The work of the Commission on the 400 Years of African American History culminates this weekend in Hampton, Virginia, at Fort Monroe. Hundreds of observers of this moment in history will participate in a host of programs aimed to fulfill Congress’s mandate to “recognize and highlight the resilience and contributions of African-American’s since 1619,” the year of the arrival of the first Africans brought to America as slaves.
For many, this is a painful history, filled with the realities of the evil deeds of white people who looked upon African men, women, and children, not as humans, but merely as property brought to America to build a country solely for their benefit. The legacy of the institution of 400 years of slavery in the U.S. still runs deep in our society’s DNA, particularly among whites who are literally fighting to hold onto their misperceptions of superiority and among Blacks who keep on fighting to unclamp the institution’s bars on their human and civil rights.
The painful and discomforting experiences brought on by this weekend’s reenactment of the slave ships bringing the first group of Africans to shore which multiplied to millions, or the early sunrise African Naming Ceremony at Buckroe Beach reminding us of our ancestral past, are just two events exemplifying just how far we, as Americans and African Americans, have come.
Keeping our head in the sand and refusing to revisit the past, no matter how awful it was, is not the way to move forward. This commemoration is a demonstration of the strength, faith and resilience of the African that still flows through the blood of generations today. This rich and relevant history is not being taught in our classrooms and, increasingly, students are asking “why not?” How is it, they ask, that the stories about our contributions toward the making of America are only relegated to one month, a side-bar, or a special edition?
No one could have said it better than James Weldon Johnson when he and his brother wrote the Negro National Anthem, which prophetically describes the meaning and purpose for this 400-year commemoration. He wrote: “Stony the road we trod, bitter the chast’ning rod, felt in the days when hope unborn had died; Yet with a steady beat, have not our weary feet, come to the place on which our fathers sighed? We have come over a way that with tears has been watered, we have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered, Out from the gloomy past, here now we stand at last, where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.”