I read the 1619 Project when it was published in 2019, and I thought it was one of the most powerful collections of writings about America that I had ever encountered. I reread parts of it this week, including Nikole-Hannah Jones’ lead essay, and I still feel the same way.
I’ve been mystified to see the project turned into a political lightning rod. Following the lead of Donald Trump, critics argue it is racially divisive, anti-white and anti-American, and that it seeks to make us ashamed of our country. (None of that is true). Some legislators want to outlaw teaching it in schools.
I can only assume that these people are making their arguments in profoundly bad faith, manufacturing outrage for the 2022 elections. As Notre Dame professor John Duffy writes, many of the critiques seem “cynically opportunistic – gasoline poured into the trash can fires of the culture wars.”
An ambitious initiative by the New York Times, the 1619 Project aimed to “reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” It examines 400 years of history through the prism of race and racism, starting with the arrival in 1619 of the first Africans brought as slaves to what would become the United States.
The project is big and complex. It includes scholarly articles, short vignettes, verse, visual art and a detailed timeline of significant, often overlooked events. Historians, journalists, critics and poets contribute content. There’s a 1619 Project curriculum for schools, developed by the Pulitzer Center.
Holding the piece together is the provocative lead essay by Hannah-Jones, who organized the project and won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for commentary for her work. “Our founding ideals of liberty and equality were false when they were written,” she writes. “Black Americans fought to make them true.”
Hannah-Jones frames her essay with her struggle to make sense of her father’s unashamed patriotism. Her father was “born into a family of sharecroppers on a white plantation in Greenwood, Mississippi.” The family moved north to Iowa, where they struggled to make a living and faced discrimination in housing, jobs and other areas. Yet her Army veteran father flew an American flag outside his house every day, something his daughter could not understand.
“Like most young people, I thought I understood so much, when in fact I understood so little,” she writes. “My father knew exactly what he was doing when he raised that flag. He knew that our people’s contributions to building the richest and most powerful nation in the world were indelible, that the United States simply would not exist without us.”
Hannah-Jones guides readers through American history seen, for once, from the perspective of African Americans. Many of the themes are familiar, but in combination they are devastating. Ten of the first 12 presidents owned slaves. For centuries, the law defined enslaved Black people as property, not human beings. Abraham Lincoln came reluctantly to freeing the slaves and did not champion equality. The brief flowering of freedom under Reconstruction was crushed by the Compromise of 1877, followed by 80 years of brutality and Jim Crow segregation. Most white Americans rejected the civil rights movement.
Black people not only endured but fought to make real the promise of the Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal,” Hannah-Jones writes. They marched and protested for equal rights. They fought the nation’s wars, serving in disproportionate numbers in the military. In an individualistic country, they embraced the idea of the common good. Their battles made possible freedom struggles by women, other people of color, Native Americans, immigrants and LGBTQ people.
For centuries, she writes, white Americans have argued about solving the “Negro problem.” But “what if America understood, finally, in this 400th year, that we have never been the problem but the solution?”
Critics of the 1619 Project claim it makes white people feel ashamed of our country’s history. In fact, it’s just the opposite. When I read these stories, any cynicism I might feel about the United States falls away. If Black Americans, having endured so much, can believe America’s founding ideals of liberty and justice are worth holding fast and fighting for, who am I to think otherwise?