This speech was delivered at Mount Vernon on May 29, 2008, upon the author’s receipt of the George Washington Book Prize for his 2007 book, The Slave Ship: A Human History.
I come here to accept the George Washington Book Prize with gratitude, but also, I must admit, with some surprise, even a little wonder. The prize is meant to recognize the year’s best books on “the nation’s founding era, and especially those that have the potential to advance broad public understanding of American history.” I rolled this over in my mind: “the nation’s founding era”—founding, founding era, founding fathers….The previous recipients of the George Washington Book Prize were all about founding fathers of one kind or another: Ron Chernow on Alexander Hamilton, Stacey Schiff on Benjamin Franklin, and Charles Rappleye on the Brown family (founders of Brown University). All fine books, about people of privilege and power.
I am keenly aware how different is this book from the ones that have been chosen in the past. It is about poor sailors and more, about even poorer slaves, the people who suffered the stench and terror of the slave ship. It about what one group of people is willing to do to another for money, but it is also about the determined resistance of those down below, below decks in this case.
As I pondered the generosity of this award, I thought about the term, “to found.” Right there in the Oxford English Dictionary is its meaning: “marking the establishment of something”; something “originated or created.” This meaning came into existence around 1900. The founding fathers established, originated, created the nation.
But then I found an older meaning, from the early fourteenth century. To found: “To lay the base” of something, to create a substructure, to set, fix, or build on a firm ground or base. And then an even older one, from around 1290: “To build for the first time; to begin the building of, be the first builder.”
This immediately reminded me of a poem by Bertolt Brecht entitled “A Worker Reads History.”
Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
The books are filled with the name of kings.
But was it kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
Who built America? People who came over on the slave ships, and their offspring built a lot of it. More pertinently to us on this evening, who built Mount Vernon? Who built the other grand plantations? The books are filled with the names of presidents. But was it presidents who cleared the land, built the manor, farmed the land? In this expanded, more generous definition, the people aboard the slave ship were founders indeed.
This afternoon I took a walk along the Potomac. I tried to imagine how this place would have looked two and a half centuries ago to the men, women, and children who had crossed the Atlantic in a slave ship, who still had the motion of the “great water,” as they called it, inside their bodies, when they stepped onto the wharf five thousand miles from their African homes.
Many of them would have known riverine systems in Africa, but none like Chesapeake Bay. The plant life would have been strange to them; everything would have smelled different. The sounds, including the birdsong, would have been unfamiliar. All of these things would have been perceived in that heightened state in which fear sharpens the senses. They would soon be put to work, and they would make this place their own. They would become the plantation’s hewers of wood and drawers of water. The work they did is all around us.
Let me return now to the other criterion of the George Washington Book Prize, that the book should contribute to the public understanding of the nation’s founding era. One of my main purposes in writing this book was to contribute to public understanding, to public debate, to remember and discuss a profound but painful part of our past. We now have a great and ironic discrepancy about this country’s history. Over the past generation, scholars have probably learned more, and written more, about the history of slavery and the struggle against slavery than any other subject. This is work of exceptional quality, written by people such as my friends here this evening, Ira Berlin and Maurice Jackson.
And yet the American public does not know most of this history. Most people would not even know that this year is the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade by the United States government. After a robust discussion in Great Britain in 2007 (their bicentennial), we have been mostly silent. It is a shame. Worse, it is a perpetuation of injustice.
The slave ship is a ghost ship, sailing around the edges of our consciousness. We pretend it is not there, but it haunts us. It also challenges us: a telling test of any society that considers itself to be a democracy is its ability to face the dark pages of its history. Do we dare in this post-9/11 age to look back on the terror that was instrumental to the making of America?
George Washington struggled with slavery. Do we struggle with its legacy? What are the costs if we do not? I think we have a moral accounting ahead of us. Justice and a more humane future demand it.
My book is about the people who made George Washington possible. It is about the people who made the nation, and much of its wealth, possible. As you leave here tonight I would ask you to pause, look around, and think of the ghosts on this beautiful landscape. I would like to think that this prize honors them too.
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