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400 Years a Traumatized Nation: A Reading List for the Fourth Centennial of Slavery in America

Beacon Authors Reflect on the 400th Anniversary of Slavery in America

Eyre Crowes’s oil painting “Slaves Waiting for Sale – Richmond, Virginia,” 1861.
Eyre Crowes’s oil painting “Slaves Waiting for Sale – Richmond, Virginia,” 1861.

1619, a year to go down in infamy like 1492. 400 years ago this month, a ship reached a coastal port in the British colony of Virginia, carrying more than twenty enslaved Africans. Stolen from their homes, these men and women were sold to the colonists in what would become known as the United States. The Atlantic Slave trade would feed this vicious cycle of reducing Africans to commodities through the brutal bondage of forced labor and sexual coercion, the repercussions of which we live with centuries later. How do we as a country reckon with and heal from this history? We asked some of our authors to reflect on this and share their remarks below.


Mary Frances Berry“Now is the time, 400 years after the beginnings of slavery in what became our nation, to acknowledge the origins of the perpetuation of white racism. What better time than the ascendancy of another white supremacist, president Donald Trump, to move seriously to become an anti-racist nation.”
—Mary Frances Berry, History Teaches Us to Resist: How Progressive Movements Have Succeeded in Challenging Times


Sheryll Cashin“Early generations of white property-owning men told stories of black inferiority to justify slavery. Later generations cast black men as sexual predators to justify Jim Crow and residential segregation. Politicians, most recently Donald Trump, told myths about the ghetto America created and still maintains. Inferior, nigger, rapist, thug. Such rhetoric was critical to maintaining supremacist institutions, and each time this nation seemed to dismantle a peculiar, black-subordinating institution, it constructed a new one. Four hundred years on, the past is not past.”
—Sheryll Cashin, Loving: Interracial Intimacy in America and the Threat to White Supremacy


Thomas Norman DeWolf“‘Now more than ever’ is such a cliché, and yet . . . Now more than ever, it is critical we know and understand our history, the legacies and aftermaths of 400 years of slavery and its present-day consequences. Now more than ever, it is critical that we understand our power to effect change, beginning with ourselves and extending to our children, grandchildren, friends, colleagues, communities and our nation. Now more than ever, it is time (way past time) for racial healing.”
—Thomas Norman DeWolf, Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in US History and Gather at the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade


Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz“By 1619, when enslaved Africans were sold to English colonizers in Jamestown, Virginia, the 15,000 Indigenous Powhatan Confederacy had been decimated, survivors forced to the margins of the homeland in a decade of genocidal attacks on their villages and farm lands, their fields of corn, beans, and squash turned into commercial agriculture—plantations of tobacco to be worked by the enslaved. The original crimes against humanity—genocide and slavery—were thereby baked into the founding of what would become the United States.”
—Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States


Kali N. Gross“Last week, images taken at the farm of the current GOP leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell, featured a group of white boys smiling as they surrounded, choked, and groped a cardboard cut-out of one of the newest congressional members elected to the House of Representatives—a woman of color, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. The photograph captures everything that is wrong with America and its current administration, as it spotlights the national legacy of enslavement, white supremacy, racist violence, and misogyny. The GOP response, which attempted to depict the boys as victims once citizens rebuked their conduct, summons the willful, self-excusing denial enslavers relied upon to dismiss the humanity of Africans. 400 years later, that kind of reasoning jeopardizes US democracy; yet that we have unabashedly diverse, progressive women in Congress contains answers for the country’s way forward past bigotry, violence, and political corruption.”
—Kali N. Gross, A Black Women’s History of the United States


Sharon Leslie Morgan“More than a dozen of my ancestors were enslaved. The youngest was sold away from her mother at the age of nine. As I contemplate the 400th anniversary of slavery in North America, I am abhorred. Millions of descendants are permanently scarred by this historical harm and the racism it inflamed. America has a race wound that will never be healed until contemporary society comes to terms with the past. As we endure the latest politically-driven assaults on our moral values, we must resist descent into an abyss of hate. I am hopeful that the commemoration of the signal moment when African people were first sold into bondage at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619 will inspire a wake-up call that leads toward a society in which ALL people are treated equally and with respect. As Alice Walker said, ‘Healing begins where the wound was made.’”
—Sharon Leslie Morgan, Gather at the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade


Marcus Rediker“The twenty-plus enslaved Africans who arrived in Virginia aboard the White Lion in 1619 were the first victims of an enduring national nightmare. The 400th anniversary of that momentous arrival provides an excellent opportunity for soul-searching about the meaning and legacy of slavery in America’s past. Slave ships are ghost ships that haunt us still. It is high time to repair the deep and violent damage they have done, and continue to do, to all generations of Americans, past and present.”
—Marcus Rediker, The Slave Ship: A Human History


Crowe-Slaves_Waiting_for_Sale_-_Richmond _Virginia