History is time travel: 398 years ago, in 1619, the first African slaves landed on Virginia’s shores. In 1776, 157 years after the slaves’ forced arrival, the United States of America proclaimed its independence from England. With this declaration came a bounty of words that sought to enact, with a speech act of the highest order, the freedom of its citizens: “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 these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” We all know this most inspirational of sentences did not apply to the African slaves whose numbers had risen to nearly half a million between the years 1619 and 1776, establishing a four to one ratio of new liberated colonists to slaves. Life and liberty moved at different tempos; and, by the dawn of the Civil War in 1860, America’s slave population had grown to roughly 3.9 million.¹ It feels like ancient history; but, as you can see, the numbers in this sour little potted history grew exponentially, and things in the rearview mirror may be closer than they appear. In 1864, the United States of America passed the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery, with the exception that this peculiar institution could still be used as punishment for a crime (See Ava DuVernay’s 2016 documentary 13th for the lowdown on what that exception to the rule means). Free at last? In a staggering one-sentence paragraph, Wikipedia blankly states: “Official emancipation did not substantially alter the economic situation of most blacks who remained in the south.”²
The period between the end of the Reconstruction and the birth of the civil rights movement gave us a legacy of lynching and beatings combined with the denial of human rights typically referred to as Jim Crow (the name is thought to derive from a white performer who made his living performing in blackface). Suffice it to say that democracy, American style, limped its way to putative universal suffrage, with women gaining the right to vote in 1921, against a backdrop of laws and societal conventions that actively sought to prevent black men and women from exercising their rights to vote. Until at last we arrive in our moment, the 1960s—the age of post-modernity, the space-time continuum of the contemporary, and the decade of Arthur Jafa’s (and my own) birth. This decade gave us the Voting Rights Act in 1965, a government decree to ensure that laws designed to give people the right to vote would be enforced. One way of looking at this entire American situation is to conclude that our democracy is 53 years old.