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Four hundred years of African-American history

Four hundred years of African-American history

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Black lives have always mattered. How they mattered throughout the entire course of American history, from the first colonial settlements onward, tells us who we are as a people. In February of this year, a congressional proposal was made to establish the 400 Years of African-American History Commission. In light of this, I have a few thoughts I’d like to share.

We have not arrived at a “post-racial” moment when we can erase the legacies of slavery, segregation, and discrimination in the way we now live. Getting the story straight is not an exercise in overcompensating for white liberal guilt, or “political correctness.”

A more capacious and inclusive account of the many stories that constitute our shared history and national identity enables us to see one another and ourselves more clearly. Our history may seem to belie the inspiring credo of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.” But in recognizing the equality, common humanity and history of all of our ancestors — black and white, free and enslaved — Thomas Jefferson’s rhetoric may be redeemed.


To say that America was once “great” and might be great “again,” if we could only restore the founders’ “golden age,” is to betray their progressive vision. Jefferson and his fellow patriots saw independence as the dawning of a new day, not just for themselves but for all mankind.

In the midst of the Revolutionary struggle against Britain, Jefferson saw that slavery was a great injustice that made a mockery of the values freedom-loving Americans claimed to stand for. He knew — and we should know — that his era was not a golden age.

Yet there was a promise of better things to come, even if slave-holding Virginians could not see the way forward. It was a promise that enslaved Virginians recognized. When the opportunity arose, large numbers — including 30 people Jefferson “owned” — fled to freedom behind British lines. This was a moment of popular, democratic enlightenment for black Virginians that paralleled the Revolutionary mobilization and empowerment of white Americans with which Jefferson is so appropriately remembered.


The temptation might be to tell two, “separate but equal” stories about the Revolution in Virginia. That would be a mistake, for the fates of white and black Virginians were inextricably entangled, whether in wartime conflict or in the persistence and expansion of the peculiar institution after the war.

In the “first emancipation,” African-Americans gradually gained their freedom in northern states; even in Virginia, liberalized provisions for manumission gave rise to a growing free black population.

The best outcome for these freedpeople, Jefferson and other exponents of “colonization” concluded, was to send them back to Africa. But few were willing to accept the offer. Despite the discrimination and abuse they continued to suffer, even in “free” states, most freedpeople thought of themselves as “African-Americans.” America, not Africa, was their homeland, and their attachment to a “country” that did not fully acknowledge their equality was critical to the making of America.

The determination to stay was a practical and profound expression of the patriotism — love of the patria or “country” — that has enabled this nation of immigrants to forge a common identity.


African-American history is American history. Certainly for many African-Americans across the centuries, the “pursuit of happiness” that the Declaration promised has faced many obstacles, often impossible to overcome. The struggle for equal rights and genuine recognition continues to be daunting.

The challenge for Americans now is to recognize ourselves as a people in all of the stories that constitute our shared past. This recognition does not erase or obliterate the distinctive experiences of particular groups of Americans, nor does it reduce American history to a single, neat division between privileged whites and oppressed blacks. Our history is much more complicated and interesting than that: recognizing that complexity will enable us to see the way forward, sensitive to our differences and committed to our equality as citizens.

For Americans, seeing clearly is critical. We need more history to enable that vision in — and for — the future. We need to see that history in the memorial landscape, in statues, monuments, and historic sites; we need to see it in the ways we recover and accurately represent the lived experiences of all Americans across the generations.

What we see will often be troubling; we may wonder how our ancestors could do things — to each other, to themselves — that we now rightly condemn. But we may also learn to avoid self-righteous judgments on them, conscious of the humanity we share with all who came before us and of the judgments future generations will be prone to make on us.

Will we be able to say that we have embraced the equality principle in the ways we remember the past? Will we see ourselves in our history?

Peter Onuf is the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Professor of History, Emeritus, at the University of Virginia and senior research fellow for the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello. He is co-author with Annette Gordon-Reed of “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs” and the co-host of BackStory with the American History Guys. Contact him at

In the midst of the Revolutionary struggle against Britain, Jefferson saw that slavery was a great injustice that made a mockery of the values freedom-loving Americans claimed to stand for.



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