OPINION: 400 years ago they came in chains

Brianna Scott, Opinions Editor

This month marks 400 years since the first slaves were brought to North America. Kidnapped from their homes, forced onto boats, their destiny unknown — the arrival of these slaves to Virginia in 1619 left an imprint on our society forever.

Some historians identify this as the beginning of slavery in the U.S., but I’m not here to give you a history lesson. I’m here to discuss what this 400-year anniversary means to me.

It might seem quite selfish to be thinking about myself, but it’s more so about my own ancestry. I’m originally from Alabama; yes, sweet home Alabama. It’s where my parents were born and raised.

I know my family’s roots are buried in slavery. There’s no getting around that when you’re black and from Alabama. Where I’m from, there are beautiful white antebellum houses surrounding my parents’ modest childhood country homes.

When we go back to visit Lowndes County, Alabama, there are fields and fields of crops — probably the same fields that grew cotton for slaves to pick. There’s an old pool near my dad’s childhood home that was for black people only and a shed right next to my dad’s childhood home where his mom went to school.

My mom’s father built the first black well in his area. Old photos show my grandparents voting for the first time. Historic sites litter my hometown and Confederate flags display the deep-seeded delusions of racist rednecks.

I moved to Virginia pretty early in my life, so I didn’t grow up in Alabama. But moving from one slave state to another isn’t any better.

I currently live in Jackson Ward, which used to be called Black Wall Street. Now, it’s an empty shell of what it used to be; gentrification swept away the last remnants of its history.

Shockoe Bottom was the second-busiest slave-trading site in the country before the Civil War. Now, it’s a booming neighborhood with restaurants, shops, nightclubs, art galleries and $1,000 one-bedroom apartments.

Shockoe Bottom was named one of 11 most endangered historic places in the U.S. in 2014 by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

It’s strange knowing I’m walking, standing and sitting where the dehumanization of my people happened. Where families were ripped apart. Black bodies sold, whipped and hung from trees — all those things happened right where we live.

I moved from the Chesapeake suburbs to Richmond for college. Going to school in the former capital of the Confederacy opened my eyes.

You see, I was a starry-eyed girl with democratic blue braids when the 2016 presidential election sparked my passion for activism. I felt something ignite inside me, something in my head telling me that I needed to act. Everyone knows what I’m talking about: Donald Trump. President Trump didn’t create the racial problems in America, but he embodies white supremacy — the ideology that enslaved my people.

I believe my ancestors would be pained in a bittersweet way by the current state of the U.S. I know my grandparents are. For all the progress we’ve made — and we’ve made so much — it can seem so fruitless when thinking about issues that continue to plague the black community, from police brutality to mass incarceration to modern-day disenfranchisement.

The first slaves might have been brought to what is now the U.S. 400 years ago, but slavery’s painful effects lasted far longer. The Jim Crow era was 142 years ago. Brown v. Board of Education was only 65 years ago. It was only 54 years ago that Malcolm X was assassinated and 51 that Martin Luther King Jr. was shot.

While Brown v. Board banned public school segregation, we know that segregation was happening illegally. My grandparents lived through that. My grandparents lived the civil rights movement — they sat at the back of the bus, they walked to work in protest. My dad’s parents are still alive, and they remember all of it. They remember the deaths of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. People cannot argue that this was so long ago and we should forget it when people can still recall these events and talk about their lasting impact.

America has yet to reconcile its dark past with slavery and the oppression of black people.

You can’t say we’ve moved on as a country or that we live in a post-racial society when the Unite the Right rally happened less than two years ago. The two-day white supremacist rally that took place in Charlottesville resulted in three people killed and more than 30 injured.

People continue to preach the gospel of white supremacy in 2019 that colonizers preached in the 18th and 19th centuries.

America looks at slavery as a mistake. But enslaving, beating, raping, lynching, segregating and dehumanizing thousands of black people for years was not a mistake. It was a horrific choice that was made. This country has to take responsibility for that choice because it has affected the black population ever since.

Four hundred years ago, the first slaves were brought to Virginia and their fight began. It’s heartbreaking to think about what my ancestors went through to gain their freedom.

My people were supposed to get 40 acres and a mule after slavery ended, but that never happened. That promise was below the bare minimum of what they deserved and it’s insulting. What they received instead was years and years of fighting to prove their humanity and rights to a group of people who never saw them as anything but property. And we’re still fighting today, just for different reasons.

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