The Legacy of Slavery, and Exceptionalism

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The 400th anniversary of Jamestown provides an opportunity for Americans to relearn their nation's history, and unlearn the sanitized versions of its beginnings that often dominate political discourse. The legacy of American slavery that started in Jamestown undermines the idea of American exceptionalism.

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

Today is African Imprint Day at the site of the Jamestown Settlement in Virginia, a day to remember the role African-Americans played in the development of America. It's part of Jamestown's 400th anniversary commemoration. Of course, those first Africans did not come to America willingly. They came in as slaves on the ships of British privateers 12 years after Jamestown's founding.

Over the next 250 years, millions of Africans were either sold or born into slavery in America. Most toiled on plantations in the South but slavery extended as far north as New England. The stories of the slaves themselves was a test to the harshness of their lives.

Mary Reynolds, a former slave from Louisiana said, what I hated most was when they beat me and I didn't know what they'd beat for, and I hated they've stripping me naked as the day I was born.

Her words were preserved in the 1930s Oral History Project. The 400th anniversary of Jamestown provides an opportunity for Americans to relearn their nation's history and unlearn the sanitized versions of its beginnings that often dominate political discourse. Notwithstanding Thomas Jefferson's statement in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, the black members of Jefferson's own household were left out.

The legacy of American slavery that started in Jamestown undermines the idea of American exceptionalism, the notion that this land was ordained by God as a moral beacon, a city upon a hill in the words of Puritan leader John Winthrop. That notion of exceptionalism that somehow our own country is morally superior is not unique to America, but it's a perilous narrative wherever it flourishes. Belief in American exceptionalism has played a role in justifying our treatment of prisoners in Iraq and in Guantanamo, where another prisoner committed suicide this week.

The rationalizing goes like this. Since the U.S. is a moral nation whatever our behavior, it must be justified. Recently though, Robert Zelikow, executive director of the 9/11 Commission and a former top aide to Condoleezza Rice at the State Department, labeled many U.S. interrogation techniques immoral. Let's hope that relearning the history of Jamestown helps us remember that being the city upon the hill among nations will always be an aspiration, not a fact.

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