Talk given by La’Ron Williams at the Poor Peoples’ Campaign Moral Fusion Summit: Challening the Racial-Economic Caste System in Washtenaw County.
What makes us a nation?. . .
We have no official national language . . . We don’t share a single religion . . . We aren’t of a single culture or “race” . . . What we are at this point is a group of people poised on the edge of having to make a hard choice. A nation is an idea . . . an idea . . . and the way that we move from this point forward will be the manifestation of the idea that we collectively decide to strive for …. the collective idea that we declare.
In the year 1640, three men, all indentured servants held in bondage in the colony of Virginia, tried to escape together. Two of those men were what we today would call “White”, although history tells us that that term wasn’t used to describe human beings yet. The third man was “Black”. They were caught and they underwent a trial in which they were convicted and sentenced. The two White men were sentenced to four additional years of service, but the “Black” man, a man named John Punch, was ordered to serve for life. Now that case holds significance for two reasons:
1. In the colonies that would become the United States, it was the first documented case of different punishments being handed out on the basis of physical appearance/background.
2. It signaled the beginning of a practice that caught on like wildfire.
Up until that time, it was common for indentured servants to rebel, and when they did, they did it together – They didn’t care what each other looked like. But that court ruling acted to drive a wedge between “Black” and “White” indentures. What was once a united front of people fighting to end their suffering under a commonly recognized enemy was shattered by a simple idea that had no basis in reality.
It was a “divide and conquer” strategy – a tool – that worked so well it eventually was adopted by all of the colonies. By 1681, the word “White” was encoded into law as a racial identifier. I repeat, it was consciously used as a tool to divide one group of poor folks from another. It worked then and still works today – so well in fact, that it has been expanded to operate across all kinds of lines of difference: gender, skin color, body size, religion, country of origin, income, and so on and so on . . .
In 1640, and for more than the next 300 years, the class status of that Black man, John Punch, and everybody who looked like him, including my own ancestors, was locked into the unfolding American social fabric. Our place was at the bottom – as slaves. Unable to hold political office, with no guarantees to education, and with no control over our own bodies, our class status was cemented to racial identity.