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A Year Before the Mayflower
August 23, 2019
“She came out of a violent storm with a story no one believed,
a name no one recorded and a past no one investigated.
She was manned by pirates and thieves. Her captain was a mystery man name Jope,
her pilot an Englishman named Marmaduke, her cargo an assortment of Africans
with sonorous Spanish names – Antoney, Isabella, Pedro.
A year before the arrival of the celebrated Mayflower,
113 years before the birth of George Washington,
244 years before the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation,
this ship sailed into the harbor at Jamestown, Virginia,
and dropped anchor into the muddy waters of history.
It was clear to the men who received this “Dutch man of War” that she was no ordinary vessel.
What seemed unusual today is that no one sensed how extraordinary she really was.
For few ships, before or since, have unloaded a more momentous cargo.”
Lerone Bennett, Jr., Before The Mayflower
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University in 1947 when Cone was merely nine years old, and served on the faculty at Gammon Theological Seminary from 1948 to 1959, followed
by faculty and administrative positions at the Interdenominational Theological Center, a consortium of six African-American denominational
seminaries in Atlanta, until his retirement in 1978.
But, as usual, I digress, because this story is not about the most noteworthy Dr. Copher, nor Dr. Cone, nor the Black theology books on my shelf.
Rather, it is about the tomes on the shelf above it – tattered text from my undergraduate years as a student of Black studies at Smith and beyond,
including copies of three editions of Lerone Bennett’s Before The Mayflower, the earliest being the third edition printed in 1970.
In the late 60’s and early ‘70’s there were a few things that most
black students had in common across the nation: humongous Afros
(we got stopped three times going through Massachusetts and
Vermont on the way to New Hampshire when Angela Davis was on
the run. Every woman in the car fit her description just because of
our Afros); serious swagger (just something about the way we walked
with pride) and, for those who professed to be “fist raised black”,
a book shelf boasting what was deemed by some “the holy trinity:”
Chancellor Williams’ Destruction of a Black Civilization,
Franz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, and
Lerone Bennett’s Before The Mayflower.
I immediately thought of Mr. Bennett’s Before The Mayflower this past Monday, August 19, 2019, as The New York Times launched
their 1619 Project in observation of the 400-year anniversary of the first documented arrival of non-free Africans in what was to
become The United States of America, a project which focuses on the residual effects of chattel slavery, indeed it’s anchoring hold in every fiber
of America’s notion of democracy and society from capitalism to traffic engineering; supremacy and power to artistic freedom; healthcare,
professional sports, housing, penal system – you name it, at the heart of the policies and practices regarding each of them, you will find the
clogging, choking dust of America’s founding roots in racism.
Before the Pilgrims ported at Plymouth Rock, before their descendants betrayed the indigenous people who saved them from starvation, before
the birth of “founding fathers,” before “no taxation without representation,” before Crispus Attucks – a Black man – took the first bullet in the
Boston Massacre, thus the first sacrifice in the American Revolution for independence. The “befores” go on and on.
How we wish that Before The Mayflower, the 1619 Project or any of the hundreds of books about the history and contributions of black people
in America were required reading/viewing for all those “Made in China” MAGA hat bearing supporters of the Untaught-in-chief. I chose not to
use the synonym ‘illiterate”, although it is what it is! None of them are going to read neither, nor any text likened to them. Therefore, they will
continue to deny the structural and systemic racism of America’s foundation, and to shout “send her back” about people whose ancestries in this
land run far deeper than many of their own.
If they’d read Before The Mayflower they would also know that – being indentured, not enslaved – Antoney and Isabella had rule over their
personage, married and gave birth to William, the first black child born in English America – not to be mistaken with the first black child born on
this continent –neither indentured nor enslaved, William was born free and christened by the Church of England. In time, Antoney and Isabella
along with their black and white fellow indentured servants would complete their terms and make their own way of free enterprising life in their
new colonial world.
duress and pressure… In Virginia, then, as in other colonies, the first black settlers fell into a
well-established socioeconomic groove which carried with it no implications of racial inferiority.
That came later. But in the interim, a period of forty years or more, the first black settlers accumulated land,
voted, testified in court and mingled with whites on a basis of equality. They owned other black servants
and certain blacks imported and paid for white servants whom they apparently held in servitude.”
the Virginia Court for sentencing. Two of the men, white, received seven additional years of servitude
added to their term. The third, a black man by the name of John Punch, was sentenced to life in
servitude to his employer for the same crime. Thus, the beginning of institutionalized racial enslavement in
America, with global roots dating back to 1444, predating even the European Trans-Atlantic trade. As the saying goes.
“We’ve seen this movie before.”
Engagingly crafted as the first major publication by Lerone Bennett, Jr. (1928 – 2018), Before The Mayflower, a
narrative and chronological time-line of African people before and after our enslavement in America, was first
published in 1962 by black-owned Johnson’s Publishing Company and at least six times subsequently by
A social historian, journalist and author, Mr. Bennett is best known as the Executive Editor of Ebony Magazine
beginning in 1958 as an associate, holding the title Editor Emeritus until his passing sixty years later. His last book,
Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream, was released in 2000 by Johnson Publishing Company.
While my earlier edition of Before the Mayflower is most rare my sixth edition copy with a personal inscription by
Mr. Bennett is my most prized.
Thank you, Mr. Bennett for your life-long commitment to pulling the veil from over our story.
May you rest in peace and power.
I look forward to seeing you on the shore.
~ Mittie Imani
personal library bearing Black liberation theology titles as my cover
photo for Facebook. Of course, the juxtaposition of the wild woman on
the motorcycle as my profile pic almost make it hard to believe that I
read any of them. I have.
Even before many of them were required reading by my Perkins
School professor of black liberation theology, ethicist Theo Walker,
I’d been blessed to have the late Reverend Dr. Charles Copher
personally handpick the foundational text for my collection in the early
1990’s while serving as a visiting scholar / preacher at St. Luke
Community United Methodist Church, Dallas for our annual African
Heritage in the Bible Lecture Series. Indeed, many of the authors
gracing those shelves came through St. Luke by way of that series,
including the one deemed the “father of black liberation theology”
Dr. James Hal Cone (1938 – 2018).
These were our “badges of honor.” Fodder for opening conversation for the New England weekend road warriors traveling from campus to
campus back in the days of the single sex Ivy League and its Seven Sisters. Seriously, there were folk who would not even consider dating you
beyond a first conversation if these titles were not part of your lexicon. My academic pursuits have landed me in the troughs of “strange
bedfellows’ – as in peculiar combinations, not sex. I don’t know which have been worse, the “blacker than thou” or the “holier than thou,”
although I have on occasion been accused of being both.
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