- 1619: The Making of America
In Time and Narrative(University of Chicago Press, 1990), Paul Ricoeur asserts that “time becomes human time to the extent that it is organized after the manner of a narrative; a narrative, in turn, is meaningful to the extent that it portrays the features of temporal experience” (ix). “1619: The Making of America” took up the demanding task of making time human by exploring narrative portrayals of the “temporal experience” of West African people in and around the year 1619 in Point Comfort (now Fort Monroe), Virginia, the date and site of the first African slave sale in North America.
Featuring scholars representing a broad range of expertise, the conference included presentations, panels, and performances, as well as extensive informal discussion. Experts from the fields of history, literature, law, anthropology, creative writing, and the performing arts offered engaging approaches that together attested to the essential role these narratives played in the formation of Atlantic world culture. Selective rather than comprehensive in scope, this review attempts to convey the spirit of commemoration and respect generated by this two-day meeting.
The daunting task of sifting through the incomplete archive of the West African diaspora directly correlates with the inconsistent accounts of the phenomenon that the “1619” conference hoped to address. Calvin Pearson, the conference’s opening presenter, said that the captors of the Angolan slaves held the pen of African American history in their hands, representing a people who were rich in culture and history, yet were not allowed to represent themselves. Ironically, it was John Rolfe, husband of Pocahontas, [End Page 607]who recorded the very first sale of West African people at Point Comfort, suggesting the interesting ways in which diverse cultural narratives converge on this point. The location of this significant transaction has been historically subsumed, however, within the more familiar framework of the Jamestown settlement, a misunderstanding that typifies the kinds of scholarly misrepresentations that cluster around 1619. The conference found itself challenging such elisions while being conscious that it, too, contributed to an ongoing narrative construction.
The overall tone for the conference was set with a performance by Brenda Tucker, a direct descendant of William Tucker, who is believed to be the first African born in North America. Tucker performed a West African water ritual and chant to invoke the spirits of the ancestors and represent the continuance of African narrative; a solemn performance of “How Come We Here Lord” evoked the emotional and spiritual transformations of African narrative as it entered into the domain of American slavery. Tucker’s performances underscored the syncretic practices, including African oral traditions, typically absent from the archive. Her work served as a call to remember that the story of the West African diaspora began not in Point Comfort but in Angola. Through this shifting of geographical emphasis, she metaphorically reclaimed the authorial pen of history.
Ben Vinson’s presentation, “The African Diaspora: Questions and Considerations Drawn from an Afro-Latin American View,” focused on the 120 years leading up to 1619. Vinson retraced the origins of the African slave diaspora not to Africa but to Portugal and Spain. In South America, he asserted, Spanish and Portuguese merchants and servants worked alongside each other to restructure native regimes. Vinson suggests that twenty thousand black slaves were already in Mexico by the year 1619 and argues that they contributed to the economic force of the South American colonies by becoming expert at European trades: as cobblers, textile designers, carpenters, and so on. By 1650, thirty years after the first sale of African slaves at Point Comfort, Mexico was the world leader in numbers of people imported into slavery from West Africa. Vinson suggests that the Spanish-American system of slavery be included in North American historical narratives so as to take into account that African slavery was not homogenous, that the diaspora of African people was not limited to British and North American experiences, and that the sale of the Angolan slaves at Point Comfort was not an...