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Our Living Contradiction

The November 14, 2021 issue of the New York Times Magazine contains an article by Jake Silverstein entitled A Nation of Argument. (If you follow the hyperlink, you’ll find at least one different title; NY Times’s articles seem to change their names fairly frequently.)

The article discusses Nikole Hannah-Jones’s 1619 project, which claims that … the moment in August 1619 when the first enslaved Africans arrived in the English colonies that would become the United States could, in a sense, be considered the country’s origin.”

I might quibble that the indentured Africans who arrived in August 1619 were not actually slaves, and I would argue that it doesn’t make sense to designate a single day as the first day of a new country.

But those are just my usual quibbles against rhetoric. Hannah-Jones is making the much more substantive claim that from its earliest days, our country has been founded on a contradiction.

This contradiction is between our founding statement that All men are created equal” and our founding history, where some men (and women) clearly were not equal.

I’ve thought for years that the cognitive dissonance between American ideals and American reality helped propel people to bravely go South in the early 60s to risk their lives to register voters.

It had never occurred to me that this cognitive dissonance can be resolved another way:

… our founding concept of universal equality, in a country where one-fifth of the population was enslaved, led to an increase in racial prejudice by creating a cognitive dissonance — one that could be resolved only by the white citizenry’s assumption of Black inferiority and inhumanity. It’s an unsettling idea, that the most revered ideal of the Declaration of Independence might be considered our original divisive concept.


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