The Califia Moment: What’s Wrong with the History

prepared remarks for Missions and Manumissions, California African-American Museum, May 15, 2011
As the Smithsonian travelling exhibition InDivisible suggests, it is both historically and sociologically unwise to differentiate between black, Indian and Latino history.
We have robbed our young people of that most important sense of belonging by failing to inculcate the deep and enduring ties between these peoples.
It constitutes what our author Sylvia Wynter, patron saint of Caribbean intellectuals, describes as “changing the timeline of history”-one of the primary demotivators for today’s young people.
I digress to step forward to last summer when one of my biotechology students quipped during a black history tour, “This is interesting. I would actually go to school for this.”
I call it the Calafia Moment; when cognitive dissonance sparks curiosity or the point when one asks why is that mural of a black woman in the state capital. Of course, the better question is why didn’t you notice the black woman’s mural in the state capitol.
Historian James Loewen in his new book Telling What Really Happened says “American history as taught in grades 4 through 12 is in crisis and typically makes us stupider.”
In our conventional telling of disaggregated black history, Jamestown 1619 is the starting point and for many students the ending point – we were slaves. Period.
But as Dr. Jack Forbes, the foremost Native American scholar, points out in volume one, chapter four of Our Roots Run Deep: the Black Experience in California, the first non-indigenous people to land in what is now the U.S. were escapees who seized a slave ship in Chicokee, S.C. in 1526 and integrated into the existing indigenous community.
Those 93 years are a complete paradign shift. Not that we were in slavery, but together we were in a war to preserve our humanity.
In fact, the history of the West is as much about the interaction between blacks and Native Americans, as it is about whites and Native Americans.
By changing the timeline of history, we leave out Juan Garrido, the second in command to Cortes, known as The Black Conquistador when the conquest began in 1518, and the 300 Africans among the party of 700.
The conventional history doesn’t tell us that Mexico City had in 1612 50,000 blacks and mulattos, 15,000 Spaniards and 80,000 Indians;
And by 1767, the free black population was larger than the slave population;
Or about Yanga’s successful rebellion in 1608 that established a free black town.
So there is no point of reference to understand the diorama a couple of buildings over at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County which shows the original pobladores of Los Angeles as 26 of 44 mixed Africans and indigenous peoples, or why the state’s name derives from the epic of a beautiful black queen surrounded by lady warriors.
Nor would we understand the role of the decline from 25 million to 1 million in Mexico’s native population in the growth of the Atlantic slave trade, or why the Bishop of New Spain concluded that he would burn in hell forever as a result of his solution for addressing that decline–increasing the Atlantic slave trade.
As you see, we are intricately joined at the hip, for much longer than anyone would imagine.
Move back even further, and you include the role of the Ming Dynasty, which brought Africans and North Americans together through the circumnavigation of the globe in 1421. In our play Queen Calafia: Ruler of California we make that connection.
For those who say, but that’s Latin America, let’s rebut the new stories in the past week about Afghanistan becoming America’s longest war. That was actually the Seminole Wars, where blacks and Native Americans joined forces just as they did in Mexico to fight for the South. Should we have the Seminole flag flying in Southern state capitols along with the Confederate flag, if we are to honor those who resisted the federal government?
Instead, we must see the Seminole War as part of a continent-wide phenomenon of resistance and mixing. It helps explain why James Beckwourth could go further into the West than white explorers, because the indigenous people considered him one of them.
In fact, the United States English-speaking model of race mixing is closer to the Latin American model. Who among you has heard of Dinah Nevil? She was a woman of color who successfully sued for her freedom beginning in 1773. The case hung on whether she was Negro or Indian In the Organization of American Historians article on her, we learn that it was common practice among slaveholders in the 13 colonies to encourage black enslaved men to mate with Indian women in order to make their children subject to slavery This also helps explain how the slave population grew exponentially after the legal end of the slave trade in 1808. We should know about Dinah Nevil, because her case led to the creation of the first abolitionist organization, the Pennsylvania Society for the Assistance of Free Negros Unlawfully Held in Bondage in 1775. We only hear about the organization in 1789, when Benjamin Franklin becomes the honorary leader. Once again, we see the effect of changing the timeline of history.
Loewen adds, “Students who do not know their own history or how to think critically about historical assertions will be ignorant and helpless before someone who does claim to know it.”
From Estevanico to Charles Young, we must show the history of the West in proportionate terms to that Mexico City census, giving equal weight to the encounter between Africans and the original North Americas instead of just focusing on the 15 percent Spanish population.
During our summer institute I Belong: Culturally Responsive Interventions for Science Instruction June 7-18, we’ll discuss how to reorient the timeline of history by infusing the entire narrative.