400 Years

Remarks I delivered at a commemorative ceremony marking the 400th anniversary of the arrival of enslaved African people in present-day Virginia: 

Four hundred years ago, privateers brought forth, on this continent, the beginnings of what would become a new nation. This nation, conceived in liberty and in slavery, would struggle henceforth with the proposition that all people are indeed created equal. The first enslaved people that arrived from Africa in the English colonies were stolen. They were not the first to be enslaved in the Americas; they were far, far from the last. The story of American slavery is one that precedes 1619 and ripples well into the present, in forms of social injustice, bigotry, and malice.

Today, we are still engaged in a great internal battle, testing whether this nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are not on a battlefield but we are in a war of ideas and conflicting truths. We come together, today, to think of those who forcibly gave their lives and their labor, and who have been robbed of their freedom so that this nation could exist. The stories of the enslaved are often called “hidden,” “unknown,” or “lost.” Who did the hiding, and who did the losing? When did you first learn about enslavement as a historical fact? And when did you first really come to terms with what it would have meant to be bartered, purchased, or sold in the land of the free?

We cannot merely dedicate this day, this ground, this moment. We have to take up the call to make use of the past in the service of truth, in living up to our name as America’s storytellers and our obligation as citizens of this place, this time. Indeed, “the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here” we are but one site, one place marking this moment. Still, we ought to remember the “unfinished work” of democracy that led to a bloody war; we should commemorate those who believed that this nation could have “a new birth of freedom, and” a “government of the people, by the people, for the people [.]” That has often been an imperiled, unmet promise. Let us work for a better future, starting by looking clearly at the past.

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