Why the 400 Years of African American History Act Is So Important

Your Take: It’s time for the nation to acknowledge and commemorate the contributions of African Americans throughout history by passing this legislation.

Top row: Nat Turner; NASA physicist Katherine Johnson; inventor Garrett Morgan. Bottom row: Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y.); Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall; opera singer Marian Anderson.
Top row: Nat Turner; NASA physicist Katherine Johnson; inventor Garrett Morgan. Bottom row: Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y.); Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall; opera singer Marian Anderson. All images Wikimedia Commons except top row, center: NASA.gov

In recent years we’ve commemorated the English and Spanish heritage of our nation’s founding. In 2007 we marked the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, Va., by English colonists. In 2015 we celebrated the 450th anniversary of the founding of St. Augustine, Fla. Both the English and Spanish commemorations included activities sponsored by federal commissions, which were voted on and passed by Congress.

August of 2019 will mark 400 years since the first documented arrival of Africans who came to English America by way of Point Comfort, Va. Not only is it appropriate to establish a commission that would recognize the contributions of African Americans, but it is historically significant to acknowledge that the “20 and odd” Africans (as it was recorded) were the first recorded group of Africans to be sold as involuntary laborers or indentured servants in the English colonies.  
On Thursday, Feb. 11, I joined leaders from the NAACP, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), Reps. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and Don Beyer (D-Va.), and Chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) to introduce the 400 Years of African American History Act. This bill would establish a commission to plan programs and activities across the country to recognize the arrival and influence of Africans and their descendants in America since 1619. The commission would be charged with highlighting the resilience and contributions of African Americans, as well as acknowledging the painful impact that slavery and other atrocities have had on our nation.
The 400-year history of African Americans is full of tragedies that have shaped the black experience in America and should be remembered as moral catastrophes. However, that is not the whole story of African-American history. African Americans have contributed to the economic, academic, social, cultural and moral well-being of this nation.
Without African Americans, some of America’s crowning achievements would not have been possible. Would American moral leadership be as strong without Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr. or Thurgood Marshall? Would American literature be as prolific without the giants of the Harlem Renaissance? Would American music have conquered the world without pioneers like Robert Johnson, Louis Armstrong, Marian Anderson and James Brown?

Could we claim America as the most innovative nation on earth without the invention of the modern traffic light, the perfection of the carbon filament or the use of the mathematics that propelled Apollo astronauts to the moon? African-American culture is American culture, and African-American discoveries are American discoveries. Without the accomplishments of African Americans, the United States could not boast the ingenuity and cultural richness that we cherish.
As we contemplate the challenges and injustices that African Americans still face, we remember the tragic way in which African-American history began and draw inspiration from the heroes and trailblazers who fought under our country’s principle that all people are created equal. These heroes and trailblazers, along with the millions of African Americans who have worked, created, invented, discovered, lived, aged and died over the past 400 years, have molded our national character such that the United States would be unrecognizable and, indeed, lesser without their cumulative presence.
The story of America is the interwoven progress, influence and experience of many different peoples, as the federal commissions to commemorate the anniversaries of English and Spanish arrivals have demonstrated. If Congress saw fit to create federal commissions to affirm that our English and Spanish roots matter, then Congress should also see fit to affirm that our country’s African roots matter. It is my hope that the 400 Years of African American History Act will create an opportunity to bring these stories to the forefront of our consciousness and create a space to discuss race relations in America as we focus on dismantling the institutional systems that have hindered African-American progress.

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Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, represents Virginia in the U.S. Senate, where he sits on the Armed Services, Foreign Relations, Budget and Aging committees. Prior to his election to the Senate, Kaine served as a missionary, civil rights lawyer, mayor and governor.