Nneka Jones
TIME Race

Pharrell Williams: America’s Past and Present Are Racist. We Deserve a Black Future

Image by Pharrell in collaboration with Emily Shur and Hank Willis Thomas

"Amid so much injury, how do we begin to heal?" writes the Grammy Award-winning musician

On April 26, 1607, three ships carrying 105 men and boys landed on the eastern shore of what would come to be called America. They called themselves “adventurers.” But they had no interest in liberty or justice, and they were not seeking religious freedom or escaping from tyranny. They were part of the Virginia Company of London, which was essentially a private-equity-funded startup that hoped to turn a profit for the stockholders in Europe’s fastest-growing international moneymaking scheme: colonialism.

Twelve years later, a 160-ton English privateer ship flying a British flag landed a few miles away. That ship, the White Lion, carried a product that would change everything those initial investors thought this colony could be. America became an economic superpower because that ship’s cargo opened up a market more valuable than those settlers would ever imagine. That market was for human beings, trafficked from Africa.

By 1860, Virginia would house roughly 1 of every 8 enslaved persons in America. The total value of this country’s human chattel had become the largest single financial asset in America, worth more than all of its railroads and factories combined. Virginia, along with other Southern states, decided it would rather fight what remains the bloodiest war in American history than end the torture, murder and unabashed evil of human slavery.

This is the place I call “home.”

Many Americans assume that the recent conversations about systemic racism and inequality are a result of a “moment of reckoning.” But I know this conversation dates back to those first “20 and odd Negroes”—as Jamestown colonist John Rolfe wrote in a letter—who became investment property as soon as they touched the shores of this independently owned and operated franchise called America.

The rugged spot jutting out from America’s mainland that birthed this nation has since been named Virginia Beach. It birthed me too. Being raised in the literal womb of America and the origin of this country’s oppression left an indelible impression on me. I am both the promise of America and a product of its shameful past.

America was founded on a dream of a land where all men were created equal, that contained the promise of liberty and justice for all. But all has never meant Black people. Like most Black Americans, I understand that all exists only in the augmented-reality goggles available to shareholders, power brokers and those lucky enough to get in on the initial public offering. But the ongoing protests for equity and accountability that have overtaken cities across the nation have made me feel something new that I can only describe with one word: American.

The desperate longing for economic justice that spurred unrest in the streets of Minneapolis after George Floyd’s murder reminds me of the same fire that burned in the veins of the Sons of Liberty when they dumped 342 chests of tea into the sea at Griffin’s Wharf. (Now we call that incident “the Boston Tea Party”—which is a poetic way to describe a “riot.”) When I see people tearing down the monuments to secessionist traitors who wanted to start their own white-supremacist nation, I see patriots acting in service of this country. It reminds me of the protesters who were inspired to tear down the statue of King George on July 9, 1776, after they heard Thomas Jefferson’s letter telling his oppressors to kick rocks. Those “thugs” would serve under the direction of George Washington in the American Revolution. But the Declaration of Independence makes it sound dignified: “In every stage of these oppressions we have petitioned for redress in the most humble terms,” wrote our Founding Fathers. “Our repeated petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.”

Amid so much injury, how do we begin to heal? Given this country’s inescapable legacy, I wondered if it was even possible to convince people that—even if we cannot escape it—we can overcome our past. But if we are ever to hold this nation accountable, we must force it to construct a future that offers us the same opportunities for wealth, prosperity and success as the ground-floor profiteers who built an empire with our free labor. We deserve the interest earned from those Confederate dollars and the refund of our tax dollars handed out to our white brothers and sisters in the New Deal while our neighborhoods were redlined. We want the return on our investment from when our local tax dollars funded schools our children couldn’t attend. We want actual liberty and justice not just for some Americans, but for all.

So, in assembling this project, I asked some of the most qualified people I know in every field—from Angela Davis to Tyler, the Creator, to Representative Barbara Lee—to talk with us, and with one another, about the way forward. I wanted to convey a vision of a future filled with the artists, creators and entrepreneurs who can fulfill the promise of this country’s principles.

For more than 400 years, the only path to the American Dream was an access-restricted, privately owned road. Black Americans have never been free to harvest the fruit of America’s bounty, even though we were forced to do the field work. Ensuring that every citizen has the same opportunity to succeed and flourish—regardless of class, gender or skin color—is as patriotic a principle as declaring “no taxation without representation.” It is the only way to guarantee life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The activists who tossed chests of tea into the ocean to protest economic injustice were patriots. But they were also oppressors, unwilling to extend the freedoms for which they fought to everyone. America’s wealth was built on the slave labor of Black people: this is our past. To live up to America’s ideals, we must trust in a Black vision of the future.

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