We honor runners who win 100-meter sprints. But we stand in awe of those who win 26-mile marathons. In the struggle to establish the vision of America, we honor those who struggled for years with George Washington to secure their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But we stand in awe of those who struggled for centuries—and who still struggle today—to overcome racism. We stand in awe of those who still struggle after all these centuries to establish their vision of America blessing, freeing, and healing all people.
This blog is based on the section “The First Americans: The Africans” in my book Visions of America (first published in 2004 together with my book Visions of the Church), at pages 15-16.
I am drawing upon this 2004 account to highlight that the 500-year marathon to overcome racism continues in 2020.
To prove this, we need only look at the ways that the Pandemic has impacted people of color in their health and in their wallets far worse than it has impacted whites such as me.
To prove this, we need only see the videos of people of color being murdered by vigilantes and police.
The marathon to overcome racism in America began 500 years ago.
Shortly after Columbus reached the Americas in1492, the New World was dominated by the Spanish and the Portuguese. They soon learned that Africans made excellent slaves in hot, tropical climates.
Nevertheless, the blight of slavery did not reach the lands that became the United States due to the Spanish or the Portuguese. Slavery reached these lands due to the English.
In 1588, the English defeated the Spanish Armada. After that naval victory, control of the oceans—and control of the sea routes connecting Europe, America and Africa—began to pass to the new ruler of the waves: England.
In 1607, the first permanent English colony was established in the New World at Jamestown.
This colony struggled for survival until it produced a crop that could be exported to Europe at a profit—tobacco. Henceforth, more labor was needed to make more money by making more tobacco.
To meet this need, Africans—and people descended from Africans—were kidnapped and brought to Jamestown. The first slaves arrived in 1619.
These “first” Americans drained swamps, grew crops, and built houses. At the crack of a whip, from dawn to dusk they proved that only hard work could tame this New World.
So, in the sense of those working hardest to carve out a new frontier, they were the “first” Americans.
They were also the “first” Americans in the sense of being foremost in the struggle for freedom and human dignity.
From the embattled farmers at Lexington and Concord to Americans raising the Star-Spangled Banner during World War II, Americans have struggled.
From Roger Williams demanding religious freedom to Susan B. Anthony demanding the right to vote, Americans have struggled.
From Frederick Douglass overcoming slavery to Martin Luther King dreaming of an America that shall overcome racism, Americans have struggled.
Throughout history, all Americans struggled in countless ways to establish the work of America:
—to bless all people.
—to overcome all pharaohs who refuse to let all people be free.
—to heal all people who are hurting.
But no other Americans have endured a struggle as long or as difficult or as horrifying or as frustrating as the struggle of descendants of Africans to establish the work of America.
Africans and their descendants in the English colonies and in the United States suffered the cruelty and exploitation of slavery for 250 years.
They suffered from their arrival at Jamestown in 1619 until the American Civil War caused amendments to the Constitution that ended slavery, guaranteed the equal protection of the laws, and guaranteed the right to vote.
They gained their freedom on paper.
But they still suffered from lynchings, degradation and exploitation for an additional 100 years. They suffered until Americans struggled in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s to establish freedom for all in reality.
But even after centuries of Americans struggling against racism, the struggle continues.
We honor runners who win 100-meter sprints. But we stand in awe of those who win 26-mile marathons.
In the struggle to establish the vision of America, we honor those who struggled for years with George Washington to secure their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
But we stand in awe of those who struggled for centuries—and who still struggle today—to overcome racism.
We stand in awe of those who still struggle after all these centuries to establish their vision of America blessing, freeing, and healing all people.