prolific without the giants of the Harlem Renaissance? Would American music have conquered the world without pioneers like Lead Belly, Louis Armstrong, Marian Anderson or James Brown? Could we claim America as the most innovative nation on earth without the invention of the modern traffic light, perfection of the carbon filament, or use of the mathematics that propelled Apollo astronauts to the moon? No. African American culture is American culture, and African American discoveries are American discoveries. Without the creativity and inventiveness of African Americans, the United States could not boast the ingenuity and cultural richness that we so pride.
As we contemplate the challenges and injustices that African Americans still face, we remember the tragic way in which African American history began and draw inspiration from the heroes and trailblazers who fought under our country’s principle that all people are created equal. These heroes and trailblazers and the millions of African Americans who have worked, created, invented, discovered, lived, aged and died over the past 400 years have molded our national character such that the United States would be unrecognizable and, indeed, lesser without their presence.
The story of America is the interwoven progress, influence and experience of many different peoples. As the commissions to commemorate the anniversaries of English and Spanish arrival has demonstrated. A commission to recognize the 400 years of African Americans in this country seems just as appropriate. As 2019 approaches, I look forward to reflecting on the story of African Americans. Their triumphs over adversity and gifts to America are worthy of acknowledgment. It is my hope that the establishment of a “400th” commission would create an opportunity to bring these stories to the forefront of our consciousness and create a space to discuss race relations in American as we focus on dismantling the institutional systems that have adversely hindered African American progress.