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1619: The New York Times versus USA Today (and Hamilton)

On Sunday, February 2, 2020, USA Today had a special supplement “1619: Searching for Answers.” This 12-page insert was far shorter than The New York Times magazine version last August. It also has received far less attention. Unlike The New York Times product, there was no attempt here to replace July 4, 1776, with 1619, as the birthday of the country. There has been no blowback by the history community either. There has been no rush-to-adoption by schools and no curriculum materials were prepared in conjunction with the supplement that I am aware of.

Nonetheless, the USA Today version is of far more importance to the health of the country for what it does do in contrast to the polemical assault by The New York Times.   The USA Today 1619 supplement is one of hope, healing, and storytelling. Like Hamilton, it seeks to end the culture wars rather than to aggravate them.

The front page of the supplement is a picture of Wanda Tucker looking out to the ocean from a doorway at the National Slavery Museum in Morra Da Cruz, Brazil.

The above-the-fold picture on page 2 is again of Wanda Tucker. This time she is at the National Museum of Slavery at the outskirts of Luanda, Angola, on the opposite shore of the Atlantic. These two photographs mark the departure and arrival points for much of the Middle Passage. The byline for the article in Luanda. Right away, one notices a huge difference from The New York Times polemic which scarcely mentions Africa.

The article is about Wanda Tucker’s personal journey. It is entitled “The Long Road Home: Family Lore Sends her in Search of First Africans Taken to America.”  She thinks that she is a descendant of Anthony and Isabella Tucker, two of the Angolans who arrived in 1619 and are listed in a 1625 census in the household of Captain William Tucker.

Interestingly, the article refers to the 400,000 people taken from Africa. Typically one reads about the 12,500,000 people. That number refers to the entire Middle Passage; the 400,000 refers to those taken to what becomes the United States. It is a far smaller number. The difference reflects the choices the presenter makes about the intended impact on the audience. The larger number is much more intimidating and powerful. It is over twice the number of the Holocaust.

Wanda Tucker’s 7000-mile journey began in the seventh grade when she read in a textbook on Virginia history with Robert E. Lee on the cover:

Slavery was in many ways a harsh and cruel system. But slavery made it possible for the Negroes to come to America and to make contacts with civilized life.

These words and the accompanying racism she experienced growing up eventually led her to Luanda. The article notes that “Angola is barely mentioned in most histories of the slave trade, but this was where it had begun.” I made this point in my blog on The New York Times version (The Battle between 1619 and 1776: The New York Times versus the History Community) where there is practically no mention of Angola whatsoever yet alone a visit there. One should note that the slave trade referred to should be identified with the Middle Passage and not all slave trade.

The article also notes the justification of slavery through the identification of Africans as descendants of Cain. This biblical citation is an important part of the history of slavery in America. Although the original story of Cain and Abel has nothing whatsoever to do with black Africans, the use of the story has had unintended consequences for them.

The article also mentions the foremost Angolan individual of the 1600s, Njinga. She was the queen of the Ndongo and Matamba kingdoms. She did resist Portugal during those years. She did demand to be treated as an equal ruler meaning not as a vassal.  Not mentioned was she did become a Christian. She asked the Pope to recognize her kingdom as a Christian kingdom and he did. She build a stone church that became the largest building in the interior of Angola. She also was an ally of the Dutch against the Portuguese and she traded black African people for weapons. Her own culture did have human sacrifice and she did become part of the Imbangala who were cannibals who killed their young. And she was intensely ambitious. In a supplement of this nature, it is understandable why this part of her life was not mentioned. The truth of who she was as in individual human being makes her more of a Shakespearean figure (from the same time period) then she is as a symbol. In other words, Njinga should not become a designated African hero to be mentioned as Harriet Tubman often is in the United States as a symbol and not a person.

In any event, for Wanda Tucker, her 7000 mile journey on pages 2-3 of the supplement was a journey “home” to her African “family” where she could wrap her arms around a local black woman and dance.

The next article (page 4) is entitled “The Assignment: Follow a Family’s Search for Its Ancestry – The Result: I Found my Own History, too.” The author, Deborah Barfield Berry, was one of the reporters of the Wanda Tucker story. Once again the byline was Luanda, Angola.

It turns out by coincidence, Berry has a Tucker ancestor. The assignment made her wonder if she was connected to Wanda Tucker and therefore possibly to the 1619 Angolans. Berry accompanied Wanda Tucker and a cousin to the Tucker family cemetery in Virginia. She explored the oral traditions of her own family. She conducted genealogical research. As people in historical societies, libraries, and archives well know, genealogical research is one of the most frequent activities of visitors in person and online.  While today such research typically is done by white people, there is a growing realization that it can be done by black people, too. This article is about the research by one such person.

Naturally, this being the 21st century, Berry also had her DNA tested. It did identify some links to the Congo and Southern Bantu but not directly to Angola. The Kingdom of Kongo where the Portuguese first arrived in 1482/3, is in modern Angola and the people were Bantu so perhaps Berry has a connection she didn’t note in the article. She also has links to England, Ireland, Wales, and Northwestern Europe, probably a reflection of America as a non-voluntary genetic melting pot.

Berry concludes her article with:

I spent 10 days on the road in Angola with a woman I didn’t know I was related to. By the end of that life-changing adventure, we had bonded like a family.

                I called Wanda. “Hello, cousin,” I said.    

This personal touch is precisely what The New York Times 1619 Project and shows precisely why the USA Today version offers a much hopeful vision of America.

Moving on, the family focus continues on page 5 with an above-the-fold photograph of the Tucker family. The article is entitled: “Founding Family Still Searching.” Berry is one of the co-reporters and byline is Hampton, Virginia. It is a reprint of an article from August 23, 2019, which I already had downloaded. Note the publication date around the time when the 400th anniversary actually occurred.

The article is about the Tucker cemetery mention above. It also is about the efforts of the Tucker family to research, document, and maintain the cemetery and in so doing, maintain the family over many generations.

One item of interest is the mention of the fact that Virginia in 1619 did not have a law either permitting or banning slavery. In my post on The New York Times 1619 Project, I faulted them for its all whites are alike approach. Northern Europe unlike the Mediterranean world had limited experience with slavery. It had not developed the legal mechanisms to account for it. Suddenly in 1619 in Virginia and 1626 in New Amsterdam, the English and Dutch did have to address it. In Virginia, a process began whereby slaves became property whereas in Africa slaves were people. The USA Today 1619 supplement is not meant to be a definitive history but elements of its storytelling can serve as a springboard for discussion should one want to use it in the classroom.

The next article, “Her Name and Story Reach Across Time: Angela Is a Symbol and a Touchstone for a People’s Heritage” is a reprint of an article from October 18, 2019, which I had downloaded when it was first published.  This two-page article (pages 6-7) begins with an above-the-fold picture of Valerie Gray-Holmes portraying Angela in Jamestown. The article begins with what it means to her to portray this historically real person. Angela also appears in the 1625 census mentioned above, in the household of Captain William Pierce.

The article provides context to both slavery and racism of the time. This reporter uses the figure 360,000 for the number of Middle Passage blacks to America. It notes the efforts to recreate the world as it existed then through the work of the National Park Service, the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation, and scholars like Linda Heywood and John Thornton. The latter spoke to our Westchester Society of the Archaeological Institute of America on November 9, 2003, at the Chappaqua Library. His abstract was:

Kingdom of Congo: Continuity and Change from Africa to America

While many Americans are familiar with the significant events of 1492 in Iberia and America, not many are aware of the key events of 1491.  Prior to Columbus sailing west, the Portuguese had been sailing south along the western coast in Africa.  In 1491 they successfully converted the Kongo kingdom to Christianity.  This event had tremendous impact not only on the Kongolese culture but on the individual Africans who passed through that region before being brought to America.  Only thanks to research at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, are we now able to reconstruct the pre-colonial culture and determine what did and did not survive the Middle Passage.

It was that lecture that made me realize that the Middle Passage involved kingdoms and not simply small isolated villages and that the people had become Catholic in Africa independent of the slave trade. Lately, I have been doing a lot of reading by these scholars in my own investigation of the landing in 1685 in the Town of Rye where I live of 9 Angolans, 8 of whom went on to help build Philipsburg Manor. My journey has a different perspective as I am seeking to learn about the history of my geographic community and not biological ancestors but it has drawn me to the same sources Valerie Gray-Holmes has pursued.  I am pleased that USA Today included this African and Angolan material whereas New York Times 1619 Project did not.  Despite all the hoopla about the latter, the USA Today version is a superior starting point for a curriculum about 1619.

In the next article, the focus shifts to the present (page 8): “Reparations Still Elusive: Nations Resist Atoning for Slavery, but some Universities Set Example.”  This article reports on the current political situation in both the United States and various Caribbean island. As the title says, most of the reporting is on what various colleges and universities have done or are starting to do.

The scene shifts in the next article to Augustine, Florida. The article (page 9), “US Slavery Didn’t Start in Jamestown – Historian: Anniversary ‘robbing black history.’” It is a reprint of an article published December 17, 2019, which I already had downloaded. The article focuses on the Spanish in Florida beginning in 1565. In so doing, it indicates an issue in American history today. Scholars frequently use the term “Atlantic History” to suggest less of a focus on the 13 colonies that became the United States on July 4, 1776, and to recognize that these 13 were part of a larger world. It challenges people to look beyond these colonies. Florida was not part of the United States but it did become a state. Therefore, its history is part of American history just as what the Pilgrims did long before there was a United States was or for that matter what the various Indian peoples from sea to shining sea did. Again, it is easy to see how this article could be a springboard for discussion in a classroom setting.

The next article raises an important question for history museums and municipalities (page 10): “Not all historic sites have harsh truths on display.” The above-the fold picture is of Terry Brown, the National Park Service superintendent standing before a sign at Fort Monroe, Virginia, about 1619. The article raises a national issue of “how to portray the harsh truths of the past.”  Hamilton asks “Who will tell the story?” but the related question is “How will we tell the story?” The answer(s) America develops to 1619, 1776, and the Confederacy will determine whether or not we remain a single country that can celebrate our 250th anniversary in 2026 or whether we divide into our constituent parts and admit the experiment the Founding Fathers initiated has finally failed. Once again, it is easy to see how this article could be a springboard for discussion in a classroom setting.

In the final article (page 11), we come full circle. We are back with Wanda Tucker. This time her journey took her to the white Tuckers here in America. Pam Tucker had wondered about her own family history. When she read the article in USA Today later reprinted in this 1619 supplement, she learned about her Tucker past.  USA Today arranged for Pam and Wanda Tucker to travel to Virginia. The article recounts Pam’s own investigation to her heritage and her meeting with the other Tucker family she never knew.  The picture is of Pam and Wanda hugging. The narrative is of them holding hands.

The final page (page 12) is maps and charts. There is an above-the-fold map tracing the 5 steps of the voyage from Angola to Virginia. A chart breaks down the destinations of the estimated 359,106 [that’s a pretty exact number for an estimate!].  South Carolina looks like it received over half the Africans with Virginia about a third. These ratios suggests the importance of tobacco and rice. Another chart prepared with the support of The Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture shows a reduction from every 1000 Africans taken in the interior of Africa (by other Africans) to only 640 reach the coast alive and only 570 remaining alive before they even board the ship. Besides the 430 who die in Africa, another 90 die during transport leaving 480 of the original 1000 still alive when they reach America. Once again, it is easy to see how these graphics could be a springboard for discussion in a classroom setting.

As the reader of this blog can tell, I strongly prefer the USA Today version of 1619 to The New York Times version. In the musical Hamilton, the figure of George Washington is played by a black man. According to The New York Times, it is anathema for a Middle Passage descendant to perform in the role of a slave owner who was fighting to preserve slavocracy. Hamilton offers an alternative view. It sings to all Americans accepting July 4 as the birthday of their country no matter when they arrived in this country or how. This is the message Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg. USA Today tells a similar story. Whereas The New York Times points a finger at America (choose which one), USA Today offers hugs and holding hands. Whereas The New York Times seeks to aggravate the culture wars so the correct side wins, USA Today seeks for us to learn to live together. Whereas The New York Times seeks to divide America, USA Today seeks to heal a nation. It is unfortunate that The New York Times is the version that will be used in the classroom and USA Today is the version that will not be.