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.
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.
Nikole Hannah-Jones had a blunt message for the largely well-educated and politically liberal audience that she addressed Thursday night in Bloomington, Indiana. Go home, she said. Look in the mirror. Reflect on the decisions you make about your child’s schooling.
Ask if they serve the common good or if they benefit your child at the expense of other children.
“To believe in equality is not enough,” she said. “Your beliefs don’t help a single child.”
Hannah-Jones, a New York Times Magazine writer and 2017 MacArthur genius award recipient, spoke to several hundred people in the Buskirk-Chumley Theater in a lecture sponsored by several Indiana University organizations and the Indiana Coalition for Public Education.
She promised at the start that her talk would not be “uplifting.” It wasn’t. It was about tearing down the illusions of people who think they can in good conscience enroll their children in mostly white, low-poverty schools and avert their eyes from segregation that harms poor children and children of color.
“It’s not good enough to have a Black Lives Matter sign in your yard if you make decisions about your child that harm other children,” she said.