August 21 — the 400th anniversary (+ 1 day) of “The American Heartbreak”

Wednesday,  August 21
“Four hundred years is a mighty long time.  Courage.”

Several days ago, my colleague and friend in the Detroit Mercy History Department suggested that The Work Day/Hard Time Poetry List give its attention to a vicious and important anniversary in the history of slavery.  As editor of the list, I am honored to post Roy’s essay interpreting Langston Hughes’ poem “We are the American Heartbreak” just one day after the 400th anniversary of the Jamestown landing of the first “20 Neggers” there.

Here is Roy’s interpretative post for today.  Best to read his historical note slowly, with pauses.

Thank you, Roy.


john sj

Jamestown 1619 – and Now:

On August 20, 1619, a privateer named the White Lion landed “20 and odd Negroes” at Jamestown, Virginia, then a lonely outpost of the English empire in the far-flung Atlantic world.  These Africans, who were stolen from their villages and families in Angola and forcibly transported across the vast ocean, were the first black slaves landed in the English colonies in North America, the forerunners of what a century and a half later would become the United States.  The English colonists bought these first twenty African souls with “victuals.”

We stand four hundred years removed from that foundational event in what Rev. Jim Wallis has called “America’s original sin” – our long and troubling encounter with slavery and racism.

And yet we remain deeply impacted by that event and what it set into motion.

African American poet Langston Hughes reflected on the meaning of that event in his brief poem, “We are the American Heartbreak,” which appeared in The Panther and the Lash (1967).  In these verses, he speaks for all African Americans of those earlier times and our own.


Today’s Post – “We are the American Heartbreak”

We are the American heartbreak —
The rock on which Freedom
Stumped its toe —
The great mistake
That Jamestown made
Long ago.

As contemporary Americans, we live – whether black, white, or something else – with the lingering effects of that foundational event at Jamestown in 1619 and the way our path to the present has unfolded over the past four centuries.  We’re not very good, individually or collectively, in thinking about, talking about, or doing something about the giant “elephant in the room,” that is American racism.  We prefer apathy and indifference and hopes and prayers for a brighter tomorrow.  We prefer to believe that time alone will heal the wounds, or that we’re already living in a “post-racial America,” or that those descended (if only metaphorically) from the “20 and odd Negroes” are being just a little too sensitive.

Hughes’s poem challenges us to reflect, I think, about what we can do, individually and collectively, to heal “the American heartbreak” – to correct “the great mistake.”  As the late poet Maya Angelou said at the 1992 inauguration of President Bill Clinton: “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, and if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”

Four hundred years is a mighty long time.  Courage.

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