Who was the first person of African descent – the first black person – to set foot in the Americas? In what capacity did that person come, and when?
If you have been in the United States or otherwise following American debates in the past few years, you might call to mind the 1619 Project, led by Nikole Hannah-Jones at the New York Times, which aims to tell an “alternate origin story” for the United States, focused on African-Americans. That story begins in 1619 with the arrival of African-descended slaves in the colony of Virginia. So you might think that the first black people in the Americas, or at least in the United States, were these slaves who arrived in 1619.
You would be wrong.
Our historical records are spotty, so we don’t know for sure who the first black people in the Americas actually were. We do know, though, that it wasn’t the slaves brought over in 1619, because we know there were Africans here before that.
The first documented person of African descent to come to what is now the United States, the first one we know about for sure and whose name we know, is a fascinating one. His name is Juan Garrido. He first arrived in Santo Domingo, in what is now the Dominican Republic, in 1502. He arrived on the North American mainland, in what is now Florida, in 1513. You could say that Garrido was “brought over” by the Spanish. But he was not brought over as a slave.
Juan Garrido was a conquistador.
We don’t know a lot about Garrido’s early life. We do know that he was of West African descent and described as a freeman; we know that he came over on an early expedition to the Americas, and then joined in Hernán Cortés’s siege of Tenochtitlán, helping Cortés conquer that Aztec capital which became Mexico City. He settled there and married; thus he had Afro-Mexican descendants who may still be with us. He also appears to be the first person to have planted wheat in the Americas.
Garrido’s presence does not diminish the key role played by slavery in the conquest of the Americas. Spanish colonists also brought over enslaved black people almost as early as Garrido’s expedition, to say nothing of the increasing role slavery would come to play as colonization went on. But this fact too complicates the 1619 Project’s story. For there were black slaves, not just in the Americas but in what is now the United States, going back to the 1510s if not earlier. And these enslaved black Americans are written out of the 1619 Project. They are not mentioned in that history. Why not? As far as I can tell, it is because they were brought by the Spanish. 1619 is the date of the first African slaves brought to American soil by the English. It is not the point when Europeans first held African slaves on American soil; it is merely the point when the English did that.
Consider, then, what is involved in the decision to place 1619 at the beginning of the United States’s history. The original version of the 1619 Project proclaimed that 1619 was the country’s “true founding”, and Hannah-Jones had proudly displayed a graphic that crossed out “July 4, 1776” (the traditional date of the US’s founding, on the signing of the Declaration of Independence), replacing it with “August 20, 1619”. After public criticism, the Times edited out the “true founding” line without any comment, and Hannah-Jones denied that the 1619 Project had ever claimed 1619 as the true founding, despite documented evidence that it did. Such an attempt to erase one’s own actions from the historical record is deeply alarming, coming from a project that claims to be about history!
But that revisionism aside, let’s think about the 1619 Project in the form where it now exists – a form that still takes the 1619 date, and not a date like 1502 when Garrido arrived, as central to its effort to “reframe the country’s history”. What happens when we take 1619, rather than 1502, as the beginning of African-American history?
Most prominently and obviously, we edit out absolutely everything Hispanic or Latino! On the 1619 telling, the enslaved black Africans who arrived in Florida in the 1510s, on what is now American soil, are not considered a real part of African-American history; their story is not even told as a part of American history in general. And this is so because the history of the United States is taken to be above all a history of the English colonists and their slaves, even though those colonists came much later than the Spanish. Thus the very large number of Hispanic Americans, who now outnumber black Americans, can be perceived as all late arrivals, recent immigrants – even though some of their ancestors got to what is now the United States before the Anglos did.
More broadly speaking: when we focus on 1619, and therefore on the English colonists and their slaves, we tell only the simple story that the new movement loves to tell, in which the world can easily be divided into privileged villains and marginalized victims. That story is not even about marginalized heroes, since heroes have agency: an agency which Juan Garrido absolutely had in his life, and which the Africans brought over as slaves tragically did not. Garrido, of course, is no hero himself, having been an eager participant in the brutal conquest of indigenous Aztec people. But just to mention that fact – that black people participated in the conquest of indigenous people – is already to tell a much more complicated story than the one that the 1619 Project is willing to tell. So likewise, the fact that the first African slaves on the continent were brought over by Hispanics and not Anglos!
The 1619 Project’s story is one that is literally black and white, in every respect. The real story cannot be so easily divided into villains and victims. A more complicated story is always harder to tell, of course: but it does have the advantage of being accurate. I think it is also a more respectful story, since it both shows the agency of Africans and recognizes the importance of Hispanics in a way that the 1619 Project does not.
At the height of the social-justice war circa 2018, I was once asked by someone frustrated that I didn’t just go along with a black-and-white portrayal of an issue: “Why do you always insist on making all these fine distinctions?” I replied: “I am a fine distinction!” I am used to being written out of all the normal black-and-white stories told about race and ethnicity in North America, because I am triply invisible within them. (Canada, as befits its usual approach to everything, is almost but not quite as bad as the United States in this regard.) Even when American stories go beyond black and white to include Latinos (as the 1619 Project refuses to do!), Asians are still often excluded from the story: you’ll see a lot of stories about polls and surveys that divide people into black, white, Latino and “other”, with the number of the latter being so small that nobody bothers to talk about them. When Asians are discussed, what people think of as “Asian” usually means East Asians, not South Asians like my father. And to have mixed race as a category distinct from being entirely Asian: well, nobody needs to talk about that, right? Obviously the one-drop rule is correct, so we can just write your white mother out of the story and assume that your experience is exactly the same as that of someone who comes from two Asian parents. Consider yourself lucky if we even acknowledge anybody has Asian background at all.
I grew up in material comfort and have a well-to-do adulthood. I even went to Harvard. My life has been a privileged one overall. I don’t think that the erasure of my identity from American and Canadian stories is an issue of nearly as pressing importance as economic inequality or police brutality. But when the issue we are discussing is the stories we tell about ourselves – as the 1619 Project explicitly claims to do – then I will insist as much as I can that those stories be nuanced and complex. A story that doesn’t make room for Juan Garrido is also a story that doesn’t make room for me. But I think a story that does make room for such a complex figure is not only a truer story, it is also a more interesting story than the literally black-and-white story of victims and villains. It is a better story. Let us retell that story.