Trump commemorates the 400th anniversary of the Jamestown assembly as racism and history collide

America must remember our shared beginnings, our shared sacrifices, our shared history and, yes, our shared mistakes.
Image: President Donald Trump takes a tour of the James Fort Replica during the 400th Anniversary of the First Representative Legislative Assembly at Jamestown, Virginia, on July 30, 2019.
President Donald Trump takes a tour of the James Fort Replica at Jamestown, Virginia, on July 30, 2019.Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP - Getty Images
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By Sophia A. Nelson, author and journalist

President Donald Trump came to my home state on Tuesday, becoming the first president to address a joint assembly of the Virginia Legislature. His topic? The 400th anniversary of Virginia's legislative body, the oldest operating representative democracy in the Western Hemisphere. But this anniversary is about more than democracy — it also commemorates the arrival of the first 20 African slaves on the shores of Fort Comfort (present day Hampton Roads) in August 1619.

The anniversary comes at a complicated time for racial politics. Trump has been deeply embroiled in racial politics over the past few weeks. Thus, what could have been an easy presidential moment was instead a controversial one. His comments targeting four democratic congresswomen of color and, more recently, House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings and the city of Baltimore have divided America. Trump's claims that the historic port city was “disgusting, rat and rodent infested” were not received well by its actual residents. At a campaign rally in North Carolina, Trump's large, mostly white audience chanted “send her back” about Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., a U.S. citizen.

Amid these incidents, a Fox News poll last week found that 52 percent of white respondents and 73 percent of nonwhites said Trump does not respect racial minorities. A companion poll released on July 30 by Quinnipiac University found more interesting results: Less than 8 percent of Republicans think he is racist, while over 90 percent of African Americans think so. Only 21 percent of white Evangelicals believe the president is racist, while 63 percent of voters who don't affiliate with any organized religion do so.

As we in Virginia end the summer celebrating what has been officially dubbed “American Evolution,” there has been sharp disagreement brewing in some historical camps about what should be the focal point. Some African American historians say that the official state commission is not focusing on what matters — the 1619 arrival of slaves in Virginia — and is instead emphasizing the anniversary’s importance in the context of the birth of “democracy.”

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Dr. Colita Fairfax, a Norfolk State University sociology professor and co-chairman of the Hampton Roads Commemorative Commission, said that “what happened in 1619 staged America as a race-based nation, with race-based laws, institutions and treatment of black people.”

But according to Fairfax, Virginia has unfortunately de-emphasized the slavery aspect. “They have committees that are focused on the House of Burgess, the first 'Thanksgiving' and the 1620 arrival of Englishwomen,” she told me. “These competing committees have, in my opinion, compromised resources, attention and focus from analyzing and educating people about slavery and racism.”

I could not agree more.

I think Virginia Delegate Ibraheem Samirah has it right. When asked why he interrupted Trump’s speech on Tuesday, Samirah said, “Nobody’s racism and bigotry should be excused for the sake of being polite."

This is the American race problem in a nutshell. How accurately do we talk about race, and how accurately do we teach about race, so that present and future generations do not repeat the horrors of America’s racial past? The truth is we do not accurately educate ourselves, or our children. We would prefer to look the other way at Trump’s racist trolling and nativism. We say, “Oh, that’s just Trump being Trump.”

How accurately do we talk about race, and how accurately do we teach about race, so that present and future generations do not repeat the horrors of America’s racial past?

But it isn’t just Trump and the polling data that makes this point so painfully clear. Perhaps former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said it best in this 2008 Washington Times editorial board interview: “Black Americans were a founding population. Africans and Europeans came here and founded this country together — Europeans by choice and Africans in chains. That’s not a very pretty reality of our founding. That particular birth defect makes it hard for us to confront it, hard for us to talk about it, and hard for us to realize that it has continuing relevance for who we are today.”

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How far have we really come in 2019, when three young white fraternity boys at Ole’ Miss shoot at a road marker dedicated to Emmett Till and pose on social media with their guns? How far have we come when an American president fans the flames of race and racism in 2019 by attacking four duly elected members of Congress and implies that they are less worthy of their citizenship because they are not white? Yes, we have had a black president, but a few years later our nation feels even more divided than it was before.

Let me end with this: When the first slaves arrived in Virginia in 1619, it marked the moment when African culture became an improbable, yet enduring influence on the development of America. Slavery guaranteed that African culture and English culture would forever be linked to this beloved nation of ours, sharing in our culture, faith and even our blood lines — including those of men like Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence and America’s third president, who fathered six children with his slave Sally Hemings.

The time has come for us as Americans to wake up. Our nation right now, according to sworn testimony by former special counsel Robert Mueller, is under attack from foreign adversaries. Yet, we rip and tear at one another. What we need now is candor about our origins, and how we are going to choose to go forward. We must take this historic moment in Jamestown and honor it in a way that we never have, dating back to when our great democratic republic was formed in 1776.

I am not suggesting that we have some fake kumbaya moment that demands sameness of thought. After all, it is our ability to be different — to think differently and believe differently — that makes America great. I am talking about we the people having the courage to stand up and truly embrace the very inclusion, equality and diversity that Jefferson wrote so eloquently about in the Declaration of Independence. Four hundred years ago, America was just one colony: Virginia. That colony — while imperfect — launched a great nation. And it is here that we must begin, anew, and that we must remember our shared beginnings, our shared sacrifices, our shared history and, yes, our shared mistakes.