We remember the canonical years from our American history classes: 1492. 1776. 1861-65. It’s past time to add 1619 to the list. I just read the 1619 Project book, and I’m convinced.
It was in August 1619 that Jamestown, Virginia, colonists bought 20 to 30 enslaved Africans from English pirates. “They were among the more than 12.5 million Africans who would be kidnapped from their homes and brought in chains across the Atlantic Ocean in the largest forced migration in human history until the Second World War,” writes Nikole Hannah-Jones in the book’s introductory essay.
Arguably no event had a more pivotal and long-lasting impact on the United States. As the 1619 Project makes clear, chattel slavery and the accompanying doctrine of white supremacy shaped American history and American attitudes, and they continue to do so today.
“The story of Black Americans cannot be disentangled from the story of America, and our attempts to do so have forced us to tell ourselves a tale full of absences, evasions and lies,” writes Hannah-Jones, the project’s creator and lead author.
The 1619 Project started as a special issue of the New York Times Sunday magazine, published on the 400th anniversary of the arrival of those enslaved Africans, and was expanded to a book, published this fall. It includes articles and essays by historians, sociologists, journalists and critics, along with historic photographs and creative works by some of America’s leading poets.
It’s both a celebration and a lament – a celebration of the role that Black Americans have played in attempting to fulfill America’s ideals and a lament for how far short our country has fallen.
“Our founding ideals of liberty and equality were false when they were written,” Hannah-Jones writes. “Black Americans fought to make them true.”
An overriding theme is the contradiction between American ideals and American reality. Thomas Jefferson, who wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” owned 600 enslaved humans in his lifetime. Twelve of the first 14 presidents (all but John Adams and John Quincy Adams) were enslavers. Lincoln opposed slavery on principle but issued the Emancipation Proclamation as an act of strategy during the Civil War.
The book includes essays and articles on a range of topics: slavery and the sugar industry in the American colonies, the role of slavery in the creation of “low-road” capitalism, the history of lynching, the racism of mass incarceration and many others. One of my favorite chapters is an exploration of 200 years of Black contributions to popular music by the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Wesley Morris. Halfway through reading it, I wanted to stand up and cheer.
If you read the book from start to finish, like I did, you’ll find some repetition, and that’s understandable. Many of these stories can’t be told without reference to the Haitian Revolution and U.S. slave revolts and the way they struck fear in the hearts of white people. Or the cruelties of slavery. Or the brief flowering of Black freedom after the Civil War, followed by 80 years of second-class citizenship.
Of course, anyone paying attention to the news will know that the 1619 Project is “controversial.” Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita, in a “Parents’ Bill of Rights” issued last month, claims the 1619 Project and related frameworks on American history “attempt to create their own truths through Marxist ideologies, seeking to abolish individual rights and redistribute wealth.”
There’s no polite way to say this: That’s a lie. And it’s disgraceful that Indiana’s chief legal officer is using taxpayer funds to spread this politically motivated libel.
Conservatives like to lump the 1619 Project together with what they call critical race theory. They’re up in arms about the idea that students in K-12 schools might learn unsettling truths about U.S. history via 1619 Project school curricular materials provided by the Pulitzer Center. Lawmakers in several states – not yet Indiana, thankfully, but that may be coming – have pushed to ban the project from schools.
I’ve written this before, but I don’t think I’ve ever read anything more patriotic than the 1619 Project. If we truly believe in the American ideals of freedom and equality, shouldn’t we want to make them a reality? Black Americans have struggled to do that for centuries. That’s the story the 1619 Project tells.