We don’t know the name of the ship, the day it arrived, the names of passengers, or their fates. We only know that it arrived at Jamestown in August of 1619, bringing Africans to be sold into bondage. That set the course of the colonies, which realized the profits to made from slavery and set about justifying this inhuman act. Slowly the colonies passed harsher and harsher laws, all balanced on the argument that slaves were not really people. This vicious process shaped the colonies as they became states. One of the great debates at the Constitutional Convention was about slavery. Some wanted to abolish slavery, but the Southern plantation owners were committed to owning slaves. Slavery was accepted, and slaves were written into the Constitution to be counted as “3/5’s of a person.”
Inequality leapfrogged from white/black differentiation to many other kinds of inequality: men were better than women, landowners than renters, straight people than homosexuals, “natives” than “immigrants,” whites than Indians, rich than poor, Protestants than people of other religions. At every turn, people were stripped of their inherent humanity because of whatever about them might be used to accomplish this perfidy. Inequality has hobbled us, separated us, undermined us, set us against one another, and now threatens our survival as a nation.
We can’t disentangle ourselves from this history, but, like the last fairy at Sleeping Beauty’s christening, we have the power to change the curse. We are presented with the opportunity to use the 400th anniversary of Jamestown in 2019 to shift from repeating our history to using our past to find a new future.
Anniversaries are peculiar times, with enormous import for individuals and the groups of which they are a part. We don’t have to consciously remember an anniversary for it to have power: we will stub our toe or burst out crying, our bodies doing the work of reminding us that a certain moment in the calendar has come around again. With each anniversary, we may re-engage with the past, thereby understanding it from new viewpoints, learning lessons that might have previously escaped us, feeling emotions that have just bubbled to the surface. When we can move through such a time consciously and with others, we can draw even more benefit from revisiting the past.
Thanks to the working of the collective unconscious, we will observe the anniversary of 1619 whether we set out to or not. Given the importance of inequality to our national discourse at this moment in history, it behooves us to observe this momentous occasion with the solemnity and attention it deserves. We can prepare for the anniversary by studying our history, by visiting sites that hold the stories of the past, by talking to our elders. We can prepare by asking museums and libraries, theater directors and orchestras to plan events and exhibitions that will give us insights we currently lack. We have time, and therefore we can make a space for this anniversary.
Nearly 400 years of division have created an apartheid society: we need a new social infrastructure to carry us through the challenges of climate change, decaying physical infrastructure, rapidly evolving jobs, underperforming schools, uneven access to health care and lack of affordable housing. Our central task is to engage as many individuals and as many institutions in the US as can be mustered to join together to move from inequality to equality, from some people being counted as 3/5’s to all being counted as 5/5s. Starting now, we can prepare for the anniversary about deepening our understanding of our history, and then building new coalitions to work across divides to define and address our common needs. This will transform the curse of this Jamestown and is the work of this anniversary.
The New School will begin its anniversary preparation by calling for a curriculum disruption, October 12-18, 2017, on the topic of “<3/5’s: How inequality makes us weak.” Led by Professors Fullilove, Morrish, Sember, and Wiley, this disruption provides an opportunity to the faculty, staff and students to put aside “work as usual” to look at the 400 years of inequality from the perspective of each course, program and project. Students in the course “400 Years of Inequality” have made a timeline which will be displayed for all to see and elaborate. Out of these conversations will come the work of 2018, “4/5’s: Building Coalition,” and 2019, “5/5’s: The People’s Platform.”