Nikole Hannah-Jones Examines Racism From ‘Slaveocracy’ to ‘Democracy’

  • Nikole Hannah-Jones from The New York Times Magazine speaks about racial injustice and the role of African Americans in U.S. history during the morning lecture Tuesday, June 25, 2019. VISHAKHA GUPTA/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

With centuries of history on her side, Nikole Hannah-Jones argues that America was founded on a lie, and has spent 250 years trying its best to cover that up.

That lie originated with the slave trade of 1619, a year she said rivals in importance with 1776.

“It was the year 1619 that our decision to become a ‘slaveocracy,’ which is what we decided, is as important as our decision in 1776 to become a democracy,” Hannah-Jones said. “You can’t disentangle those two from the identity of our country, who we would ultimately come to be and who we are as a nation right now.”

Hannah-Jones, MacArthur Genius Grant Fellow and reporter for The New York Times Magazine, spoke at the 10:45 a.m. morning lecture Tuesday, June 25 in the Amphitheater, continuing Week One’s theme, “Moments That Changed the World.”

In 1619, a ship brought 20 African slaves ashore in the British colony of Jamestown, Virginia; this summer marks the 400th anniversary of forced migration to North America.

“It’s an amazing story of intrigue that lands this ship here,” Hannah-Jones said. “The slave trade of taking Africans of European powers, of taking Africans across the Middle Passage into the colonies of the Caribbean and South America, had already been going on since the late 1500s by the time this ship lands on the shores of North America.”

The slaves on the ship were from Angola, which, despite the popular narrative,  was a “highly advanced” society.

The Africans were stolen by the Portuguese and as they sailed to Virginia, the ship was robbed, overtaken and other colonial powers took the slaves on board. The slaves were traded for supplies.

“So, they traded these 20 human beings who managed to make it across the Middle Passage and into the Virginia colony in order to get supplies, and then they sailed down south to drop off the rest of those enslaved people, who they treated as cargo, into the Caribbean,” Hannah-Jones said.

The decision of those original settlers to purchase human beings and force them across the ocean has left “nothing in America untouched,” according to Hannah-Jones.

“You can look across the spectrum of American life and see that that very early decision that we were going to join the African slave trade has had ramifications across every aspect of our society,” she said.

Hannah-Jones said most people are unaware of the extensive history of slavery because the majority of American textbooks only devote a few pages on the issue.

“That’s intentional,” she said. “W. E. B. Du Bois called this ‘the propaganda of history,’ that in trying to make the mythology of America, we had to downplay the role of slavery because slavery is incompatible with democracy.”

Because of that “propaganda of history,” Hannah-Jones said she still hears people make the argument that since many countries practiced slavery, the United States was not unique in its wrongdoing.

“There was no system of slavery that the world had ever known like the trans-Atlantic slave trade,” she said. “The trade went from Europe to Africa, where Africans were either stolen, kidnapped or sold into slavery, and then they were traded into the new colonies that European countries had settled in both the Caribbean, South America and the United States.”

Over the course of the slave trade, there were more than 36,000 slave voyages.

“Think about that sheer number of ships going to Africa and robbing Africa of its youngest people — 36,000,” she said. “The best number that we have is that 13 million Africans were brought across that Middle Passage. Some go as high as 20 million.”

The magnitude of slaves transported resulted in the reformation of the entire Western Hemisphere, Hannah-Jones said.

“Those countries that you are vacationing on are all black because of the slave trade,” she said. “We completely remade new countries, new black countries because we transported so many millions of Africans across the ocean to build these lands.”

Hannah-Jones told the story of Olaudah Equiano, a slave who, once free, wrote a book about his experiences being transported on the Middle Passage.

“He talked about the shrieks of the women and the groans of the dying and wishing, wishing that he would die too,” she said. “(He was) actually feeling that he wanted to join them, that he would rather die than have to endure this passage to a place that they did not know. They could only imagine how terrible the place would be where they were going if this was the way that they were getting there.”

The ironic connection to 1776 begins with Thomas Jefferson’s famous line in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among those are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

“We believe this to our core,” Hannah-Jones said. “This is what makes America an exceptional country, except what we also know is even as Thomas Jefferson was using his quill pen to draft those words on parchment, he was holding more than 200 human beings in bondage himself, including his own children.”

Hannah-Jones said people try to excuse the behavior of Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers, stating they were simply men of their time who didn’t know any better.

“They know that it is wrong and they know that it is hypocritical to say that you are going to start a nation based on the individual rights of men, a nation that would be the freest and most libertarian country the world has ever seen, while holding a fifth of your population in bondage,” she said.

To deal with the conflicting nature of the issue, Jefferson wrote about slavery in the original Declaration of Independence, blaming it on the king of Britain for bringing slavery into the Colonies in the first place.

“He is attempting to have clean hands, he is attempting to say that the Colonies did not want slavery, it was forced upon them,” Hannah-Jones said. “That passage is not in the Declaration of Independence that you can go see in Philadelphia and that is because, already by this time, the economy of the United States is intrinsically connected to slavery.”

In addition to the idea that the Founding Fathers didn’t know any better, Hannah-Jones has also been told these men were unaware that “black people are human beings,” another misconception she found easy to discredit.

“One does not believe that Africans are not human beings, but make it illegal for them to read,” she said. “You don’t have to make it illegal for animals to read. You don’t have to spend so much time trying to legislate against people who are running away and rebelling and resisting if they’re not actually human beings.”

To further understand American slavery, Hannah-Jones said one has to understand how it differed from slavery that functioned in other parts of the world. Unlike slavery outside of the country, slavery in the United States fell under five different categories: It was racial, it was heritable, slaves were treated as property, they operated under social deaths and, lastly, slavery was permanent.

“We are an exceptional country in that we invented an exceptional institution of slavery,” she said.

But the discrimination of Africans did not end with slavery itself. Even people opposed to slavery were opposed to black equality.

“Most abolitionists wanted to end slavery and then they wanted to get rid of the black people who were here,” she said. “We actually believed as a nation that black people were incompatible with democracy. Once black people could no longer be used as free labor, black people should cease to exist in the United States.” 

The racism that developed to justify the trafficking of human beings became an irreversible part of America, according to Hannah-Jones.

“The institution of slavery can end, but it can’t end this belief about the inherent inferiority of black people or the problem of people who are forced to live under that system,” she said.

Hannah-Jones said the most ironic thing about the history of slavery is that black people were actually the “most American of all Americans.”

“Africans were made black,” she said. “They were shorn of any of those connections, they were forced to create a country anew here in this country. There are no countries to go back to. The names of black people are the names of people who enslaved them. There is no tongue that you could learn, there is no connection you can make. Those who were considered the least, actually ended up being the most.”

That irony echoes that of the lie Hannah-Jones said America was founded on: America was founded on the inalienable rights of men, rights that 20% of the population could not and would never possess.

“I always say that black people are the most inconvenient people in America because we are the constant reminder of that lie,” Hannah-Jones said. “We only exist because of that lie.”

Even today, it is on the backs of black people that “we get as much democracy as we have,” Hannah-Jones said. For example, black people are involved in the armed services at the highest rates of any other group in America.

“Imagine such a belief in the ideals of a country that didn’t even include you, that you would die for a country and for beliefs that you hoped would one day include your own people,” she said.

Because of the suffering black people have endured, Hannah-Jones said they often play the role of trying to assure rights for everyone, a role she saw play out in the 2016 election.

“The black vote was not split on Donald Trump,” she said. “More than 90% of black people voted against Donald Trump, more than any other group. They did not get caught up in the wave of anti-immigrant sentiment. They didn’t buy into any of that rhetoric because who knows better the cost of xenophobia than black Americans.”

According to Hannah-Jones, data shows that black people are the most progressive of all Americans, consistently voting for issues that push America toward the common good more than any other group. However, she said that this is not to say black people are more progressive because there is something “magically great” about them, but that because of their particular experience in American history, black people are “extremely empathetic to the suffering of others.”

“If we really want to be a democracy, if we really want to be a country who cares about all of our citizens, not just ourselves, if we want to live up to those founding ideals, follow the lead of your most American of Americans,” Hannah-Jones said. “Trust black women, starting with this one.”
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The author Jamie Landers

Jamie Landers is entering her third season as a reporter for The Chautauquan Daily, covering all things music-related within the online platform. Previously, she recapped the Chautauqua Lecture Series in 2019 and the Interfaith Lecture Series in 2018. In addition, she is a rising senior at The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism in Phoenix, Arizona, where she most recently served as a breaking news reporter for The Arizona Republic, as well as a documentary producer for Arizona PBS.