I’ve tried to picture what life was like for an African slave in America during the worst years of plantation laboring. What analogies can I use? Israel’s time of slavery in Egypt before God led them to freedom in the Promised Land? The slaves Romans held from among people they had conquered in battle? Common citizens in modern nations ruled by autocratic leaders? From everything I’ve learned about the lives these other slaves have lived, the daily existence of slaves in America during the darkest days before the Civil War was far more inhumane, depersonalizing and painful. In 1867, former slave Isabella Gibson wrote:

“Can we forget the crack of the whip, the cowhide, whipping-post, the auction-block, the manacles, the iron collar, the negro-trader tearing the young child from its mother’s breast as a whelp from the lioness? Have we forgotten that by those horrible cruelties, hundreds of our race have been killed? No, we have not, nor ever will.”1

“The 1619 Project,” led by Nikole Hannah-Jones, is a serious attempt to deepen our understanding of what slave-life was like.2 Apparently, this Project struck a raw nerve in White America’s conscience because, ever since its publication in the New York Times in 2019, voices from the conservative right have been crying foul. A well-funded Nation-wide movement has been aiming at eliminating the teaching of this part of American history in schools. Local school boards and public libraries have been attacked harshly for allowing young people access to information that we’ve all been aware of as part of our general knowledge of how our society emerged over the last four hundred years. Evidently, “The 1619 Project” brought those realities into too sharp a focus for the comfort of some white folk.3

These thoughts were on my mind when we were singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” during last Sunday’s worship. Poet James Weldon Johnson wrote these lyrics in 1899, when he was a young man of 28 and long before he became well known during the Harlem Renaissance, collaborated with his brother in writing Broadway musicals and then became a professor at Fisk University and a leader in the NAACP. While I was singing the second stanza, I realized that Johnson was graphically describing the experience of American slaves:

Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chast’ning rod
. . . . . . .
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered.
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past.

As I sang these lyrics for the umpteenth time, I was feeling the shackles as I never had before. Even bracing myself for the lashes. Afterwards, I learned that when James Weldon Johnson reread the words he had just written, he broke down and cried.4

 But it was that line in the middle of the stanza that really gutted me:

Felt in the days when hope unborn had died
When hope unborn had died . . .
When hope itself had a miscarriage . . .
When the slightest glimmer of hope was snuffed out before
it could even faintly light the way . . .
When the very hope of someday being able to have hope was hopeless.

 That was slavery in America!

Slave women were bred.5 In order to maximize his profit, the owner had to get as many new slaves as possible out of a slave woman’s body before she could no longer breed. It’s estimated that as many as fifty percent of slave women’s pregnancies ended in miscarriage, still births or death during early infancy. And the babies that lived: they may have brought her momentary joy and hope, but they could soon be ripped from her arms and sold at the market.

Yes, for generations of slaves in our beloved America, hope was stillborn. That’s part of American history, even if some of us don’t like to think about it.   

— Pastor George Van Alstine

1Freed slave Isabella Gibson in 1867, quoted in “Memorial to Enslaved Laborers: History”University of Virginia. Retrieved December 15, 2021. Cited in


 2 “The 1619 Project”The New York TimesISSN 0362-4331Archived from the original on August 17, 2019. Retrieved September 7, 2020 by Wikipedia.

3 The brand new six-part documentary series can now be seen on Hulu TV: https://www.hulu.com/series/the-1619-project-7ba3407a-299c-4a10-8310-bbcdd6ab4653

4 “As he wrote the words, evoking the struggle and resilience of his ancestors, he began to weep. ‘I could not keep back the tears, and made no effort to do so,’ Johnson recounted.


  5 https://kottke.org/16/02/a-history-of-the-slave-breeding-industry-in-the-united-states; review of A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry in the United States by Ned and Constance Sublette(2016).