Questioning the 400th

Several years ago, Frank Harris set out on a project that took him around the country, interviewing dozens of people about the 400th anniversary of the first Africans to arrive in British North America. He asked them two simple, but important questions: How should the 400th be observed? And if you had the chance, what would you say to those first Africans?

For more information about this project, visit his website at


Brownfield by Podington Bear

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Nathan: Several years ago, Frank Harris began interviewing people around the country about the 400th anniversary of the first Africans to arrive in British North America. He asked them two simple, but important, questions: how should the 400th be observed, and if you had the chance, what would you say to those first Africans? The responses he got inspired him to write a poem called They Came Across the Water: Precious Black Cargo. Here’s an excerpt.

Frank: They came across the water: precious black cargo/in the dungeon below, nameless, homeless, unremembered, unknown/African to African, dust to dust, greed and lust/forgotten adage, the first passage, village slaughter, the beginning of the horror.

Nathan: Among the dozens of interviews he conducted, Frank says there was one response in particular that stuck out to him.

Frank: When I was in Mississippi, I met this guy and I asked him about the 400th, and he ended the interview by saying, “They had a tough time coming across the water.” Those words stuck with me: “They had a tough time coming across the water.” This was aptly described in many things that Africans had gone through on the way here.

Frank: Then I read the book by Zora Neale Hurston called The Last Black Cargo, in which she talks about… This is an interview she did back in the 30s with the person who was said to be the last enslaved African brought to America. The book really touched me because it talked about the experiences of this African as he left Africa, and he was old enough to remember what happened. He described what happened to him in his village.

Frank: Those things kind of inspired me to write this poem, but for me it describes the challenge that descendants of enslaved Africans have experienced in this country from day one from Africa, and that we’re still experiencing today.

Nathan: Right. You’ve been traveling around and asking people, personally, what do they think about the 400th, how it should be observed, if it at all. What motivates you to take on this project as a way of maybe accessing people’s everyday thoughts about the anniversary.

Frank: Well, first of all I’m a journalist. I love history. I’ve always had a commitment to the interest of black people in this country. My parents were involved in civil rights; they were from Mississippi. And I love talking to people. I think everybody has a story. It’s interesting because I’ll walk up to strangers, as well as people I know, but… When you walk up to strangers, it’s really interesting. You would think that maybe they may not want to talk to you, but often times people will open up and tell you their stories and tell you their thoughts and feelings.

Frank: First of all, most people were… and many still are… unaware of this event, so that was the first thing. Even in some speeches that I’ve given, some talks that I’ve given, I will say, “The 400th: what does it mean to you?” Maybe recently people will know, but no one knew what the 400th was, and I kind of expected that. When I tell them, it really strikes them, and sometimes the responses that people give… it’s very powerful. It floors them.

Frank: When I ask the other question… not just how should this event be observed… I will ask them, “If you had the opportunity, what would you say to the first enslaved African? What would be your words to that person?” I’ve had people pause and gasp and try to really think about what they might say.

Nathan: Give us a sense of the kind of responses that you’ve gotten to that and to other questions.

Frank: I interviewed Erica Huggins. Erica Huggins is a former member of the Black Panther Party. She said two things that were striking. She said, “First of all, I may not know your name, but you are forever in my heart.” She also said, “It is my sacred duty to honor you for the rest of my life.”

Frank: One gentleman I interviewed in Harlem last fall… He was from Oklahoma. He and his wife were visiting Harlem. The words that he said were, “I’m sorry.” This was a black man. He said, “I’m sorry.” That’s what he would say to him. There’s a long pause and I said, “About…?” And he said, “For what you had to go through, and I’m sorry that we have not done enough in this country,” we meaning black people.

Frank: I had one of my colleagues at Southern, Professor [Shavaun 00:25:21] Carter David… she asked him, “Are we what you imagined we would be?” She talks about how the first Africans would have no way of knowing what the future would bring or if they could envision themselves ever being free. So her question was, “Are we what you imagined we would be?”

Frank: There were a number of different responses and all of them were touching, were moving.

Nathan: It really does serve to capture the complexity of the black presence in the Americas more generally, which I have to imagine that there are a number of people who feel a personal connection to the history of African enslavement, who certainly feel a connection to the events of 1619, and who feel that in marking that event there is, in fact, much to celebrate in terms of the arrival of black people to the place where their citizenship would be recognized, to the point where they were able to put their families back together, to build institutions and the like. There’s a long way that people have come since that period.

Nathan: At the same time, I have to imagine that your understanding and your discussion with others about the 400th was a very solemn occasion, one that couldn’t necessarily be called a celebration but maybe something else. Did you get any sense of people appreciating that difference in your conversations with them?

Frank: I always use the word observance. I didn’t say celebrate because… and this was some of things that some of the people interviewed said: “How do you celebrate your ancestors being enslaved?” There’s a number of different ways to look at that. One person said to me… it was Erica Huggins again. At the time I interviewed her it was Aretha Franklin’s funeral. When Aretha Franklin died, people were not celebrating her dying, they’re celebrating her living. In the same way, you’re not celebrating enslavement, you’re celebrating those who persevered, those who endured.

Frank: There was another lady in Mississippi… she was a mayor at the time. It was in Sidon, Mississippi. She said, “We should celebrate. We’re not celebrating enslavement, we’re celebrating the fact that we survived, we’re a strong people, that we built this country and went through a whole lot to do so.”

Nathan: In light of the people that you spoke, your own personal engagement with a lot of these issues and themes through journalism and just through living in this country, what do you think is the best way to observe the 400th anniversary and how does your own sense of meaning frame or shape how you think of how they should be observed?

Frank: I’ve thought about that, and I don’t know if there is a one best way to observe it. Personally, for me, what I’m going to do… I’m in a New Haven area and we have an ocean. On Sunday morning there’s a call for people to toll a bell; I think the US park system, one of the things they’re encouraging people to do is on Sunday, on the 25th of August, to toll a bell for four minutes in honor of the 400th. So I’m going to go to the ocean and the beach and I’m going to toll a bell. I may say a few words and bring a few people with me. That will be part of my honor, my observance of the 400th. And I may do some other things in between now and then.

Frank: One of the things I’m doing is, again, trying to get the word out and trying to get people to recognize that this event occurred so that we don’t let this time pass without some type of commemoration, some type of observance, of those who came before us and helped build this country.

Nathan: Frank Harris is a journalism professor at Southern Connecticut University. To learn more about this project, you’ll find a link on website at

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1619 Lesson Set

Download the lesson set.

In 1619, the first Africans were brought against their will across the Atlantic Ocean to the Virginia colony. It marked the beginning of the institution of slavery in the Unites States. Over 400 years later, the United States is still grappling with the legacy of slavery and systemic racism. Generations of African Americans have been subject to untold cruelty. However, it is also true that much of America’s current prosperity can be traced back to the contributions of slaves.

This lesson, and the corresponding BackStory episode, provide a retrospective of the origins of the African slave trade in the U.S. The episode raises difficult questions about how we should commemorate the 400-year anniversary of this dark moment in American history. Using modern perspectives, students will form arguments on how to best approach the legacy of slavery in the United States.