Queen Elizabeth’s Recent Tour Misses Historic Opportunity
A significant celebration in Washington DC interrupted the partisan squabbling between President Bush and the Congressional Democrats last week. However, the state visit by Queen Elizabeth II of England commemorating the 400th anniversary of America was not widely reported by the black media. Perhaps blacks’ lack of excitement over the event makes sense. After all, 2007 marks the 400th anniversary of the white settlement of Jamestown. The first blacks actually arrived in Jamestown in 1619, putting the 400th anniversary of blacks in America some 12 years in the future.
President George W. Bush and the Queen visited the historic town, but both of them failed to mention the importance of Jamestown for the future of American race relations. The Queen made no reference during her trip of the 20 black indentured servants who arrived in Jamestown shortly after the British Colonists. These first Africans worked the land in America years before the legendary Mayflower set sail for the New World. The 20 Africans were transported to America by Dutch sailors and purchased as indentured servants by the white colonists. Jamestown was thus the site of the first financial transaction involving blacks in America, a transaction that laid the groundwork for the slave trade. Small wonder neither President Bush nor the Queen thought that fact worth noting during the festivities.
The 400th year anniversary was yet another missed opportunity to publicize the little known history of blacks in America. I wonder whether even the Queen knows how far back black American history stretches. A little known fact about 17th century black history is that during that era, many blacks earned their freedom and purchased land. There was, for one brief shining moment, a period in American history when blacks and whites lived together without the oppressive racial barrier. Rhett S. Jones, professor of history at Brown University, states “neither black conservatives nor black liberals seem to be able to imagine an America in which raced did not matter. Yet one did.” In his well researched essay in Dimensions of Black Conservatism in the United States, Jones argues that race did not have to become the defining division within American society. Racism was not inevitable; it was chosen.
Jones’ history lesson should encourage us that America can once again become a nation where race matters less. Those first blacks who arrived as indentured servants were similar to many poor whites. They dreamed of paying off their debts, earning their freedom and acquiring property. Jones reminds us that many of them did so. However, as white colonists developed a more clearly defined sense of racial identity, blacks were excluded from white society. Slowly but steadily, black indentured servitude legally devolved into chattel slavery. We must remember, however, that black American history precedes slavery. Although much of American history reads like a tragedy to black Americans, we can celebrate 400 years of perseverance.
I would also urge whites to remember that no celebration of American history is complete without a specific reference to black history. Alexis De Tocqueville, author of the famed Democracy in America (1835), recognized his work would be incomplete without a study of the black condition. It is therefore disappointing that President Bush and the Queen both neglected to honor the legacy and contribution of blacks during their trip to Jamestown. During her state visit the Queen did not meet with the Black Caucus, a single black college president, a civil rights leader or even appear on the Oprah Winfrey show. I do not mean to harshly criticize the Queen, however, since it is the American leadership that failed to make the connection. I can almost guarantee, however, that the Queen will not return to celebrate the 400th anniversary of blacks in America come 2019. Even though blacks helped build this country from the ground up, many people continue to ignore the black contribution to America’s greatness.
The Queen didn’t need to take Rev. Jesse Jackson to lunch, but it would have been nice to have invited black representatives to the celebration of Jamestown, the birthplace of black American history. Significantly, Virginia was also the first state to elect a black governor and a black mayor of a major city, Richmond. America belongs to both whites and blacks and the President and the Queen missed an opportunity to remind us all of that fact.