Schumer Remarks At The Commemoration Of The 400th Anniversary Of The Arrival Of Enslaved Africans

September 10, 2019

Washington, D.C. – Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer today spoke at the congressional ceremony to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first-recorded forced arrival of enslaved African people. Below are his remarks, which can also be found here.

First, let me thank Karen Bass and the CBC for putting together this moving and important commemoration.

In the midst of civil war, President Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address: “If God wills that [the war] continue,” he said, “until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another with the sword…so it must be said, ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”

Four hundred years ago, they came here, “twenty and Odd” Africans, forcibly taken from their homelands, separated from their families, shackled below decks on a terrible journey to a strange land, never to return. So began the slave trade in the Americas, the first of twelve-and-a-half million men, women, and children brought across the Atlantic in chains.

It would take two-and-a-half centuries and a civil war before chattel slavery was finally stamped out. One hundred years more before the descendants of those newly freed men and women would enjoy the full rights of citizenship. Sixty years hence, the terrible legacy of slavery affects us still, in real, powerful, discernible ways, every day. This is not history this is today.

We cannot, cannot separate the story of slavery from the story of America, nor shrink from the hypocrisy embedded in our founding documents, which exalted the cause of human liberty while at the same time perpetuating the institution most aligned against it. We must be willing, today and all days, to stare that history in the face, and grapple with its consequences. For it is the duty of any great nation to recognize the sins of the past, admit them, teach them, but also work to make amends today Shelia, you’re right.

A few weeks ago, I listened to the 1619 project by the New York Times. I recommend it to everybody here, it’s coming out every week. I was profoundly moved, touched by the story of one of its authors, Nikole Hannah-Jones. Growing up, she questioned why her father, a black American who fought in America’s wars overseas but because of his race was denied equal treatment at home, insisted on flying the American flag outside their house. Her family had grown up in the Deep South, one of the most racist parts of Mississippi, before moving to Waterloo, Iowa. She heard about how, in Waterloo Iowa, her father was denied housing and good jobs because he was a black man. So as a teenager she did not say the pledge of allegiance, or stand for the national anthem,  and did not understand her father’s patriotism, questioning how a man, denied the full rights of citizenship, could be such a proud citizen?

Then she remembered a teacher who asked each student in her class to report on their national heritage. The teacher asked to them draw a flag from the country you came from and write a few paragraphs to describe it . But because she was the descendant of slaves—ripped from their country—and did not know where her ancestors came from, she simply chose a random flag in Africa. She and another black child in her class. That experience helped her realize later in life—as her father had realized—that America was their heritage. That because of slavery, America was the only country their ancestors had ever known, where they had been born, where they suffered,  and where their bones were buried, and there was no choice but to strive to make America a country that they could be one day proud of.

That impulse—a quintessentially American impulse, to perfect our union—fueled mighty movements, many spearheaded by African-Americans, to abolish slavery, extend the franchise, guarantee the civil rights of all Americans, and bring the ideals and the reality of America into closer alignment.

It’s our job, all of our jobs to follow in their footsteps. To unite against the tendrils of oppression and injustice that emanate from our history: in our criminal justice system and our health care system, in the boardroom and at the ballot box, on our streets and in our schools. For as far as we have come, our union is far from perfect.

And what the history books will say about us, four hundred years from now, is entirely in our hands.