Most American school children know that the Pilgrims set sail from England for “The New World” in 1620. There were “100 or so of them....” They were seeking freedom, especially religious freedom. In the U.S. we praise and commemorate this journey and arrival each year. Much less well known by school children or adults in the U.S. is that in 1619, “…20 and odd Negroes….” arrived in the English settlement we now call Virginia. Abducted, brutalized, enslaved and transported they were brought to the “The New World” from their homeland of Angola. Lost are their native names, language, customs and religion. What we know is captain William Tucker took two of them, a man and a woman, into his household and allowed them to marry. So, Isabella and Anthony were wed and gave birth to William the first recorded black child born in what would become the United States of America. William was baptized as an Anglican in 1624. This year in The United States, and in the Episcopal Church some will mark the 400th anniversary of the arrival of William’s parents, their fellow travelers. Of course, there’s no consensus in the nation or in the church about acknowledging and marking this anniversary. Marking Individual or communal participation in and benefit from past evils are rarely acknowledged or accepted. Rather, Professor Walter Bruggerman tells us that individuals and communities regularly dodge realities, no matter how apparent, “…by euphemism, denial or despair.” When it comes to the story of Africans transported and enslaved in America, the nation and the church have employed all three means. The landing of those first few people and William’s birth and baptism began a wildly iterating economic, cultural, physiological, political and theological system engineered to steal African labor and personhood for the purpose of creating capital to found and maintain a nation. This is easily verifiable. Yet, we avoid these inconvenient truths as individuals and stewards of institutions because they threaten the national mythology etched on monuments, sung as political and religious hymnody and penned in the soaring rhetoric of our founding documents. What violence did Thomas Jefferson do to his own conscience as he poetically spoke of freedom and liberty by day but slept next to an enslaved African woman each night?
What further complicates this anniversary is the longstanding role of the Anglican church in slavery. In the year William was baptized, 1624, the Bishop of London wrote, “And so far, is Christianity from discharging men from the duties of the station and condition in which it found them, that it lays them under stronger obligations to perform those duties . . . not only from the fear of men, but from a sense of duty to God, and the belief and expectation of a future account.” Given his statement, one wonders exactly what the Bishop of London would have had say about God’s clear bias for Moses, the enslaved Hebrews and the defeat of Pharaoh! According to Dr. Raphael Warnock, Senior Pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, “…the task of a so-called Christian slaveholding society became the construction and maintenance of a distorted theology that kept internal freedom and external freedom—piety and protest—wholly separate, while also holding at bay the revolutionary implications of each for a people in bondage.” And so, from 1664, the Upper house and Lower house of Maryland drew up an Act, “…obliging negroes to serve durante vita (for life) for the prevention of the damage Masters of such Slaves might sustain by such Slaves pretending to be Christians.”
Closer to us in the Diocese of Atlanta, is The University of the South in Sewanee Tennessee. The Diocese of Atlanta is an “Owning” Diocese of Sewanee and as such a supporter, shareholder and partner in the work of the University of the South. Through the brave conversation taking place there now, by the Project on Slavery, Race and Reconciliation, we are learning more about the founding ethos of Sewanee. For example, the Cornerstone of the school was laid in October 10, 1860 with the following words, “…the gravest mission ever entrusted to man [is], that of redeeming Christianity, through the portals of slavery, an inferior, subject, dependent and necessary race, on which his whole order of civilization is based.” What is popular to say by many when faced with archival documentation like this is simply that “those were the times and that was the thinking then.” But that response and explanation doesn’t seem to understand the residue of slavery left on its victims, other individuals, communities and institutions. When it comes to the apparatus of the development of white supremacy as a theology, economy, sociology and psychology we must never underestimate its malignancy in our country, culture or our souls no matter how benignly we frame it. William Faulkner’s popular quote is applicable and poignant here, “The past is never dead. It's not even past.” This is Toni Morrison’s point from her essay entitled, The Slave body and the Blackbody. “What is “peculiar,” she says “about New World slavery is not its existence but its conversion into the tenacity of racism. The dishonor associated with having been enslaved does not inevitably doom one’s heirs to vilification, demonetization, or crucifixion. What sustains these latter is racism.” Just this year, the state of Georgia and example of Morrison’s point was featured in an article in the New York Times. The article was about Keith “Bo” Tharpe, a man sentenced to death for the assault and murder of his sister-in-law. Bo has been on Death Row for 28 years. I have met and spoken with Bo. Bo is an African-American. Death Row in the State of Georgia is physically located in the heart of the Diocese of Atlanta, in Jackson Georgia. At the time of the Bo’s trial, a juror in the case signed an Affidavit stating that there are two types of black people: good ones and “niggers.” That same juror went on to wonder out loud, “if black people even have souls.” Of course, we know that ignorance and race hatred exist in Georgia and throughout the world, that is not the point. The point is that this juror and many other citizens of our country have been successfully formed either consciously and unconsciously by a country, culture and even a church to understand that those of African descent are inferior, spiritually and otherwise. Bo’s guilt or innocence in committing a crime should have been the focus of the juror, not wondering if the race of people to whom he belongs is endowed with a soul. How did the juror even get to that trajectory speculation? How many more Bo’s have suffered because of juries not of their peers that harbor and act on these same kinds of speculations?
To remember Isabella, Anthony and their arrival 400 years ago is to begin to understand that some of God’s children systematically stripped away and justified the abuse and diminishing of some of God’s other children and that the residue of those behaviors and systems lives on and may even be experiencing a new thriving today. Not only that, but that inhumanity by human beings one to the other, grieves God and corrodes the soul of the perpetrator and the victim. The opportunity for all of us now on this 400th anniversary is to pledge ourselves more fully to brave actions and conversations that intentionally acknowledge and address even the most difficult parts of our life together as an American family one community at a time. What is necessary on this journey is not shame, guilt or self-flagellation by some or unbridled rage by others but rather a mutual and inspired courage to interrogate our lives and the institutions we are a part of for collusion with unjust systems. What is certain as one theologian put it, at the end, what is irreducible is God and neighbor.
Reconnecting with Isabella, Anthony and William and their story has a had a profound effect on me personally and probably can be best summed up by Toni Morrison again, “Viewing this display of their force, their life-giving properties, their humanity, their joy, their will ought to be enough to forestall the reach of racism’s tentacles. Ought to be enough to protect us from its uninformed, uneducated, relentlessly toxic touch. Just as the commitment of this community ought to be enough. Don’t you think? Thank you.”
The Right Reverend Robert C. Wright
Bishop, Diocese of Atlanta