Mighty River: Quadricentennial Conference Closing Remarks

Mighty River: Quadricentennial Conference Closing Remarks

Dr. Edmund W. Gordon

W. E. B. DuBois once asked a question having to do with whether America could have become America without the participation of the African peoples. He and most informed people answer that question in the negative. The elements of culture, intelligence and labor that flowed from the peoples of the African Diaspora, not only significantly influenced the development of this nation, but these elements made this nation unique and enabled its domination of the world. For the better and for worse, the participation of Blacks in the development of this country was a determining factor.

When we decided to participate in the Quadracentenial celebration of Henry Hudson’s sail into the river that was named for him, we were concerned that the anticipated celebration privileged the language of “discovery;” that it referenced the “European presence;” that the people who were to be honored were the “elites” and “privileged” persons who have been recognized in the official history of this remarkable river and its valley. Knowledgeable people know that these river banks and the valley of which they are a part were inhabited by people who were native to this continent long before Europeans thought that the land may exist and entrepreneurial explorers like Columbus, Ponce de Leone, and Hudson “discovered” them. We determined to introduce that perspective and the history of an African as well as a European presence into this important celebration and it’s documentation of the human presence in the Hudson Valley. We are very grateful to the scholars who have shared their insights informed by history with us.

We argue that people of color, Blacks in particular, were crucial to the development of the Hudson River Valley. From the very early presence of Europeans in this Valley, Blacks supplied the labor of exploration, cultivation, defense, development and even its exploitation. In agriculture, commerce, education, fishing, manufacture, mining, recreation, religion and shipping our people have been involved. This should not be surprising. Human intellect and labor are essential to all human enterprises. The enterprise of nation building is no exception. Professor Meyer-Williams makes a point of the limited capacity and even more seriously the limited will of the Europeans to engage in the labor required to develop this region. Black people and Yellow people were imported and enslaved to supply the labor that the Europeans were unwilling to provide.

The distinguished French historian of science Renee Jordane has documented the critical relationship between participation in human labor and the emergence of new developments in science and technology. She writes of the remarkable association between those who do the work and those who invent new things. They tend to be the same people because in the course of doing the work one encounters problems that have to be solved in order to get the work done. In the development of the Hudson River Valley, as in the development of this nation, Black, low income and other low status people were forced to do the work. Our labor built this valley. The economy of this nation was born of that labor, but this labor also contributed to the inventiveness and technological advances that became typical of the USA. It is interesting that as the demands for labor shifted from physical labor to mental labor, those for whom the development of literacy, numeracy and reasoning skills had been neglected rapidly came to be under represented among those who were the inventers and creators of new technologies.

The demographics and demands have changed, but this relationship between labor and creative development remains. Preparation for participation in physical labor was less complex than is preparation for participation in the mental labor force. Meaningful participation in the modern technological societies of the new worlds and the old will require human labor and its resulting creativeness but that human labor will have to reflect cultivated human intellect. We celebrate the African and Native American contributions to the earlier labor pool, even as we commit ourselves to the more effective preparation of our people for participation in the mental labor force of the present and future.

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