Aside from providing the opportunity for family gatherings and monumental traffic gridlocks, Thanksgiving offers the quintessential creation story, one familiar to every American school child.

It’s the saga of how the first permanent British colonial settlement in New England was established at Plymouth in November 1620, how the Pilgrim settlers endured starvation, disease and exposure through a bitter winter, and how, with the help of local Native Americans, they learned to cultivate corn, draw maple sap and catch fish, thereby enabling them to survive. A year later, after their first successful corn harvest, the settlers held a celebratory festival to which they invited their native allies. It was the first Thanksgiving, a day we lovingly commemorate it each year on the fourth Thursday of November.

To be sure, the Thanksgiving story is inspiring.

However, a far more transformative landmark in our history occurred the year before, one rarely mentioned in American history textbooks — the arrival of the first African slaves to what would later become the United States.

This and many other critical events of Black American history are the subject of “The 1619 Project,” originally a New York Times Magazine series and later a book of 18 essays, published last year.

The goal of the editor of The 1619 Project was an ambitious one — to refocus the lens through which U.S. history is taught so that it gives full recognition to the ways in which African-Americans have profoundly shaped this country.

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The book has led to such a political hullabaloo since its publication that I decided to read it and find out for myself why it’s making Republican politicians across the country apoplectic, causing them to howl for its exclusion from school curriculums.

My conclusion: The 1619 Project represents a solid piece of scholarship and a long overdue reframing of the traditional historical narrative that is commonly taught in primary, secondary and post-secondary U.S. schools. It not only describes the violence, brutality and degradation inflicted on African-Americans over the past 400 years but highlights the important and heroic contributions they’ve made, despite their terrible mistreatment, to the intellectual, artistic, social, economic and political foundations of this country.

It conveys uncomfortable truths which may, indeed, upset some school children. Hopefully, though, it will also instill in them a determination to right the wrongs of the past and to guard against their recurrence in the future.

In 1619, colonists of the recently founded settlement of Jamestown (now in Virginia) purchased the first African slaves brought to British North America, 20 to 30 unfortunate souls sold by English pirates who had stolen them from a Portuguese slave ship.

The 1619 Project contains many revelations, startling for those unfamiliar with African-American history, about what happened to some 400,000 Blacks forcefully shipped here from Africa and the Caribbean between 1619 and 1800, a population that grew to 4 million by the start of the Civil War.

We learn, for instance, that Black slaves, through cultivation of staple crops like rice and tobacco, made the South the most economically prosperous region of the American colonies and that four of the first five U.S. presidents, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe, were all wealthy owners of plantations (dubbed by the authors “forced labor camps”) worked by 100 or more slaves. In all, eight of the first 10 presidents owned slaves.

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After the American Revolution, cotton, grown and picked by slaves, “became the nation’s most valuable export, accounting for half of American goods sold abroad and more than two-thirds of the world’s supply.” That cotton was also was transported “to textile mills in the North, fueling this country’s Industrial Revolution.”

Profits earned from slaves “helped the young nation pay off its war debts and financed some of our most prestigious universities,” and “the buying, selling, insuring, and financing of their bodies and the products of their forced labor would help make Wall Street a thriving banking, insurance, and trading center.”

By the American Revolution, the economic importance of slavery and fear of the revenge slaves could wreak upon their White masters if they gained their freedom had led to a rigid racial caste system, embodied in law and enforced by plantation overseers and local militias. Because this treatment was inconsistent with the Declaration of Independence’s lofty prose that “ all men are created equal,” a racial ideology developed which portrayed Blacks as subhuman –inherently inferior, lazy, stupid, licentious and dangerous if unrestrained.

Slaves were not allowed to travel freely, to assemble, to learn to read or write, or to bear arms. Because they were considered property, they were not legally protected from violence, or even murder, though they faced severest penalties if they harmed a White person.

Despite espousing the ideal of female chastity and male civility, white masters frequently forced themselves sexually upon their Black female slaves. Children born of these unions were themselves deemed slaves, thus creating an economic incentive (since they were valuable commodities who could be worked or split off from their families and sold), as well as a libidinous one, for such illicit unions.

The 1619 Project describes slavery as a primary cause of the American Revolution and an issue which played a pivotal role in the creation of the United States and drafting of the Constitution.

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Before rebellion reached the Southern colonies in the lead-up to the American Revolution, Virginia’s Royal Governor, the Earl of Dunsmore, issued a proclamation warning that if the people in his colony took up arms against the Crown, he would “declare Freedom to the slaves.” The Dunsmore Proclamation, by sparking a fear of impending slave emancipation, was enough to tip such prominent Virginia leaders as Washington, Jefferson and Madison into joining the patriot camp.

Slavery was not just an issue in the creation of the Constitution, it was the most important issue. Without it, the Southern colonies would not have joined the U.S. Of the 84 clauses in the Constitution, “six deal directly with the enslaved and their enslavement” and “five more hold implications for slavery,” although these provisions were phrased in veiled language to avoid direct reference to the institution.

In ways too numerous to recount in this column, the racial attitudes and behaviors established through slavery persisted long after its abolition in 1865. The 1619 Project addresses these in great detail and provides insights into the racial divide which plagues this country to the present day.

It’s a book that shouldn’t be banned from schools. It should be required reading.

Elliott Epstein is a trial lawyer with Andrucki & King in Lewiston. His Rearview Mirror column, which has appeared in the Sun Journal for 16 years, analyzes current events in an historical context. He is also the author of “Lucifer’s Child,” a book about the notorious 1984 child murder of Angela Palmer. He may be contacted at [email protected]


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