Origin stories can be educated guesses, or leaps of collective imagination as to who we are, how we got to this point. The Big Bang is one kind, Adam and Eve make another. 1492 and 1776 are American starting points. The argument gets stickier around 1620, when Mayflower Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock; and 1619, when the first African slaves came ashore in Virginia. Just a year apart, they’re the opening chapters of two very different epics of a single nation: one born in the flight of pious Puritans to freedom, the other born in the theft of people and land to build an empire of cotton and capitalism.
It’s a funny thing about origin stories—who we are, how we got here. We know going in that the stories are made up, one way or another. And we come to find out that a lot of them are just plain wrong. Then what? The Sunday magazine of the New York Times took a bold run this past summer at the year 1620 as the start of the American story— the year, of course, when the Mayflower landed about one hundred dissenting English Puritans, our pilgrims, at Plymouth Rock. But no, the Times argued, our first chapter was dated 1619, a year earlier when a ship bearing some 20 African slaves landed in Point Comfort, Virginia, which was to say the drive to implant a slavocracy in the new world had a step on building a temple of freedom.
We’re talking with Nikole Hannah-Jones, Philip Deloria, and Peter Linebaugh about national origin stories. The thread here is storytelling that explains and often hides what happened.
Nikole Hannah-Jones is the writer and editor who led what the Times called a major initiative at the paper to reframe American history. And she strikes the keynote of this radio hour around slavery at the foundations of U.S. history and in our own origin stories in general.
Peter Linebaugh is a transnational historian of economics and culture. He’s been tracking the privatization of common land in England and the New World. 1792 is his magic start date of what is now the world system.
The historian Philip Deloria—the first tenured professor of Native American history at Harvard—considers the Native American encounters with those colonists in the 1600s.
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