Governor Ralph Northam Can't Erase Slavery

On Sunday, February 10, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam appeared on Face the Nation with journalist Gayle King in a bid for redemption in his ongoing blackface scandal. Northam began the conversation by referencing Virginia’s current commemoration of John Rolfe’s description of the arrival of “20. and Odd Negroes” in Virginia in August 1619. Northam indicated the commemoration was marking the “first indentured servants from Africa.” King replied, in a mildly incredulous tone, “Also known as slavery,” to which Northam said, “Yes, yeah” before also touting the end of slavery, of segregated schools, and other Jim Crow laws. If Northam meant to deflect attention from his own racially-charged political scandal, he succeeded only in inflaming tensions with this narrative of white innocence about the history of slavery.

Northam’s commentary also elicited a collective gasp from historians of slavery in early America. Portuguese slavers captured and enslaved these Africans in Angola. English pirates flying a Dutch flag seized the Portuguese ship São João Bautista on the open ocean, then carrying some 350 enslaved people. The English stole some of these Africans, and sold some twenty of them in exchange for “victualls” in Virginia. Historians have recognized over the last few decades that the English understood these people were enslaved.

Some historians once thought that, in the absence of laws enshrining slavery for Black people, some Africans might have been treated as indentured servants with a fixed term of service. These historians sought to explain the small number of Africans who gained their freedom and became freeholders before 1660. Yet free people of color such as Anthony Johnson, Emanuel Driggus, Tony Longo, and a few others were the exception rather than the rule. Nevertheless, the narrative of indentured servitude for Blacks and the possibilities of freedom worked their way into textbooks and curricula. When Northam labeled the “20. and Odd Negroes” of 1619 “indentured servants,” he reinforced an outdated historical narrative.

Though this narrative is comforting to Americans who want to believe that slavery was an evil introduced into our history long after initial colonization, we now understand that Europeans racialized and enslaved Africans early on. English settlers in Virginia built on a long history of encounters with slavery and enslaved people. They understood when they bought some 20 Africans from a pirate ship that these people were enslaved, not indentured servants. As the National Book Award-winning historian Ibram X. Kendi wrote in Stamped From The Beginning, Africans were considered “racially distinct people, as lower than [English people], and as lower on the scale of being than the more populous white indentured servants.” The Africans-as-servants narrative is no longer tenable.

What then, should we make of Northam’s mischaracterization of slavery in 1619? His dismissive “yes, yeah” in response to King’s correction suggests a common problem: a persistent historical ignorance combined with a political commitment to white innocence. A narrative in which Africans were merely indentured servants, not enslaved, is a narrative in which slavery was not so bad. And if slavery was easily escapable, it allows us to think of English settlers as naive colonials who did not actually understand slavery as an institution. Slavery, in this telling, was an accident of history, easily bypassed, easily forgotten. It certainly has no bearing on the present.

White students who learn this sanitized version of history in their classrooms learn how to not see race, either in the past or in the present. They remain, like Northam, innocent of the implications of the history of racial slavery in this country and the acute harm of persistent racism in the present.

Northam followed his comments on “indentured servants from Africa” with other remarks that suggest a commitment to white racial innocence. He said that “slavery has ended” and “schools have been desegregated,” and then “we have ended the Jim Crow laws.” In this narrative of racial accomplishment, harmful laws and policies simply disappeared. Northam’s remarks negated the hard and dangerous work of African American Civil Rights activists, and utterly ignored the violence of white Virginians’ “massive resistance” to desegregation and Civil Rights. This history in the passive voice, devoid of violence and oppression, is evident too in the public discussion about indentured servitude versus slavery. Northam’s confusion about the status of the “20. and Odd Negroes” indicates a broader desire to invent a past in which Black people and white people suffered equally in Virginia. This not only delegitimizes Black people’s understanding of their own ancestors’ suffering, but it downplays persistent racial injustice in the present.

Our answers to questions about the origins of slavery and racism in this country cannot simply be “Yes.” Our past requires more than embracing comforting inaccuracies and dismissing corrections. It requires confronting this uncomfortable past and the power to understand and name its legacy in the present. We must de-center narratives of white racial innocence and foster honest engagement with the past and its ongoing impact on the present.

About the Author

Rebecca Anne Goetz is an Associate Professor of History at New York University. Her research interests includes religion, race, and Slavery. She is the author of The Baptism of Early Virginia: How Christianity Created Race. She is currently at work on a new book tentatively titled “Captive Archipelagos: Native Enslavement in the Greater Caribbean, 1492-1792.”