By Dr. Karsonya Wise Whitehead, Special to the AFRO

The reality that after four hundred years, we still have to prove to both the world and to some within our community that our lives, black lives, matter is both a toxic reality and a painful realization. It is a burden that is made more onerous by the years of injustice; the tears shed and the protests mounted. In August 1619 when the first 20 Africans landed here in English North America, they did so, not knowing what the future held for them or whether they were going to survive and thrive in this new world. They arrived on a cloudy day, aboard the “White Lion,” a Dutch man-of-war ship that was carrying enslaved cargo from the Kingdom of Ndongo in Angola. That the information was recorded is astonishing, that it has survived is a miracle because it provides us with a small window that opens up our history on these native shores. Among the “20 and odd Negroes” were Antoney and Isabell, a couple who would later marry and give birth to William, the first documented African baby baptized in this new world. They were survivors who chose to go forward rather than backward. Their story, which is piecemealed together by fading documents and a vibrant oral history, paints a picture that shows that they were captured, enslaved, later freed all the while building their family and amassing a small fortune.  For so many of us, who cannot trace and document the beginning of our lives in this country, Antoney and Isabell are a beacon of hope, an example of what it looks like to choose to survive in this country. 

Dr. Kaye Wise Whitehead (Courtesy Photo)

It has been four hundred years, and we have survived. Four hundred years of black resilience and black joy, of black family and black love. Four hundred years of white nationalism and white supremacy, of racism and oppression. Four hundred years of experiencing both war and peace in this country. We have survived and we must use this as a moment of awakening where we must remember that power, like Frederick Douglas taught us, never concedes without a struggle. This survival instinct must be a rallying cry that makes its way into every community. We are at a middle passage moment, where we must recognize that we have survived seeing black bodies being lynched and terrorized, choked and beaten, and shot and killed, over and over again, and we are choosing (once again) to go forward rather than backward. 

This is a moment where we must remember that despite our best intentions and our work to make this country a more perfect union,  there are still some spaces in this country where our lives do not matter; but this is not new. Our collective memory reminds us that we have been at this moment before. We were at this moment in the colonies when slavery was legalized, and black folks were enslaved from the womb to the grave. We were at this moment during Reconstruction when the rise of white domestic terrorism began to slow the wave of black progress and change. We were at this moment when they murdered Emmett Till; when they shot Medgar Evers and Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.; and, when they blew up the 16th Street Baptist Church. We were at this moment when they bombed MOVE and burned down Black Wall Street and Rosewood. We have been at this moment before, and because of it, we know what we to do. We know that it is time to mobilize and plan; come together and strategize. It is time to remember and then go forward. It is time to reclaim our neighborhoods, reclaim our children, and reclaim the future that we have worked for four hundred years to have in this country. We must mark this occasion and celebrate our strength and build up our faith,  and we must remember, in the words of James Weldon Johnson, that despite what is happening in this country:

We will let our rejoicing rise, High as the listening skies,
We will let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
We will sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
And we will sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us,
And we will face the rising sun of our new day begun,
And we will march on till victory is won.

Karsonya Wise Whitehead ([email protected]; Twitter: @kayewhitehead) is the #blackmommyactivist and an associate professor of communication and African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland. She is the host of “Today With Dr. Kaye” on WEAA 88.9 FM and the author of the forthcoming “Dispatches from Baltimore: just tell them that we matter.” She lives in Baltimore City with her husband and their two sons.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Afro-American Newspapers.