Jamestown and historical illiteracy

Dear President Trump,

I just checked the weather report for Jamestown, VA and it’s already over 80 degrees there at 9am. The forecast is a high of 93. Since you all will mostly be in a huge white, air conditioned tent, none of you is likely to succumb to the heat, but I reckon there’ll be no shortage of grumbling about the weather even if no one dares raise the issue of climate change in your hearing.

I wonder, though, if Anne Richardson, chief of Virginia’s Rappahannock tribe, who will be giving the invocation this morning (or already has) might slip something in about the parallels between the existential threat of climate change and the existential threat to her people of the founding of Jamestown. Or maybe Stephen Adkins, chief of the Chickahominy tribe, will raise the issue in the benediction. Apparently providing blessings at the beginning and end of the festivities celebrating the dominion of white colonists over indigenous people was a way to involve the latter without needing to formally acknowledge the terrible impact on them of this whole enterprise.

I just need to go on record that at least on the face of it, having representatives of local indigenous tribes f*cking blessing the commemoration of this first white semi-representative government that almost certainly enabled a more systematic run at attempted genocide feels beyond sick. I trust that both Richardson and Adkins and their tribes know what they are doing, and perhaps will use the opportunities to say something pointed and poignant, but this smacks of some of the worst co-opting I’ve heard of in a long, long time.

We talked about Jamestown on Friday at the People’s Institute’s Undoing Racism workshop. There was sort of a quiz about it and the only people who knew even small bits and pieces were the two ex-military Coast Guard Captains. I tried to pull up what I learned from Henry Louis Gate’s PBS special The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, but all I could come up with was too muddled to venture anything. In the quick lesson we got we learned that Jamestown was named for King James I (also of the King James Bible fame) and that the first whites from England arrived in 1607. We learned that what set Jamestown apart from all the other white forays into the wilderness is that the Jamestown whites didn’t mostly die of starvation in the first two months, eventually making it through the starving years. We learned that whites came to Jamestown not to pursue religious freedom, but to pursue profit – it was founded by The London Company as a corporation with the express purpose of extracting resources and reaping what could be obtained from the pristine, uninhabited (by other whites) land and shipping it back to England, which at the time was completely broke.

The most profitable thing to be reaped was tobacco, which take lots of land and lots of labor to cultivate at a level likely to yield significant monies. Conveniently, it is also highly addictive so the effort needed to steal the land from the indigenous inhabitants, clear it, till it, plant it, and harvest it was deemed worthwhile, especially once it was indentured servants from England who were escaping life sentences in debtors’ prisons were available to do most of the work. But let’s be clear – these were white people and once they’d successfully served their seven-year terms, they were free and able to build lives for themselves. This would obviously not be the case for the African slaves who started arriving in August of 1619.

(Later in the day) It sounds like there was consistent acknowledgement that those first representatives were all white men, so I guess that’s something. Still, though, I’m glad that the African American Virginia State legislators boycotted the celebration in protest over your presence and that Delegate Ibraheem S. Samirah held up that awesome sign right in front of you.

I know your peeps are excited you stuck to your speech script, but the bits I read were just empty pablum; it really doesn’t help to repeat the word “great” three times in a row. Because it is so not you and because what he said is so important, I’ll end with a brief quote from Jon Meacham’s speech this morning (plus, I know you missed it so this is a public service):

“We should not sentimentalize the American experience. The nation has been morally flawed from the beginning. We must be honest about that. And our honesty should lead us to do all that we can to be about the work of justice.”

May we be safe.
May we be willing to be honest about our country’s past and present.
May we see that whitewashing our history (literally) is terribly unhealthy for us all.
May we make peace with the fact that we have tons more work to do.

Tracy Simpson

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