This Sunday Trinity will join with Episcopal churches across the country in ringing bells to commemorate the landing of the first enslaved Africans in English North America, 400 years ago this month. In late August, 1619 “20 and odd” African men, the cargo of a stolen Spanish ship called the White Lion, were brought to Point Comfort, Virginia and most likely traded for food and supplies. This was a beginning, and a wretched one at that: 20 children of God whose arrival forever shaped our country and our identity, giving way to an economy and an enduring culture that could not be separated from its founding sin.
400 years is a long time: four centuries, generations and generations over which a culture can form and cast deep, lasting roots.
Sometimes it is the very amount of time that matters. Cultures require time to form, as artifacts and words and ideas are passed between generations, as the residue of defining events and moments, from Port Comfort to Gettysburg to Selma, work their way down into the deepest layers of the soil.
The span of years matters. The farther we go back into our past to trace our origins, the harder it becomes to separate the tangled roots of our establishing sins from the mythologized beginnings that we prefer to claim. As the roots burrow down and the decades become centuries, the pathology of racism passes from aberration to enmeshment to becoming a core part of the culture itself. It begins to shape our language, our art, our built environment, our politics. It remains hidden from our view, yet it profoundly shapes our ideas of who we are…and who our neighbors are.
Slavery has not persisted for all those centuries, yet 400 is a mighty denominator that should humble and chasten us lest we begin to think that its legacy is a thing of the past. For 244 years slavery remained the law of the land, whether British or American: this land has known far more years of slavery than even the conditional freedom that came with abolition.
The cultural mechanisms that perpetuated slavery for so many centuries endured far longer than the institution itself, for racism is the continuing echo of that enforcement. Through the pitting of poor whites against enslaved blacks, the creation of “whiteness” fertilized our cultural roots with a false sense of race and superiority. Jim Crow would continue to enforce and nourish the culture for a century after emancipation. Redlining in the early 20th century would redesign our cities to separate and trap wealth on the white side of the tracks. The current plagues of mass incarceration and housing equity, which directly impact African American men and women, respectively, must also be seen not as stories unto themselves but against the backdrop of four centuries of a culture shaped by a distorted view of our common humanity.
Words have the power to heal or to wound, to exploit or to reconcile. Ours words matter today precisely because of this long and troubled history. Perhaps because of those 400 years of history, public rhetoric and private talk that taps into our deep cultural reserves of racism and bigotry of must be regarded, whether intentionally or not, as enforcing and perpetuating the part of our heritage that can be traced to a terrible August day in Port Comfort, Virginia.
Churches, my own included, have played their own complicit part in this story. And so we will ring our bells this Sunday, offering a public symbol of presence that will speak of contrition, hope and healing.
400 years is a long time, but the church at its best takes an even longer view than that. We must look back and consider and remember several dozen souls whose names are lost to history and who were stripped of their dignity in life, but who we trust rest with God now. Perhaps, if we want to be religious about it (and I should think we do), those twenty-odd souls are even interceding for us.
As the church, perhaps we can have the audacity and the humility to look faithfully to what our church and our culture will look like in another 400 years, and hope that a moment of reckoning today can plant the seeds of a culture that will become a closer reflection of who we claim to be.