It has not been uncommon, in recent years, to hear Americans worry about the advent of a new civil war.
“Is Civil War Ahead?” The New Yorker asked last month. “Is America heading to civil war or secession?” CNN wondered on the anniversary of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. Last week, Representative Adam Kinzinger of Illinois told “The View” that “we have to recognize” the possibility of a civil war. “I don’t think it’s too far of a bridge to think that’s a possibility,” he said.
This isn’t just the media or the political class; it’s public opinion too. In a 2019 survey for the Georgetown Institute of Politics, the average respondent said that the United States was two-thirds of the way toward the “edge of a civil war.” In a recent poll conducted by the Institute of Politics at Harvard, 35 percent of voting-age Americans under 30 placed the odds of a second civil war at 50 percent or higher.
And in a result that says something about the divisions at hand, 52 percent of Trump voters and 41 percent of Biden voters said that they at least “somewhat agree” that it’s time to split the country, with either red or blue states leaving the union and forming their own country, according to a survey conducted by the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia (where I am a visiting scholar).
Several related forces are fueling this anxiety, from deepening partisan polarization and our winner-take-all politics to our sharp division across lines of identity, culture and geography. There is the fact that this country is saturated with guns, as well as the reality that many Americans fear demographic change to the point that they’re willing to do pretty much anything to stop it. There is also the issue of Donald Trump, his strongest supporters and their effort to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. Americans feel farther apart than at any point in recent memory, and as a result, many Americans fear the prospect of organized political violence well beyond what we saw on Jan. 6, 2021.
There is, however, a serious problem with this narrative: The Civil War we fought in the 19th century was not sparked by division qua division.
White Americans had been divided over slavery for 50 years before the crisis that led to war in 1861. The Missouri crisis of 1820, the nullification crisis of 1832, the conflict over the 1846 war with Mexico and the Compromise of 1850 all reflect the degree to which American politics rested on a sectional divide over the future of the slave system.
What made the 1850s different was the extent to which that division threatened the political economy of slavery. At the start of the decade, the historian Matthew Karp writes in “This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy,” “slaveholding power and slaveholding confidence seemed at their zenith,” the result of “spiking global demand for cotton” and the “dependence of the entire industrial world on a commodity that only American slaves could produce with profit.”
But with power came backlash. “Over the course of the decade,” Karp notes, “slavery was prohibited in the Pacific states, came under attack in Kansas and appeared unable to attach itself to any of the great open spaces of the new Southwest.” The growth of an avowedly antislavery public in the North wasn’t just a challenge to the political influence of the slaveholding South; it also threatened to undermine the slave economy itself and thus the economic basis for Southern power.
Plantation agriculture rapidly exhausted the soil. The sectional balance of Congress aside, planters needed new land to grow the cotton that secured their influence on the national (and international) stage. As Karp explains, “Slaveholders in the 1850s seldom passed up an opportunity to sketch the inexorable syllogism of King Cotton: The American South produced nearly all the world’s usable raw cotton; this cotton fueled the industrial development of the North Atlantic; therefore, the advanced economies of France, the northern United States and Great Britain were ruled, in effect, by Southern planters.” The backlash to slavery — the effort to restrain its growth and contain its spread — was an existential threat to the Southern elite.
It was the realization of that threat with the election of Abraham Lincoln — whose Republican Party was founded to stop the spread of slavery and who inherited a federal state with the power to do so — that pushed Southern elites to gamble their future on secession. They would leave the union and attempt to forge a slave empire on their own.
The point of this compact history, with regard to the present, is that it is irresponsible to talk about civil war as a function of polarization or division or rival ideologies. If those things matter, and they do, it is in how they both reflect and shape the objective interests of the people and factions in dispute.
Which is to say that if you’re worried about a second Civil War, the question to ask isn’t whether people hate each other — they always have, and we tend to grossly exaggerate the extent of this country’s political and cultural unity over time — but whether that hate results from the irreconcilable social and economic interests of opposing groups within the society. If it must be one way or the other, then you might have a conflict on your hands.
That’s where America was with slavery. That’s why our actual Civil War has been called the impending crisis. I’m not sure there’s anything in American society right now that plays the same role that the conflict over slavery did. Whatever our current challenges, whatever our current divisions, I do not think the United States is where it was in 1860. We have enough problems ahead of us already without having to worry about war breaking out here.
Pouco discutido nos livros, os escravos ficavam entristecidos, paravam de falar e, acima de tudo, deixavam de se alimentar
“Apareceu ontem enforcado com um baraço [corda de fios de linho], dentro de um alçapão, na casa da rua da Alfândega, nº 376, sobrado, o preto Dionysio, escravo de D. Olimpya Theodora de Souza, moradora na mesma casa. O infeliz preto, querendo sem dúvida apressar a morte, fizera com uma thesoura pequenos ferimentos no braço…”
Essa nota, chocante, publicada no Jornal do Commercio, no Rio de Janeiro, em 22 de junho de 1872, revela uma faceta pouco conhecida da escravidão: os escravos se suicidavam. E com o índice de “mortes voluntárias” entre eles, quando comparado ao de homens livres, era duas ou três vezes mais elevado.
Os suicídios de escravos também se diferenciavam em outros aspectos. O mais notável deles era o fato de atribuir-se o gesto ao banzo. Ainda hoje se discute o significado dessa palavra. O mais aceito tem uma remota origem africana, equivalendo a “pensar” ou “meditar”. O termo também, há tempos, designou uma doença.
Em 1799, por exemplo, Luiz António de Oliveira Mendes apresentou, na Academia Real de Ciências de Lisboa, um estudo sobre “as doenças agudas e crônicas que mais frequentemente acometem os pretos recém-tirados da África”. O banzo constava entre elas.
Os sintomas? Os escravos ficavam entristecidos, paravam de falar e, acima de tudo, deixavam de se alimentar, mesmo “oferecendo-se-lhes” – afirma o médico – “as melhores comidas, assim do nosso trato e costume, como as do seu país…”, falecendo pouco tempo depois.
No século 19, com o desenvolvimento das primeiras teorias psicológicas, o comportamento dos escravos banzeiros foi reconhecido como distúrbio mental. Em 1844, Joaquim Manoel de Macedo, na tese médica intitulada Considerações Sobre a Nostalgia, afirma o seguinte: “[…] estamos convencidos de que a espantosa mortandade que entre nós se observa nos africanos, principalmente nos recém-chegados, bem como de que o número de suicídios que entre eles se conta, tem seu tanto de dívida a nostalgia […]”
Aos poucos, a associação entre nostalgia e banzo se tornou popular. No Dicionário Brasileiro da Língua Portuguesa, de 1875, de Joaquim de Macedo Soares, é possível ler a seguinte definição: “banzar: estar pensativo sobre qualquer caso; triste sem saber de quê; sofrer do spleen dos ingleses; tristeza e apatia simultânea; sofrer de nostalgia, como os negros da Costa quando vinham para cá, e ainda depois de cá estarem”.
Hoje, a palavra “nostalgia”, difundida na literatura, é sinônimo de “saudade”, um sentimento. Situação bem diferente é pensá-la como doença. Tal rótulo – assim como o de banzo – provavelmente encobria uma vasta gama de problemas psicológicos ou psiquiátricos, que iam da depressão à esquizofrenia; ou eram provocados pela desnutrição, por doenças contagiosas.
Não faltam exemplos de aproximações entre suicídio e doença mental. O citado Jornal do Commercio registra ocorrências de mortes voluntárias associadas a delírios: “Valentim, escravo de Faria & Miranda, estabelecidos na rua dos Lázaros nº 26, sofria há dias violenta febre, e era tratado pelo Dr. Antonio Rodrigues de Oliveira. Anteontem [20 de maio de 1872], às 9 horas da noite, ao que parece, em um acesso mais forte, Valentim feriu-se com um golpe no pescoço”.
Outras vezes se reconhecia explicitamente a loucura: “Suicidouse ontem [8 de março de 1872] à 1 hora da tarde, enforcando-se, a preta africana Justina, de 50 anos, escrava de Narciso da Silva Galharno. O Sr. 2º Delegado tomou conhecimento do fato e procedeu a corpo delito. Consta que a preta sofria de alienação mental”.
Como todos os testemunhos do passado, os textos acima devem ser lidos com olhos críticos: o registro de suicídio pode encobrir assassinatos praticados por senhores. Tal fato não implica em diminuir o banzo como uma das expressões trágicas da loucura comum a milhões de pessoas vítimas do tráfico de escravos.
Por outro lado, a divulgação desse sofrimento nos jornais deve ter contribuído para a formação da sensibilidade abolicionista na sociedade imperial. Por isso, o banzo pode ser entendido como uma forma não intencional de protesto político, um exemplo primário de luta pela não-violência.
**Professor de História e co-autor do livro Ancestrais: Uma Introdução Á História da África Atlântica, 2003.
++ A seção Coluna não representa, necessariamente, a opinião do site Aventuras na História.
A dispute between a small group of scholars and the authors of TheNew York Times Magazine’s issue on slavery represents a fundamental disagreement over the trajectory of American society.
This article was updated at 7:35 p.m. ET on December 23, 2019
When The New York Times Magazinepublished its 1619 Project in August, people lined up on the street in New York City to get copies. Since then, the project—a historical analysis of how slavery shaped American political, social, and economic institutions—has spawned a podcast, a high-school curriculum, and an upcoming book. For Nikole Hannah-Jones, the reporter who conceived of the project, the response has been deeply gratifying.
“They had not seen this type of demand for a print product of TheNew York Times, they said, since 2008, when people wanted copies of Obama’s historic presidency edition,” Hannah-Jones told me. “I know when I talk to people, they have said that they feel like they are understanding the architecture of their country in a way that they had not.”
U.S. history is often taught and popularly understood through the eyes of its great men, who are seen as either heroic or tragic figures in a global struggle for human freedom. The 1619 Project, named for the date of the first arrival of Africans on American soil, sought to place “the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” Viewed from the perspective of those historically denied the rights enumerated in America’s founding documents, the story of the country’s great men necessarily looks very different.
The reaction to the project was not universally enthusiastic. Several weeks ago, the Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, who had criticized the 1619 Project’s “cynicism” in a lecture in November, began quietly circulating a letter objecting to the project, and some of Hannah-Jones’s work in particular. The letter acquired four signatories—James McPherson, Gordon Wood, Victoria Bynum, and James Oakes, all leading scholars in their field. They sent their letter to three top Times editors and the publisher, A. G. Sulzberger, on December 4. A version of that letter was published on Friday, along with a detailed rebuttal from Jake Silverstein, the editor of the Times Magazine.
The letter sent to the Times says, “We applaud all efforts to address the foundational centrality of slavery and racism to our history,” but then veers into harsh criticism of the 1619 Project. The letter refers to “matters of verifiable fact” that “cannot be described as interpretation or ‘framing’” and says the project reflected “a displacement of historical understanding by ideology.” Wilentz and his fellow signatories didn’t just dispute the Times Magazine’s interpretation of past events, but demanded corrections.
In the age of social-media invective, a strongly worded letter might not seem particularly significant. But given the stature of the historians involved, the letter is a serious challenge to the credibility of the 1619 Project, which has drawn its share not just of admirers but also critics.
Nevertheless, some historians who declined to sign the letter wondered whether the letter was intended less to resolve factual disputes than to discredit laymen who had challenged an interpretation of American national identity that is cherished by liberals and conservatives alike.
“I think had any of the scholars who signed the letter contacted me or contacted the Times with concerns [before sending the letter], we would’ve taken those concerns very seriously,” Hannah-Jones said. “And instead there was kind of a campaign to kind of get people to sign on to a letter that was attempting really to discredit the entire project without having had a conversation.”
Underlying each of the disagreements in the letter is not just a matter of historical fact but a conflict about whether Americans, from the Founders to the present day, are committed to the ideals they claim to revere. And while some of the critiques can be answered with historical fact, others are questions of interpretation grounded in perspective and experience.
In fact, the harshness of the Wilentz letter may obscure the extent to which its authors and the creators of the 1619 Project share a broad historical vision. Both sides agree, as many of the project’s right-wing critics do not, that slavery’s legacy still shapes American life—an argument that is less radical than it may appear at first glance. If you think anti-black racism still shapes American society, then you are in agreement with the thrust of the 1619 Project, though not necessarily with all of its individual arguments.
The clash between the Times authors and their historian critics represents a fundamental disagreement over the trajectory of American society. Was America founded as a slavocracy, and are current racial inequities the natural outgrowth of that? Or was America conceived in liberty, a nation haltingly redeeming itself through its founding principles? These are not simple questions to answer, because the nation’s pro-slavery and anti-slavery tendencies are so closely intertwined.
The letter is rooted in a vision of American history as a slow, uncertain march toward a more perfect union. The 1619 Project, and Hannah-Jones’s introductory essay in particular, offer a darker vision of the nation, in which Americans have made less progress than they think, and in which black people continue to struggle indefinitely for rights they may never fully realize. Inherent in that vision is a kind of pessimism, not about black struggle but about the sincerity and viability of white anti-racism. It is a harsh verdict, and one of the reasons the 1619 Project has provoked pointed criticism alongside praise.
Americans need to believe that, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, the arc of history bends toward justice. And they are rarely kind to those who question whether it does.
Most Americans still learn very little about the lives of the enslaved, or how the struggle over slavery shaped a young nation. Last year, the Southern Poverty Law Center found that few American high-school students know that slavery was the cause of the Civil War, that the Constitution protected slavery without explicitly mentioning it, or that ending slavery required a constitutional amendment.
“The biggest obstacle to teaching slavery effectively in America is the deep, abiding American need to conceive of and understand our history as ‘progress,’ as the story of a people and a nation that always sought the improvement of mankind, the advancement of liberty and justice, the broadening of pursuits of happiness for all,” the Yale historian David Blight wrote in the introduction to the report. “While there are many real threads to this story—about immigration, about our creeds and ideologies, and about race and emancipation and civil rights, there is also the broad, untidy underside.”
In conjunction with the Pulitzer Center, the Times has produced educational materials based on the 1619 Project for students—one of the reasons Wilentz told me he and his colleagues wrote the letter. But the materials are intended to enhance traditional curricula, not replace them. “I think that there is a misunderstanding that this curriculum is meant to replace all of U.S. history,” Silverstein told me. “It’s being used as supplementary material for teaching American history.” Given the state of American education on slavery, some kind of adjustment is sorely needed.
Published 400 years after the first Africans were brought to in Virginia, the project asked readers to consider “what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year.” The special issue of the Times Magazine included essays from the Princeton historian Kevin Kruse, who argued that sprawl in Atlanta is a consequence of segregation and white flight; the Times columnist Jamelle Bouie, who posited that American countermajoritarianism was shaped by pro-slavery politicians seeking to preserve the peculiar institution; and the journalist Linda Villarosa, who traced racist stereotypes about higher pain tolerance in black people from the 18th century to the present day. The articles that drew the most attention and criticism, though, were Hannah-Jones’s introductory essay chronicling black Americans’ struggle to “make democracy real” and the sociologist Matthew Desmond’s essay linking the crueler aspects of American capitalism to the labor practices that arose under slavery.
The letter’s signatories recognize the problem the Times aimed to remedy, Wilentz told me. “Each of us, all of us, think that the idea of the 1619 Project is fantastic. I mean, it’s just urgently needed. The idea of bringing to light not only scholarship but all sorts of things that have to do with the centrality of slavery and of racism to American history is a wonderful idea,” he said. In a subsequent interview, he said, “Far from an attempt to discredit the 1619 Project, our letter is intended to help it.”
The letter disputes a passage in Hannah-Jones’s introductory essay, which lauds the contributions of black people to making America a full democracy and says that “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery” as abolitionist sentiment began rising in Britain.
This argument is explosive. From abolition to the civil-rights movement, activists have reached back to the rhetoric and documents of the founding era to present their claims to equal citizenship as consonant with the American tradition. The Wilentz letter contends that the 1619 Project’s argument concedes too much to slavery’s defenders, likening it to South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun’s assertion that “there is not a word of truth” in the Declaration of Independence’s famous phrase that “all men are created equal.” Where Wilentz and his colleagues see the rising anti-slavery movement in the colonies and its influence on the Revolution as a radical break from millennia in which human slavery was accepted around the world, Hannah-Jones’ essay outlines how the ideology of white supremacy that sustained slavery still endures today.
“To teach children that the American Revolution was fought in part to secure slavery would be giving a fundamental misunderstanding not only of what the American Revolution was all about but what America stood for and has stood for since the Founding,” Wilentz told me. Anti-slavery ideology was a “very new thing in the world in the 18th century,” he said, and “there was more anti-slavery activity in the colonies than in Britain.”
Hannah-Jones hasn’t budged from her conviction that slavery helped fuel the Revolution. “I do still back up that claim,” she told me last week—before Silverstein’s rebuttal was published—although she says she phrased it too strongly in her essay, in a way that might mislead readers into thinking that support for slavery was universal. “I think someone reading that would assume that this was the case: all 13 colonies and most people involved. And I accept that criticism, for sure.” She said that as the 1619 Project is expanded into a history curriculum and published in book form, the text will be changed to make sure claims are properly contextualized.
On this question, the critics of the 1619 Project are on firm ground. Although some southern slave owners likely were fighting the British to preserve slavery, as Silverstein writes in his rebuttal, the Revolution was kindled in New England, where prewar anti-slavery sentiment was strongest. Early patriots like James Otis, John Adams, and Thomas Paine were opposed to slavery, and the Revolution helped fuel abolitionism in the North.
Historians who are in neither Wilentz’s camp nor the 1619 Project’s say both have a point. “I do not agree that the American Revolution was just a slaveholders’ rebellion,” Manisha Sinha, a history professor at the University of Connecticut and the author of The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition, told me.* “But also understand that the original Constitution did give some ironclad protections to slavery without mentioning it.”
The most radical thread in the 1619 Project is not its contention that slavery’s legacy continues to shape American institutions; it’s the authors’ pessimism that a majority of white people will abandon racism and work with black Americans toward a more perfect union. Every essay tracing racial injustice from slavery to the present day speaks to the endurance of racial caste. And it is this profound pessimism about white America that many of the 1619 Project’s critics find most galling.
Newt Gingrich called the 1619 Project a “lie,” arguing that “there were several hundred thousand white Americans who died in the Civil War in order to free the slaves.” In City Journal, the historian Allen Guelzo dismissed the Times Magazine project as a “conspiracy theory” developed from the “chair of ultimate cultural privilege in America, because in no human society has an enslaved people suddenly found itself vaulted into positions of such privilege, and with the consent—even the approbation—of those who were once the enslavers.” The conservative pundit Erick Erickson went so far as to accuse the Times of adopting “the Neo-Confederate world view” that the “South actually won the Civil War by weaving itself into the fabric of post war society so it can then discredit the entire American enterprise.” Erickson’s bizarre sleight of hand turns the 1619 Project’s criticism of ongoing racial injustice into a brief for white supremacy.
The project’s pessimism has drawn criticism from the left as well as the right. Hannah-Jones’s contention that “anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country” drew a rebuke from James Oakes, one of the Wilentz letter’s signatories. In an interview with the World Socialist Web Site, Oakes said, “The function of those tropes is to deny change over time … The worst thing about it is that it leads to political paralysis. It’s always been here. There’s nothing we can do to get out of it. If it’s the DNA, there’s nothing you can do. What do you do? Alter your DNA?”
These are objections not to misstatements of historical fact, but to the argument that anti-black racism is a more intractable problem than most Americans are willing to admit. A major theme of the 1619 Project is that the progress that has been made has been fragile and reversible—and has been achieved in spite of the nation’s true founding principles, which are not the lofty ideals few Americans genuinely believe in. Chances are, what you think of the 1619 Project depends on whether you believe someone might reasonably come to such a despairing conclusion—whether you agree with it or not.
Wilentz reached out to a larger group of historians, but ultimately sent a letter signed by five historians who had publicly criticized the 1619 Project in interviews with the World Socialist Web Site. He told me that the idea of trying to rally a larger group was “misconceived,” citing the holiday season and the end of the semester, among other factors. (A different letter written by Wilentz, calling for the impeachment of President Donald Trump, quickly amassed hundreds of signatures last week.) The refusal of other historians to sign on, despite their misgivings about some claims made by the 1619 Project, speaks to a divide over whether the letter was focused on correcting specific factual inaccuracies or aimed at discrediting the project more broadly.
Sinha saw an early version of the letter that was circulated among a larger group of historians. But, despite her disagreement with some of the assertions in the 1619 Project, she said she wouldn’t have signed it if she had been asked to. “There are legitimate critiques that one can engage in discussion with, but for them to just kind of dismiss the entire project in that manner, I thought, was really unwise,” she said. “It was a worthy thing to actually shine a light on a subject that the average person on the street doesn’t know much about.”
Although the letter writers deny that their objections are merely matters of “interpretation or ‘framing,’” the question of whether black Americans have fought their freedom struggles “largely alone,” as Hannah-Jones put it in her essay, is subject to vigorous debate. Viewed through the lens of major historical events—from anti-slavery Quakers organizing boycotts of goods produced through slave labor, to abolitionists springing fugitive slaves from prison, to union workers massing at the March on Washington—the struggle for black freedom has been an interracial struggle. Frederick Douglass had William Garrison; W. E. B. Du Bois had Moorfield Storey; Martin Luther King Jr. had Stanley Levison.
“The fight for black freedom is a universal fight; it’s a fight for everyone. In the end, it affected the fight for women’s rights—everything. That’s the glory of it,” Wilentz told me. “To minimize that in any way is, I think, bad for understanding the radical tradition in America.”
But looking back to the long stretches of night before the light of dawn broke—the centuries of slavery and the century of Jim Crow that followed—“largely alone” seems more than defensible. Douglass had Garrison, but the onetime Maryland slave had to go north to find him. The millions who continued to labor in bondage until 1865 struggled, survived, and resisted far from the welcoming arms of northern abolitionists.
“I think one would be very hard-pressed to look at the factual record from 1619 to the present of the black freedom movement and come away with any conclusion other than that most of the time, black people did not have a lot of allies in that movement,” Hannah-Jones told me. “It is not saying that black people only fought alone. It is saying that most of the time we did.”
Nell Irvin Painter, a professor emeritus of history at Princeton who was asked to sign the letter, had objected to the 1619 Project’s portrayal of the arrival of African laborers in 1619 as slaves. The 1619 Project was not history “as I would write it,” Painter told me. But she still declined to sign the Wilentz letter.
“I felt that if I signed on to that, I would be signing on to the white guy’s attack of something that has given a lot of black journalists and writers a chance to speak up in a really big way. So I support the 1619 Project as kind of a cultural event,” Painter said. “For Sean and his colleagues, true history is how they would write it. And I feel like he was asking me to choose sides, and my side is 1619’s side, not his side, in a world in which there are only those two sides.”
This was a recurrent theme among historians I spoke with who had seen the letter but declined to sign it. While they may have agreed with some of the factual objections in the letter or had other reservations of their own, several told me they thought the letter was an unnecessary escalation.
“The tone to me rather suggested a deep-seated concern about the project. And by that I mean the version of history the project offered. The deep-seated concern is that placing the enslavement of black people and white supremacy at the forefront of a project somehow diminishes American history,” Thavolia Glymph, a history professor at Duke who was asked to sign the letter, told me. “Maybe some of their factual criticisms are correct. But they’ve set a tone that makes it hard to deal with that.”
“I don’t think they think they’re trying to discredit the project,” Painter said. “They think they’re trying to fix the project, the way that only they know how.”
Historical interpretations are often contested, and those debates often reflect the perspective of the participants. To this day, the pro-Confederate “Lost Cause” intepretation of history shapes the mistaken perception that slavery was not the catalyst for the Civil War. For decades, a group of white historians known as the Dunning School, after the Columbia University historian William Archibald Dunning, portrayed Reconstruction as a tragic period of, in his words, the “scandalous misrule of the carpet-baggers and negroes,” brought on by the misguided enfranchisement of black men. As the historian Eric Foner has written, the Dunning School and its interpretation of Reconstruction helped provide moral and historical cover for the Jim Crow system.
In Black Reconstruction in America, W. E. B. Du Bois challenged the consensus of “white historians” who “ascribed the faults and failures of Reconstruction to Negro ignorance and corruption,” and offered what is now considered a more reliable account of the era as an imperfect but noble effort to build a multiracial democracy in the South.
To Wilentz, the failures of earlier scholarship don’t illustrate the danger of a monochromatic group of historians writing about the American past, but rather the risk that ideologues can hijack the narrative. “[It was] when the southern racists took over the historical profession that things changed, and W. E. B. Du Bois fought a very, very courageous fight against all of that,” Wilentz told me. The Dunning School, he said, was “not a white point of view; it’s a southern, racist point of view.”
In the letter, Wilentz portrays the authors of the 1619 Project as ideologues as well. He implies—apparently based on a combative but ambiguous exchange between Hannah-Jones and the writer Wesley Yang on Twitter—that she had discounted objections raised by “white historians” since publication.
Hannah-Jones told me she was misinterpreted. “I rely heavily on the scholarship of historians no matter what race, and I would never discount the work of any historian because that person is white or any other race,” she told me. “I did respond to someone who was saying white scholars were afraid, and I think my point was that history is not objective. And that people who write history are not simply objective arbiters of facts, and that white scholars are no more objective than any other scholars, and that they can object to the framing and we can object to their framing as well.”
When I asked Wilentz about Hannah-Jones’s clarification, he was dismissive. “Fact and objectivity are the foundation of both honest journalism and honest history. And so to dismiss it, to say, ‘No, I’m not really talking about whites’—well, she did, and then she takes it back in those tweets and then says it’s about the inability of anybody to write objective history. That’s objectionable too,” Wilentz told me.
Both Du Bois and the Dunning School saw themselves as having reached the truth by objective means. But as a target of the Dunning School’s ideology, Du Bois understood the motives and blind spots of Dunning School scholars far better than they themselves did.
“We shall never have a science of history until we have in our colleges men who regard the truth as more important than the defense of the white race,” Du Bois wrote, “and who will not deliberately encourage students to gather thesis material in order to support a prejudice or buttress a lie.”
The problem, as Du Bois argued, is that much of American history has been written by scholars offering ideological claims in place of rigorous historical analysis. But which claims are ideological, and which ones are objective, is not always easy to discern.
*An earlier version of this article contained an incorrect title for historian Manisha Sinha’s book.
Adam Serwer is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers politics.
We write as historians to express our strong reservations about important aspects of The 1619 Project. The project is intended to offer a new version of American history in which slavery and white supremacy become the dominant organizing themes. The Times has announced ambitious plans to make the project available to schools in the form of curriculums and related instructional material.
We applaud all efforts to address the enduring centrality of slavery and racism to our history. Some of us have devoted our entire professional lives to those efforts, and all of us have worked hard to advance them. Raising profound, unsettling questions about slavery and the nation’s past and present, as The 1619 Project does, is a praiseworthy and urgent public service. Nevertheless, we are dismayed at some of the factual errors in the project and the closed process behind it.
These errors, which concern major events, cannot be described as interpretation or “framing.” They are matters of verifiable fact, which are the foundation of both honest scholarship and honest journalism. They suggest a displacement of historical understanding by ideology. Dismissal of objections on racial grounds — that they are the objections of only “white historians” — has affirmed that displacement.
On the American Revolution, pivotal to any account of our history, the project asserts that the founders declared the colonies’ independence of Britain “in order to ensure slavery would continue.” This is not true. If supportable, the allegation would be astounding — yet every statement offered by the project to validate it is false. Some of the other material in the project is distorted, including the claim that “for the most part,” black Americans have fought their freedom struggles “alone.”
Still other material is misleading. The project criticizes Abraham Lincoln’s views on racial equality but ignores his conviction that the Declaration of Independence proclaimed universal equality, for blacks as well as whites, a view he upheld repeatedly against powerful white supremacists who opposed him. The project also ignores Lincoln’s agreement with Frederick Douglass that the Constitution was, in Douglass’s words, “a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT.” Instead, the project asserts that the United States was founded on racial slavery, an argument rejected by a majority of abolitionists and proclaimed by champions of slavery like John C. Calhoun.
The 1619 Project has not been presented as the views of individual writers — views that in some cases, as on the supposed direct connections between slavery and modern corporate practices, have so far failed to establish any empirical veracity or reliability and have been seriously challenged by other historians. Instead, the project is offered as an authoritative account that bears the imprimatur and credibility of The New York Times. Those connected with the project have assured the public that its materials were shaped by a panel of historians and have been scrupulously fact-checked. Yet the process remains opaque. The names of only some of the historians involved have been released, and the extent of their involvement as “consultants” and fact checkers remains vague. The selective transparency deepens our concern.
We ask that The Times, according to its own high standards of accuracy and truth, issue prominent corrections of all the errors and distortions presented in The 1619 Project. We also ask for the removal of these mistakes from any materials destined for use in schools, as well as in all further publications, including books bearing the name of The New York Times. We ask finally that The Times reveal fully the process through which the historical materials were and continue to be assembled, checked and authenticated.
Victoria Bynum, distinguished emerita professor of history, Texas State University; James M. McPherson, George Henry Davis 1886 emeritus professor of American history, Princeton University; James Oakes, distinguished professor, the Graduate Center, the City University of New York; Sean Wilentz, George Henry Davis 1886 professor of American history, Princeton University; Gordon S. Wood, Alva O. Wade University emeritus professor and emeritus professor of history, Brown University.
Since The 1619 Project was published in August, we have received a great deal of feedback from readers, many of them educators, academics and historians. A majority have reacted positively to the project, but there have also been criticisms. Some I would describe as constructive, noting episodes we might have overlooked; others have treated the work more harshly. We are happy to accept all of this input, as it helps us continue to think deeply about the subject of slavery and its legacy.
The letter from Professors Bynum, McPherson, Oakes, Wilentz and Wood differs from the previous critiques we have received in that it contains the first major request for correction. We are familiar with the objections of the letter writers, as four of them have been interviewed in recent months by the World Socialist Web Site. We’re glad for a chance to respond directly to some of their objections.
Though we respect the work of the signatories, appreciate that they are motivated by scholarly concern and applaud the efforts they have made in their own writings to illuminate the nation’s past, we disagree with their claim that our project contains significant factual errors and is driven by ideology rather than historical understanding. While we welcome criticism, we don’t believe that the request for corrections to The 1619 Project is warranted.
The project was intended to address the marginalization of African-American history in the telling of our national story and examine the legacy of slavery in contemporary American life. We are not ourselves historians, it is true. We are journalists, trained to look at current events and situations and ask the question: Why is this the way it is? In the case of the persistent racism and inequality that plague this country, the answer to that question led us inexorably into the past — and not just for this project. The project’s creator, Nikole Hannah-Jones, a staff writer at the magazine, has consistently used history to inform her journalism, primarily in her work on educational segregation (work for which she has been recognized with numerous honors, including a MacArthur Fellowship).
Though we may not be historians, we take seriously the responsibility of accurately presenting history to readers of The New York Times. The letter writers express concern about a “closed process” and an opaque “panel of historians,” so I’d like to make clear the steps we took. We did not assemble a formal panel for this project. Instead, during the early stages of development, we consulted with numerous scholars of African-American history and related fields, in a group meeting at The Times as well as in a series of individual conversations. (Five of those who initially consulted with us — Mehrsa Baradaran of the University of California, Irvine; Matthew Desmond and Kevin M. Kruse, both of Princeton University; and Tiya Miles and Khalil G. Muhammad, both of Harvard University — went on to publish articles in the issue.) After those consultations, writers conducted their own research, reading widely, examining primary documents and artifacts and interviewing historians. Finally, during the fact-checking process, our researchers carefully reviewed all the articles in the issue with subject-area experts. This is no different from what we do on any article.
As the five letter writers well know, there are often debates, even among subject-area experts, about how to see the past. Historical understanding is not fixed; it is constantly being adjusted by new scholarship and new voices. Within the world of academic history, differing views exist, if not over what precisely happened, then about why it happened, who made it happen, how to interpret the motivations of historical actors and what it all means.
The passages cited in the letter, regarding the causes of the American Revolution and the attitudes toward black equality of Abraham Lincoln, are good examples of this. Both are found in the lead essay by Hannah-Jones. We can hardly claim to have studied the Revolutionary period as long as some of the signatories, nor do we presume to tell them anything they don’t already know, but I think it would be useful for readers to hear why we believe that Hannah-Jones’s claim that “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery” is grounded in the historical record.
The work of various historians, among them David Waldstreicher and Alfred W. and Ruth G. Blumrosen, supports the contention that uneasiness among slaveholders in the colonies about growing antislavery sentiment in Britain and increasing imperial regulation helped motivate the Revolution. One main episode that these and other historians refer to is the landmark 1772 decision of the British high court in Somerset v. Stewart. The case concerned a British customs agent named Charles Stewart who bought an enslaved man named Somerset and took him to England, where he briefly escaped. Stewart captured Somerset and planned to sell him and ship him to Jamaica, only for the chief justice, Lord Mansfield, to declare this unlawful, because chattel slavery was not supported by English common law.
It is true, as Professor Wilentz has noted elsewhere, that the Somerset decision did not legally threaten slavery in the colonies, but the ruling caused a sensation nonetheless. Numerous colonial newspapers covered it and warned of the tyranny it represented. Multiple historians have pointed out that in part because of the Somerset case, slavery joined other issues in helping to gradually drive apart the patriots and their colonial governments. The British often tried to undermine the patriots by mocking their hypocrisy in fighting for liberty while keeping Africans in bondage, and colonial officials repeatedly encouraged enslaved people to seek freedom by fleeing to British lines. For their part, large numbers of the enslaved came to see the struggle as one between freedom and continued subjugation. As Waldstreicher writes, “The black-British alliance decisively pushed planters in these [Southern] states toward independence.”
The culmination of this was the Dunmore Proclamation, issued in late 1775 by the colonial governor of Virginia, which offered freedom to any enslaved person who fled his plantation and joined the British Army. A member of South Carolina’s delegation to the Continental Congress wrote that this act did more to sever the ties between Britain and its colonies “than any other expedient which could possibly have been thought of.” The historian Jill Lepore writes in her recent book, “These Truths: A History of the United States,” “Not the taxes and the tea, not the shots at Lexington and Concord, not the siege of Boston; rather, it was this act, Dunmore’s offer of freedom to slaves, that tipped the scales in favor of American independence.” And yet how many contemporary Americans have ever even heard of it? Enslaved people at the time certainly knew about it. During the Revolution, thousands sought freedom by taking refuge with British forces.
As for the question of Lincoln’s attitudes on black equality, the letter writers imply that Hannah-Jones was unfairly harsh toward our 16th president. Admittedly, in an essay that covered several centuries and ranged from the personal to the historical, she did not set out to explore in full his continually shifting ideas about abolition and the rights of black Americans. But she provides an important historical lesson by simply reminding the public, which tends to view Lincoln as a saint, that for much of his career, he believed that a necessary prerequisite for freedom would be a plan to encourage the four million formerly enslaved people to leave the country. To be sure, at the end of his life, Lincoln’s racial outlook had evolved considerably in the direction of real equality. Yet the story of abolition becomes more complicated, and more instructive, when readers understand that even the Great Emancipator was ambivalent about full black citizenship.
The letter writers also protest that Hannah-Jones, and the project’s authors more broadly, ignore Lincoln’s admiration, which he shared with Frederick Douglass, for the commitment to liberty espoused in the Constitution. This seems to me a more general point of dispute. The writers believe that the Revolution and the Constitution provided the framework for the eventual abolition of slavery and for the equality of black Americans, and that our project insufficiently credits both the founders and 19th-century Republican leaders like Lincoln, Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner and others for their contributions toward achieving these goals.
It may be true that under a less egalitarian system of government, slavery would have continued for longer, but the United States was still one of the last nations in the Americas to abolish the institution — only Cuba and Brazil did so after us. And while our democratic system has certainly led to many progressive advances for the rights of minority groups over the past two centuries, these advances, as Hannah-Jones argues in her essay, have almost always come as a result of political and social struggles in which African-Americans have generally taken the lead, not as a working-out of the immanent logic of the Constitution.
And yet for all that, it is difficult to argue that equality has ever been truly achieved for black Americans — not in 1776, not in 1865, not in 1964, not in 2008 and not today. The very premise of The 1619 Project, in fact, is that many of the inequalities that continue to afflict the nation are a direct result of the unhealed wound created by 250 years of slavery and an additional century of second-class citizenship and white-supremacist terrorism inflicted on black people (together, those two periods account for 88 percent of our history since 1619). These inequalities were the starting point of our project — the facts that, to take just a few examples, black men are nearly six times as likely to wind up in prison as white men, or that black women are three times as likely to die in childbirth as white women, or that the median family wealth for white people is $171,000, compared with just $17,600 for black people. The rampant discrimination that black people continue to face across nearly every aspect of American life suggests that neither the framework of the Constitution nor the strenuous efforts of political leaders in the past and the present, both white and black, has yet been able to achieve the democratic ideals of the founding for all Americans.
This is an important discussion to have, and we are eager to see it continue. To that end, we are planning to host public conversations next year among academics with differing perspectives on American history. Good-faith critiques of our project only help us refine and improve it — an important goal for us now that we are in the process of expanding it into a book. For example, we have heard from several scholars who profess to admire the project a great deal but wish it had included some mention of African slavery in Spanish Florida during the century before 1619. Though we stand by the logic of marking the beginning of American slavery with the year it was introduced in the English colonies, this feedback has helped us think about the importance of considering the prehistory of the period our project addresses.
Valuable critiques may come from many sources. The letter misperceives our attitudes when it charges that we dismiss objections on racial grounds. This appears to be a reference not to anything published in The 1619 Project itself, but rather to a November Twitter post from Hannah-Jones in which she questioned whether “white historians” have always produced objective accounts of American history. As is so often the case on Twitter, context is important. In this instance, Hannah-Jones was responding to a post, since deleted, from another user claiming that many “white historians” objected to the project but were hesitant to speak up. In her reply, she was trying to make the point that for the most part, the history of this country has been told by white historians (some of whom, as in the case of the Dunning School, which grossly miseducated Americans about the history of Reconstruction for much of the 20th century, produced accounts that were deeply flawed), and that to truly understand the fullness and complexity of our nation’s story, we need a greater variety of voices doing the telling.
That, above all, is what we hoped our project would do: expand the reader’s sense of the American past. (This is how some educators are using it to supplement their teaching of United States history.) That is what the letter writers have done, in different ways, over the course of their distinguished careers and in their many books. Though we may disagree on some important matters, we are grateful for their input and their interest in discussing these fundamental questions about the country’s history.
Sincerely, Jake Silverstein Editor in chief
The 1619 Project was launched in August 2019, on the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in the English colonies that would become the United States. It consisted of two components: a special issue of the magazine, containing 10 essays exploring the links between contemporary American life and the legacy of slavery, as well as a series of original poetry and fiction about key moments in the last 400 years; and a special broadsheet section, produced in collaboration with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. This work was converted into supplementary educational materials in partnership with the Pulitzer Center. The materials are available free on the Pulitzer Center’s website, pulitzercenter.org.
This drawing of the Liverpool slave ship Brooks was commissioned by abolitionists to depict the inhumanity of the slave trade by showing how Africans were crammed below decks.
(CNN) Much of what we know about the horrors of slavery in the Americas comes from historical records. But new research shows that evidence of the slave trade’s atrocities can also be found in the DNA of African Americans.
A study conducted by the consumer genetics company 23andMe, published Thursday in theAmerican Journal of Human Genetics, offers some new insight into the consequences of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, from the scale at which enslaved Black women were raped by their White masters to the less-documented slave trade that occurred within the Americas.
It’s one of the largest studies of its kind, thanks in part to the massive database of 23andMe customers that researchers were able to recruit consenting participants from.
The authors compiled genetic data from more than 50,000 people from the Americas, Western Europe and Atlantic Africa, and compared it against the historical records of where enslaved people were taken from and where they were enslaved. Together, the data and records tell a story about the complicated roots of the African diaspora in the Americas.
For the most part, the DNA was consistent with what the documents show. But, the study authors said, there were some notable differences.
Here’s some of what they found, and what it reveals about the history of slavery.
It shows the legacy of rape against enslaved women
The enslaved workers who were taken from Africa and brought to the Americas were disproportionately male. Yet, genetic data shows that enslaved women contributed to gene pools at a higher rate.
In the US and parts of the Caribbean colonized by the British, African women contributed to the gene pool about 1.5 to 2 times more than African men. In Latin America, that rate was even higher. Enslaved women contributed to the gene pool in Central America, the Latin Caribbean and parts of South America about 13 to 17 times more.
To the extent that people of African descent in the Americas had European ancestry, they were more likely to have White fathers in their lineage than White mothers in all regions except the Latin Caribbean and Central America.
What that suggests: The biases in the gene pool toward enslaved African women and European men signals generations of rape and sexual exploitation against enslaved women at the hands of White owners, authors Steven Micheletti and Joanna Mountain wrote in an email to CNN.
That enslaved Black women were often raped by their masters “is not a surprise” to any Black person living in the US, says Ravi Perry, a political science professor at Howard University. Numerous historical accounts confirm this reality, as the study’s authors note.
But the regional differences between the US and Latin America are what’s striking.
The US and other former British colonies generally forced enslaved people to have children in order to maintain workforces — which could explain why the children of an enslaved woman were more likely to have an enslaved father. Segregation in the US could also be a factor, the authors theorized.
By contrast, the researchers point to the presence of racial whitening policies in several Latin American countries, which brought in European immigrants with the aim of diluting the African race. Such policies, as well as higher mortality rates of enslaved men, could explain the disproportionate contributions to the gene pool by enslaved women, the authors wrote.
It sheds light on the intra-American slave trade
Far more people in the US and Latin America have Nigerian ancestry than expected, given what historical records show about the enslaved people that embarked from ports along present-day Nigeria into the Americas, according to the study.
What that suggests: This is most likely a reflection of the intercolonial slave trade that occurred largely from the British Caribbean to other parts of the Americas between 1619 and 1807, Micheletti and Mountain wrote.
Once enslaved Africans arrived in the Americas, many were put on new ships and transported to other regions.”
Documented intra-American voyages indicate that the vast majority of enslaved people were transported from the British Caribbean to other parts of the Americas, presumably to maintain the slave economy as transatlantic slave trading was increasingly prohibited,” the authors wrote in the study.
When enslaved people from Nigeria who came into the British Caribbean were traded into other areas, their ancestry spread to regions that didn’t directly trade with that part of Africa.
It shows the dire conditions enslaved people faced
Conversely, ancestry from the region of Senegal and the Gambia is underrepresented given the proportion of enslaved people who embarked from there, Micheletti and Mountain said.
The reasons for that are grim.
What that suggests: One possible explanation the authors gave for the low prevalence of Senegambian ancestry is that over time, more and more children from the region were forced onto ships to make the journey to the Americas.
The unsanitary conditions in the holds of the ship led to malnourishment and illness, the authors wrote, meaning that less of them survived.
Another possibility is the dangerous conditions that enslaved people from the region faced once they arrived. A significant proportion of Senegambians were taken to rice plantations in the US, which were often rampant with malaria, Micheletti and Mountain said.
The study has limitations
The 23andMe study is significant in how it juxtaposes genetic data with historical records, as well as in the size of its dataset, experts who weren’t involved in the study told CNN.
“I’m not aware of anyone that has done such a comprehensive job of putting these things together, by a long shot,” said Simon Gravel, a human genetics professor at McGill University. “It’s really big progress.”
Still, he said, the research has its limitations.
In order to conduct their analysis, the scientists had to make “a lot of simplifications,” Gravel said. The researchers broke down African ancestry into four corresponding regions on the continent’s Atlantic Coast: Nigerian, Senegambian, Coastal West African and Congolese.”
That doesn’t tell you the whole story,” Gravel added, though he said more data is needed in the broader field of genomics for the researchers to drill down deeper.
Jada Benn Torres, a genetic anthropologist at Vanderbilt University, also said she would have liked to see a higher proportion of people from Africa included in the study. Out of the more than 50,000 participants, about 2,000 were from Africa. “
From the perspective of human evolutionary genetics, Africa is the most genetic diverse continent,” she wrote in an email to CNN. “In order to adequate capture existing variation, the sample sizes must be large.”
But both Gravel and Benn Torres called the study an exciting start that offers more information about the descendents of enslaved Africans.
And that, the researchers, said was what they set out to do.”
We hope this paper helps people in the Americas of African descent further understand where their ancestors came from and what they overcame,” Micheletti wrote.
“… To me, this is the point, to make a personal connection with the millions of people whose ancestors were forced from Africa into the Americas and to not forget what their ancestors had to endure.”
Somente quando o vírus nos encerra em nossas casas e limita nossos movimentos percebemos como é triste a solidão forçada. Quando nos privam da cotidianidade nos sentimos escravos, porque o homem nasceu para ser livre
Mas é às vezes nos tempos das catástrofes e do desalento, das perdas que nos angustiam, que descobrimos que, como dizia o Nobel de literatura José Saramago, “somos cegos que, vendo, não veem”. Descobrimos, como uma luz que acende em nossa vida, que éramos cegos, incapazes de apreciar a beleza do natural, os gestos cotidianos que tecem nossa existência e dão sentido à vida.
A pandemia do novo vírus, por mais paradoxal que pareça, poderia servir para abrir nossos olhos e percebermos que o que hoje vemos como uma perda, como passear livres pela rua, dar um beijo ou um abraço, ir ao cinema ou ao bar para tomar uma cerveja com os amigos, ou ao futebol, eram gestos de nosso cotidiano que fazíamos muitas vezes sem descobrir a força de poder agir em liberdade, sem imposições do poder.
Descobri essa sensação quando, dias atrás, fui dar a mão a um amigo e ele retirou a sua. Tinha me esquecido do vírus e pensei que meu amigo poderia estar ofendido comigo. Foi como um calafrio de tristeza.
Às vezes abraçamos, beijamos e nos movemos em liberdade sem saber o valor desses gestos que realizamos quase de forma mecânica. Quando os pais sentem às vezes, no dia a dia, o peso de terem que levar as crianças ao colégio e as deixam lá com um beijo apressado e correndo, mecânico, apreciam, depois do coronavírus, a emoção de que seu filho te peça um beijo ou segure a sua mão. E apreciamos a força de um abraço, do tato, de estarmos juntos apenas quando nos negam essa possibilidade.
Somente quando o vírus nos encerra em nossas casas e limita nossos movimentos percebemos como é triste a solidão forçada, e entendemos melhor o abandono dos presos e dos excluídos. Somente quando nos impedem de nos aproximarmos dos nossos animais de estimação é que descobrimos a maravilha que é poder acariciá-los e abraçá-los.
Se, como dizia Saramago, no cotidiano somos cegos quando não apreciamos a força da liberdade, também, muitas vezes, amando não amamos e livres nos sentimos escravos. O que nos parece cansaço e castigo da rotina revela-se como o maior valor. Quando nos privam dessa cotidianidade nos sentimos escravos, porque o homem nasceu para ser livre.
Na obra Ensaio Sobre a Cegueira (Companhia das Letras), de Saramago, tão recordada nestes momentos de trevas mundiais, na qual uma cidade inteira fica cega e as pessoas enclausuradas, descobre-se melhor nossa insolidariedade e nosso egoísmo. O escritor é duro em seu romance ao fazer daqueles cegos a metáfora de uma sociedade onde cada um, nos momentos de perigo e angústia, pensa apenas em si mesmo.
A única que redime aquela situação perversa dos cegos é uma mulher, a esposa do médico, a única que não perdeu a visão e que se faz passar por cega para ajudar os que de fato são. Aquela mulher é representada hoje pelos italianos que usam suas vozes para, com suas notas doloridas, aliviar a solidão dos vizinhos.
Nestes momentos vividos por boa parte das pessoas do mundo, enclausuradas e presas pelo rigor do poder que as condena negando-lhes a liberdade de movimento, que a dor coletiva nos ajude a vencer nosso atávico egoísmo cotidiano, ao contrário dos cegos egoístas do romance de Saramago.
Que a tragédia do coronavírus consiga nos transformar no futuro em guias e ajuda amorosa dos novos cegos de uma sociedade que muitas vezes parece não saber onde caminhar e que, quando goza de liberdade, anseia pela escravidão.
Que a dor de hoje se transforme em tomada de consciência de que vale mais a liberdade das aves do céu que a escravidão que nos impomos quando somos livres. Que o mundo não caia na tentação dos escravos que Moisés havia tirado da escravidão do Egito, que, enquanto eram conduzidos pelo deserto rumo à liberdade, continuavam preferindo as cebolas e os alhos do tempo da escravidão ao maná que Deus lhes enviava do céu. Não existe maior bem neste planeta do que a liberdade que nos permite amar e sofrer sem sucumbir.
E ante a catástrofe do coronavírus, que poderia nos alcançar a todos, que se rompam neste país as trincheiras entre bolsonaristas e lulistas para nos sentirmos solidários numa mesma preocupação.
Na dor e na calamidade coletiva, sentimos que somos menos desiguais do que pensamos. E que, no fim das contas, as lágrimas não têm ideologia.
João Fellet – @joaofellet. Da BBC Brasil em Washington (EUA)
29 outubro 2016
O Brasil recebeu a maioria dos africanos escravizados enviados às Américas
Uma sala com peças de um navio que levava para o Brasil 500 mulheres, crianças e homens escravizados é a principal atração do novo museu sobre a história dos americanos negros, em Washington.
Numa segunda-feira de outubro, era preciso passar 15 minutos na fila para entrar na sala com objetos do São José – Paquete de África, no subsolo do Museu de História e Cultura Afroamericana.
Inaugurado em setembro pelo Smithsonian Institution, o museu custou o equivalente a R$ 1,7 bilhão se tornou o mais concorrido da capital americana: os ingressos estão esgotados até março de 2017.
Em 1794, o São José deixou a Ilha de Moçambique, no leste africano, carregado de pessoas que seriam vendidas como escravas em São Luís do Maranhão. A embarcação portuguesa naufragou na costa da África do Sul, e 223 cativos morreram.
Visitantes – em sua maioria negros americanos – caminhavam em silêncio pela sala que simula o porão de um navio negreiro, entre lastros de ferro do São José e algemas usadas em outras embarcações (um dos pares, com circunferência menor, era destinado a mulheres ou crianças).
“Tivemos 12 negros que se afogaram voluntariamente e outros que jejuaram até a morte, porque acreditam que quando morrem retornam a seu país e a seus amigos”, diz o capitão de outro navio, em relato afixado na parede.
Prova de existência
Expor peças de um navio negreiro era uma obsessão do diretor do museu, Lonnie Bunch. Em entrevista ao The Washington Post, ele disse ter rodado o mundo atrás dos objetos, “a única prova tangível de que essas pessoas realmente existiram”.
Destroços do São José foram descobertos em 1980, mas só entre 2010 e 2011 pesquisadores localizaram em Lisboa documentos que permitiram identificá-lo. Um acordo entre arqueólogos marinhos sul-africanos e o Smithsonian selou a vinda das peças para Washington.
Inaugurado em setembro, o Museu de História e Cultura Afroamericana custou US$ 1,7 bilhão. DIVULGAÇÃO/SMITHSONIAN
Que o destino do São José fosse o Brasil não era coincidência, diz Luiz Felipe de Alencastro, professor emérito da Universidade de Paris Sorbonne e um dos maiores especialistas na história da escravidão transatlântica.
Ele afirma à BBC Brasil que fomos o paradeiro de 43% dos africanos escravizados enviados às Américas, enquanto os Estados Unidos acolheram apenas 0,5%.
Segundo um estudo da Universidade de Emory (EUA), ao longo da escravidão ingressaram nos portos brasileiros 4,8 milhões de africanos, a maior marca entre todos os países do hemisfério.
Esse contingente, oito vezes maior que o número de portugueses que entraram no Brasil até 1850, faz com que Alencastro costume dizer que o Brasil “não é um país de colonização europeia, mas africana e europeia”.
O fluxo de africanos também explica porque o Brasil é o país com mais afrodescendentes fora da África (segundo o IBGE, 53% dos brasileiros se consideram pretos ou pardos).
Por que, então, o Brasil não tem museus ou monumentos sobre a escravidão comparáveis ao novo museu afroamericano de Washington?
Apartheid e pilhagem da África
Para Alencastro, é preciso considerar as diferenças nas formas como Brasil e EUA lidaram com a escravidão e seus desdobramentos.
Ele diz que, nos EUA, houve uma maior exploração de negros nascidos no país, o que acabaria resultando numa “forma radical de racismo legal, de apartheid”.
Museu virou um dos mais concorridos da capital americana e está com os ingressos esgotados até março. BBC BRASIL / JOÃO FELLET
Até a década de 1960, em partes do EUA, vigoravam leis que segregavam negros e brancos em espaços públicos, ônibus, banheiros e restaurantes. Até 1967, casamentos inter-raciais eram ilegais em alguns Estados americanos.
No Brasil, Alencastro diz que a escravidão “se concentrou muito mais na exploração dos africanos e na pilhagem da África”, embora os brasileiros evitem assumir responsabilidade por esses processos.
Ele afirma que muitos no país culpam os portugueses pela escravidão, mas que brasileiros tiveram um papel central na expansão do tráfico de escravos no Atlântico.
Alencastro conta que o reino do Congo, no oeste da África, foi derrubado em 1665 em batalha ordenada pelo governo da então capitania da Paraíba.
“O pelotão de frente das tropas era formado por mulatos pernambucanos que foram barbarizar na África e derrubar um reino independente”, ele diz.
Vizinha ao Congo, Angola também foi invadida por milicianos do Brasil e passou vários anos sob o domínio de brasileiros, que a tornaram o principal ponto de partida de escravos destinados ao país.
“Essas histórias são muito ocultadas e não aparecem no Brasil”, ele afirma.
Para a brasileira Ana Lucia Araújo, professora da Howard University, em Washington, “o Brasil ainda está muito atrás dos EUA” na forma como trata a história da escravidão.
“Aqui (nos EUA) se reconhece que o dinheiro feito nas costas dos escravos ajudou a construir o país, enquanto, no Brasil, há uma negação disso”, ela diz.
Autora de vários estudos sobre a escravidão nas Américas, Araújo afirma que até a ditadura (1964-1985) era forte no Brasil a “ideologia da democracia racial”, segundo a qual brancos e negros conviviam harmonicamente no país.
São recentes no Brasil políticas para atenuar os efeitos da escravidão, como cotas para negros em universidades públicas e a demarcação de territórios quilombolas.
Expor peças de um navio negreiro era uma obsessão do diretor do museu. DIVULGAÇÃO/SMITHSONIAN
Ela diz que ainda poucos museus no Brasil abordam a escravidão, “e, quando o fazem, se referem à população afrobrasileira de maneira negativa, inferiorizante”.
Segundo a professora, um dos poucos espaços a celebrar a cultura e a história afrobrasileira é o Museu Afro Brasil, em São Paulo, mas a instituição deve sua existência principalmente à iniciativa pessoal de seu fundador, o artista plástico Emanoel Araújo.
E só nos últimos anos o Rio de Janeiro passou a discutir o que fazer com o Cais do Valongo, maior porto receptor de escravos do mundo. Mantido por voluntários por vários anos, o local se tornou neste ano candidato ao posto de Patrimônio da Humanidade na Unesco.
Para a professora, museus e monumentos sobre a escravidão “não melhoram as vidas das pessoas, mas promovem um tipo de reparação simbólica ao fazer com que a história dessas populações seja reconhecida no espaço público”.
Visibilidade e representação
Para o jornalista e pesquisador moçambicano Rogério Ba-Senga, a escravidão e outros pontos da história entre Brasil a África têm pouca visibilidade no país, porque “no Brasil os brancos ainda têm o monopólio da representação social dos negros”.
“Há muitos negros pensando e pesquisando a cultura negra no Brasil, mas o centro decisório ainda é branco”, diz Ba-Senga, que mora em São Paulo desde 2003.
Para ele, o cenário mudará quando negros forem mais numerosos na mídia brasileira – “para que ponham esses assuntos em pauta” – e nos órgãos públicos.
Para Alencastro, mesmo que o Estado brasileiro evite tratar da escravidão, o tema virá à tona por iniciativa de outros grupos.
“Nações africanas que foram pilhadas se tornaram independentes. Há nesses países pessoas estudando o tema e uma imigração potencialmente crescente de africanos para o Brasil”, ele diz.
Em outra frente, o professor afirma que movimentos brasileiros em periferias e grupos quilombolas pressionam para que os assuntos ganhem espaço.
“Há hoje uma desconexão entre a academia e o debate no movimento popular, mas logo, logo tudo vai se juntar, até porque a maioria da população brasileira é afrodescentente. Os negros são maioria aqui.”
Pesquisa investigou documentos referentes ao Brasil, no período colonial, que constam do Arquivo Histórico Ultramarino, em Lisboa/Portugal
“Temos uma imensa documentação fantástica vinculada ao Quilombo dos Palmares, ao tráfico negreiro. Em relação à questão indígena, temos inúmeros povos e grupos étnicos que souberam negociar com a Coroa Portuguesa, lideranças indígenas que souberam lutar em favor do seu próprio povo.” A afirmação é da professora Juciene Ricarte, da Universidade Federal e Campina Grande (UFCG) sobre o conteúdo dos Catálogos Gerais dos Manuscritos Avulsos e em Códices referentes à História Indígena e à Escravidão Negra no Brasil Existentes no Arquivo Histórico Ultramarino, recentemente lançados em Campina Grande (PB)
Durante quatro anos, o projeto analisou 136.506 mil verbetes/documentos entre os anos de 1581 e 1843 que constam do Arquivo Histórico Ultramarino (AHU), de Lisboa, em Portugal. Foram analisadas cartas relatórios, requerimentos, cartas régias, alvarás, provisões, consultas, relatos de viagens, entre outros documentos geridos pela burocracia administrativa portuguesa e que lidavam com as questões indígenas e da escravidão no Brasil Colonial. Segundo a coordenadora do projeto, os documentos falam do cotidiano da Colônia. “Tem situações e narrativas de luta em mocambos, mocambos com indígenas e negros, levantes em aldeamentos, da vida desses protagonistas”, explica.
Guerra dos Bárbaros
Ao final, o projeto catalogou 6.009 verbetes, sendo 3.052 sobre a História Indígena e 2.957 referentes à escravidão negra em todas as regiões do País. Professora do Programa de Pós-Graduação em História, Juciene garante que muitas monografias, dissertações, teses e livros poderão surgir a partir dessas duas coleções, que contêm ainda todos os documentos digitalizados. “Pesquisadores, antropólogos, historiadores, memorialistas poderão usar esses documentos porque tem mais do que os livros-catálogos com o resumo. Por exemplo, se a pessoa quiser pesquisar sobre os Potiguaras com os Janduis, na Guerra dos Bárbaros, procura no DVD e com o número do verbete, ela vai encontrar a imagem digitalizada do manuscrito. Então, ela pode imprimir, arquivar no próprio computador, ampliar, reduzir e ainda tem acessibilidade para cegos.”
Além da produção dos livros-catálogos, o projeto realizou a gravação dos verbetes em áudio para promover a acessibilidade aos deficientes visuais “Esse formato é extremamente necessário e importante para o que objetivamos de acessibilidade no tocante às fontes históricas. Nenhum outro sistema de informação no trato com documentação de questões étnicas foi produzido com a possibilidade não só da leitura de verbetes, mas da escuta dos resumos”, ressaltou.
Tendo concluído o Pós-Doutorado na Universidade Nova de Lisboa, em 2015, Juciene afirma que os pesquisadores encontraram histórias e memórias sobre o cotidiano de diversos grupos indígenas que nem existem mais. São lutas e resistências de muitos que deram a própria vida, etnocídios, povos que foram exterminados lutando por seus territórios tradicionais, outros se adaptando à nova realidade colonial para também sobreviver.
Ela explica que é no período colonial que ocorrem as primeiras relações interétnicas entre indígenas e não-indígenas, entre negros e não-negros, entre senhores e escravos e entre missionários e indígenas. São as primeiras relações do que iria constituir o povo brasileiro. A etnohistoriadora argumenta que a documentação recolhida mostra homens e mulheres que são sujeitos do seu tempo e que tanto indígenas, quanto os homens e mulheres negros conseguiram construir relações e sociabilidade num mundo que, muitas vezes, era de dominação. “Quando se constituiu os aldeamentos indígenas sob a tutela de missionários, da Igreja e depois, com a Lei do Marquês de Pombal, quando expulsaram os jesuítas, esses indígenas sabiam muito bem construir novos espaços nesse mundo colonial, mesmo deixando de falar a própria língua, porque eram obrigados, continuavam sendo indígenas, resistiam, lutavam e ao mesmo tempo, tentavam sobreviver naquela realidade que lhe era imposta. Assim também os homens e mulheres negros. A ideia de escravidão negra é que fossem submetidos. Absolutamente! Eles construíam negociações ou atos de violências numa tentativa de sobreviver num mundo de escravidão”, narra.
Relacionado ao que hoje compreende o nordeste, a coordenadora do projeto esclarece que foi catalogada importante documentação sobre grupos étnicos que já não existem mais no Rio Grande do Norte ou na Paraíba. São os indígenas do sertão, da chamada Guerra dos Bárbaros, além de outros grupos étnicos que viviam ao longo do Rio São Francisco, muitos mocambos e quilombos. Esses documentos podem inclusive ser usados em laudos antropológicos para identificação de territórios tradicionais tanto indígenas, quanto negros.
Justificando a importância do trabalho, a professora afirma que ele não fala apenas do passado, porque negros e indígenas continuam existindo hoje, lutando por inclusão étnico-racial. “Nos próprios livros didáticos de História, é como se a História Indígena e a História do Negro no Brasil não fosse importante e com um instrumento de pesquisa como esse, a gente muda a historiografia nacional, contribui para que esses protagonistas, reais sujeitos históricos do Brasil, tenham vez na escrita da História”, ressalta.
Os produtos culturais – compostos por livros-catálogos e DVD´s – foram realizados por uma equipe de 43 pesquisadores da Universidade Federal de Campina Grande (UFCG) em parceria com a Fundação Parque Tecnológico da Paraíba (PaqTcPB), através do Edital Cultural da Petrobrás/2010. Os recursos foram de R$ 500 mil. A tiragem de cada Catálogo é de dois mil exemplares, a serem distribuídos para todas as universidades brasileiras, arquivos históricos, Movimento Negro e Movimento Indígena. A distribuição será gratuita e exclusivamente para instituições.
João Fellet – @joaofellet / Da BBC Brasil em Washington
14 janeiro 2016
Image captionA convite de produtora, arquiteto fez exame genético e foi até Camarões para conhecer seus ancestrais
“Somos o único grupo populacional no Brasil que não sabe de onde vem”, queixa-se o arquiteto baiano Zulu Araújo, de 63 anos, em referência à população negra descendente dos 4,8 milhões de africanos escravizados recebidos pelo país entre os séculos 16 e 19.
Araújo foi um dos 150 brasileiros convidados pela produtora Cine Group para fazer um exame de DNA e identificar suas origens africanas.
Ele descobriu ser descendente do povo tikar, de Camarões, e, como parte da série televisiva Brasil: DNA África, visitou o local para conhecer a terra de seus antepassados.
“A viagem me completou enquanto cidadão”, diz Araújo. Leia, abaixo, seu depoimento à BBC Brasil:
“Sempre tive a consciência de que um dos maiores crimes contra a população negra não foi nem a tortura, nem a violência: foi retirar a possibilidade de que conhecêssemos nossas origens. Somos o único grupo populacional no Brasil que não sabe de onde vem.
Meu sobrenome, Mendes de Araújo, é português. Carrego o nome da família que escravizou meus ancestrais, pois o ‘de’ indica posse. Também carrego o nome de um povo africano, Zulu.
Momento em que o Zulu confronta o rei tikar sobre a venda de seus antepassados
Ganhei o apelido porque meus amigos me acharam parecido com um rei zulu retratado num documentário. Virou meu nome.
Nasci no Solar do Unhão, uma colônia de pescadores no centro de Salvador, local de desembarque e leilão de escravos até o final do século 19. Comecei a trabalhar clandestinamente aos 9 anos numa gráfica da Igreja Católica. Trabalhava de forma profana para produzir livros sagrados.
Bom aluno, consegui passar no vestibular para arquitetura. Éramos dois negros numa turma de 600 estudantes – isso numa cidade onde 85% da população tem origem africana. Salvador é uma das cidades mais racistas que eu conheço no mundo.
Ao participar do projeto Brasil: DNA África e descobrir que era do grupo étnico tikar, fiquei surpreso. Na Bahia, todos nós especulamos que temos ou origem angolana ou iorubá. Eu imaginava que era iorubano. Mas os exames de DNA mostram que vieram ao Brasil muito mais etnias do que sabemos.
“Era como se eu estivesse no meu bairro, na Bahia, e ao mesmo tempo tivesse voltado 500 anos no tempo”, diz Zulu sobre chegada a Camarões
Pergunta sobre escravidão a rei camaronense foi tratada como “assunto delicado” e foi respondida apenas no dia seguinte
Quando cheguei ao centro do reino tikar, a eletricidade tinha caído, e o pessoal usava candeeiros e faróis dos carros para a iluminação. Mais de 2 mil pessoas me aguardavam. O que senti naquele momento não dá para descrever, de tão chocante e singular.
As pessoas gritavam. Eu não entendia uma palavra do que diziam, mas entendia tudo. Era como se eu estivesse no meu bairro, na Bahia, e ao mesmo tempo tivesse voltado 500 anos no tempo.
O povão me encarava como uma novidade: eu era o primeiro brasileiro de origem tikar a pisar ali. Mas também fiquei chocado com a pobreza. As pessoas me faziam inúmeros pedidos nas ruas, de camisetas de futebol a ajuda para gravar um disco. Não por acaso, ali perto o grupo fundamentalista Boko Haram (originário da vizinha Nigéria) tem uma de suas bases e conta com grande apoio popular.
De manhã, fui me encontrar com o rei, um homem alto e forte de 56 anos, casado com 20 mulheres e pai de mais de 40 filhos. Ele se vestia como um muçulmano do deserto, com uma túnica com estamparias e tecidos belíssimos.
Depois do café da manhã, tive uma audiência com ele numa das salas do palácio. Ele estava emocionado e curioso, pois sabia que muitos do povo Tikar haviam ido para as Américas, mas não para o Brasil.
Fiz uma pergunta que me angustiava: perguntei por que eles tinham permitido ou participado da venda dos meus ancestrais para o Brasil. O tradutor conferiu duas vezes se eu queria mesmo fazer aquela pergunta e disse que o assunto era muito sensível. Eu insisti.
Ficou um silêncio total na sala. Então o rei cochichou no ouvido de um conselheiro, que me disse que ele pedia desculpas, mas que o assunto era muito delicado e só poderia me responder no dia seguinte. O tema da escravidão é um tabu no continente africano, porque é evidente que houve um conluio da elite africana com a europeia para que o processo durasse tanto tempo e alcançasse tanta gente.
No dia seguinte, o rei finalmente me respondeu. Ele pediu desculpas e disse que foi melhor terem nos vendido, caso contrário todos teríamos sido mortos. E disse que, por termos sobrevivido, nós, da diáspora, agora poderíamos ajudá-los. Disse ainda que me adotaria como seu primeiro filho, o que me daria o direito a regalias e o acesso a bens materiais.
Foi uma resposta política, mas acho que foi sincera. Sei que eles não imaginavam que a escravidão ganharia a dimensão que ganhou, nem que a Europa a transformaria no maior negócio de todos os tempos. Houve um momento em que os africanos perderam o controle.
“Se qualquer pessoa me perguntar de onde sou, agora já sei responder. Só quem é negro pode entender a dimensão que isso possui.”
Um intelectual senegalês me disse que, enquanto não superarmos a escravidão, não teremos paz – nem os escravizados, nem os escravizadores. É a pura verdade. Não dá para tratar uma questão de 500 anos com um sentimento de ódio ou vingança.
A viagem me completou enquanto cidadão. Se qualquer pessoa me perguntar de onde sou, agora já sei responder. Só quem é negro pode entender a dimensão que isso possui.
Acho que os exames de DNA deveriam ser reconhecidos pelo governo, pelas instituições acadêmicas brasileiras como um caminho para que possamos refazer e recontar a história dos 52% dos brasileiros que têm raízes africanas. Só conhecendo nossas origens poderemos entender quem somos de verdade.”
Summary: Global decline of wildlife populations is driving increases in violent conflicts, organized crime and child labor around the world, according to a experts. Researchers call for biologists to join forces with experts such as economists, political scientists, criminologists, public health officials and international development specialists to collectively tackle a complex challenge.
Global decline of wildlife populations is driving increases in violent conflicts, organized crime and child labor around the world, according to a policy paper led by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley. The authors call for biologists to join forces with experts such as economists, political scientists, criminologists, public health officials and international development specialists to collectively tackle a complex challenge.
The paper, to be published Thursday, July 24, in the journal Science, highlights how losses of food and employment from wildlife decline cause increases in human trafficking and other crime, as well as foster political instability.
“This paper is about recognizing wildlife decline as a source of social conflict rather than a symptom,” said lead author Justin Brashares, associate professor of ecology and conservation at UC Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management. “Billions of people rely directly and indirectly on wild sources of meat for income and sustenance, and this resource is declining. It’s not surprising that the loss of this critical piece of human livelihoods has huge social consequences. Yet, both conservation and political science have generally overlooked these fundamental connections.”
Fishing and the rise of piracy
Fewer animals to hunt and less fish to catch demand increasingly greater effort to harvest. Laborers — many of whom are children — are often sold to fishing boats and forced to work 18-20 hour days at sea for years without pay.
“Impoverished families are relying upon these resources for their livelihoods, so we can’t apply economic models that prescribe increases in prices or reduced demand as supplies become scarce,” said Brashares. “Instead, as more labor is needed to capture scarce wild animals and fish, hunters and fishers use children as a source of cheap labor. Hundreds of thousands of impoverished families are selling their kids to work in harsh conditions.”
The authors connected the rise of piracy and maritime violence in Somalia to battles over fishing rights. What began as an effort to repel foreign vessels illegally trawling through Somali waters escalated into hijacking fishing — and then non-fishing — vessels for ransom.
“Surprisingly few people recognize that competition for fish stocks led to the birth of Somali piracy,” said Brashares. “For Somali fishermen, and for hundreds of millions of others, fish and wildlife were their only source of livelihood, so when that was threatened by international fishing fleets, drastic measures were taken.”
The authors also compared wildlife poaching to the drug trade, noting that huge profits from trafficking luxury wildlife goods, such as elephant tusks and rhino horns, have attracted guerilla groups and crime syndicates worldwide. They pointed to the Lord’s Resistance Army, al-Shabab and Boko Haram as groups known to use wildlife poaching to fund terrorist attacks.
Holistic solutions required
“This paper begins to touch the tip of the iceberg about issues on wildlife decline, and in doing so the authors offer a provocative and completely necessary perspective about the holistic nature of the causes and consequences of wildlife declines,” said Meredith Gore, a Michigan State University associate professor in the nascent field of conservation criminology who was not part of the study.
As potential models for this integrated approach, the authors point to organizations and initiatives in the field of climate change, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the United for Wildlife Collaboration. But the paper notes that those global efforts must also be accompanied by multi-pronged approaches that address wildlife declines at a local and regional scale.
“The most important bit from this article, I think, is that we need to better understand the factors that underlie fish and wildlife declines from a local perspective, and that interdisciplinary approaches are likely the best option for facilitating this understanding,” said Gore.
The authors give examples of local governments heading off social tension, such as the granting of exclusive rights to hunting and fishing grounds to locals in Fiji, and the control of management zones in Namibia to reduce poaching and improve the livelihoods of local populations.
“This prescribed re-visioning of why we should conserve wildlife helps make clearer what the stakes are in this game,” said UC Santa Barbara assistant professor Douglas McCauley, a co-author who began this work as a postdoctoral researcher in Brashares’ lab. “Losses of wildlife essentially pull the rug out from underneath societies that depend on these resources. We are not just losing species. We are losing children, breaking apart communities, and fostering crime. This makes wildlife conservation a more important job than it ever has been.”
J. S. Brashares, B. Abrahms, K. J. Fiorella, C. D. Golden, C. E. Hojnowski, R. A. Marsh, D. J. McCauley, T. A. Nunez, K. Seto, L. Withey. Wildlife decline and social conflict. Science, 2014; 345 (6195): 376 DOI: 10.1126/science.1256734
RIO DE JANEIRO — Sailing from the Angolan coast across the Atlantic, the slave ships docked here in the 19th century at the huge stone wharf, delivering their human cargo to the “fattening houses” on Valongo Street. Foreign chroniclers described the depravity in the teeming slave market, including so-called boutiques selling emaciated and diseased African children.
The newly arrived slaves who died before they even started toiling in Brazil’s mines were hauled to a mass grave nearby, their corpses left to decay amid piles of garbage. As imperial plantations flourished, diggers at the Cemitério dos Pretos Novos — Cemetery of New Blacks — crushed the bones of the dead, making way for thousands of new cadavers.
Now, with construction crews tearing apart areas of Rio de Janeiro in the building spree ahead of this year’s World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, stunning archaeological discoveries around the work sites are providing new insight into the city’s brutal distinction as a nerve center for the Atlantic slave trade.
But as developers press ahead in the surroundings of the unearthed slave port — with futuristic projects like the Museum of Tomorrow, costing about $100 million and designed in the shape of a fish by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava — the frenzied overhaul is setting off a debate over whether Rio is neglecting its past in the all-consuming rush to build its future.
“We’re finding archaeological sites of global importance, and probably far more extensive than what’s been excavated so far, but instead of prioritizing these discoveries our leaders are proceeding with their grotesque remaking of Rio,” said Sonia Rabello, a prominent legal scholar and former city councilwoman.
The city has installed plaques at the ruins of the slave port and a map of an African heritage circuit, which visitors can walk to see where the slave market once functioned. Still, scholars, activists and residents of the port argue that such moves are far too timid in comparison with the multibillion-dollar development projects taking hold.
Beyond the Museum of Tomorrow, which has been disparaged by critics as a costly venture drawing attention away from Rio’s complex history, developers are working on an array of other flashy projects, like a complex of skyscrapers branded in homage to Donald Trump and a gated community of villas for Olympic judges.
At the same time, descendants of African slaves who live as squatters in crumbling buildings around the old slave port are organizing in an effort to obtain titles for their homes, pitting them against a Franciscan order of the Roman Catholic Church that claims ownership of the properties.
“We know our rights,” said Luiz Torres, 50, a history teacher and leader in the property rights movement. With the slave market’s ruins near his home as testament, he added, “Everything that happened in Rio was shaped by the hand of blacks.”
Scholars say the scale of the slave trade here was staggering. Brazil received about 4.9 million slaves through the Atlantic trade, while mainland North America imported about 389,000 during the same period, according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, a project at Emory University.
Rio is believed to have imported more slaves than any other city in the Americas, outranking places like Charleston, S.C.; Kingston, Jamaica; and Salvador in northeast Brazil. Altogether, Rio received more than 1.8 million African slaves, or 21.5 percent of all slaves who landed in the Americas, said Mariana P. Candido, a historian at the University of Kansas.
Activists say the archaeological discoveries merit at least a museum and far more extensive excavations, pointing to projects elsewhere like the International Slavery Museum in the British port city Liverpool, where slave ships were prepared for voyages; the Old Slave Mart Museum in Charleston and Elmina Castle, a slave trading site on Ghana’s coast.
“The horrors committed here are a stain on our history,” said Tânia Andrade Lima, the chief archaeologist at the dig that exposed Valongo, built soon after Portugal’s prince regent, João VI, fled from Napoleon’s armies in 1808, transferring the seat of his empire to Rio from Lisbon.
The squalid wharf functioned until the 1840s, when officials buried it under more elegant docks designed to receive Brazil’s new empress from Europe. Both wharves were eventually buried under landfill and a residential port district, called Little Africa.
Many descendants of slaves settled where the slave market once functioned, with African languages spoken in the area into the 20th century. While the district is gaining recognition as a cradle of samba, one of Brazil’s most treasured musical traditions, it was long neglected by the authorities.
Black Consciousness Day is observed annually in Brazil on Nov. 20 to reflect on the injustices of slavery. In 2013 Ms. Rabello, the legal scholar, pointed out, Rio’s hard-charging mayor, Eduardo Paes, who is overseeing the biggest overhaul of the city in decades, did not attend the ceremony at Valongo, where residents began a campaign to have it recognized as a Unesco World Heritage site. Complicating the debate over how Rio’s past should be balanced alongside the city’s frenetic reconstruction, some families still live on top of the archaeological sites, occasionally excavating Brazil’s patrimony on their own.
“When I first saw the bones, I thought they were the result of a gruesome murder involving previous tenants,” said Ana de la Merced Guimarães, 56, the owner of a small pest control company who lives in an old house where workers doing a renovation first discovered remains from the mass grave in 1996.
It turned out Ms. Guimarães was living above a dumping ground for dead slaves that was used for decades, until around 1830. Estimates vary, but scholars say that as many as 20,000 people were buried in the grave, including many children.
Ms. Guimarães and her husband opted to stay in their property, opening a modest nonprofit organization on the premises, where visitors can view portions of the archaeological dig. The authorities have plans to build a light-rail project on their street, which may lead to more discoveries.
“This was a place of unspeakable crimes against humanity, but it’s also where we live,” Ms. Guimarães said in her home, complaining that public agencies had provided her organization with little support.
Washington Fajardo, a senior adviser to Rio’s mayor on urban planning issues, said that some important steps had been taken at the archaeological sites, including the designation of the slave port as an environmental protection area. And he said that a plan under consideration would create an urban archaeology laboratory where visitors could view archaeologists studying material from the sites.
Mr. Fajardo also emphasized that at another new venture in the port, the Rio Art Museum, residents of the area make up more than half the staff.
“We’d like to do more,” he said, referring to the slave cemetery. “It’s complex because there are people living on top of the site. If they want to stay, we have to respect their wishes.”
Throughout Rio, other discoveries are being made. Near the expansion of a subway line, researchers recently found relics belonging to Pedro II, Brazil’s last emperor before he was overthrown in 1889. And near the slave port, archaeologists found cannons thought to be part of a four-century-old marine defense system.
But none of the discoveries have been quite as striking as the unearthing of the Valongo wharf in 2011 and the earlier excavations of the cemetery under Ms. Guimarães’s home. Beyond the large stones of the wharf itself, archaeologists found items that helped reconstruct the daily lives of slaves, including copper pieces thought to be talismans and dominoes used for gambling.
Between the slave port and the cemetery, visitors can also view the Ladeira do Valongo, where the depots of Rio’s slave market once horrified foreign travelers. One visitor, Robert Walsh, a British clergyman who came to Brazil in 1828, wrote about the transactions.
“They are handled by the purchaser in different parts, exactly as I have seen butchers feeling a calf,” he said. “I sometimes saw groups of well-dressed females here, shopping for slaves, exactly as I have seen English ladies amusing themselves at our bazaars.”
Slavery’s legacy is clear across Brazil, where more than half of its 200 million people define themselves as black or mixed race, giving the nation more people of African descent than any other country outside Africa. In Rio, the large majority of slaves came from what is now Angola, said Walter Hawthorne, a historian at Michigan State University.
“Rio was a culturally vibrant African city,” Dr. Hawthorne said. “The foods people ate, the way they worshiped, how they dressed and more were to a large extent influenced by Angolan cultural norms.”
Brazil abolished slavery in 1888, making it the last country in the Americas to do so. Now the relatively relaxed approach to the archaeological discoveries is raising doubts about how willing the authorities are to revisit such aspects of Brazilian history.
“Archaeologists are exposing the foundations of our unequal society while we are witnessing a perverse attempt to remake the city into something resembling Miami or Dubai,” said Cláudio Lima Castro, an architect and scholar of urban planning. “We’re losing an opportunity to focus in detail on our past, and maybe even learn from it.”