We’ve all been taught the United States was founded on July 4, 1776, when representatives of the 13 colonies, gathered in Philadelphia, issued the Declaration of Independence. That’s the dominant historical narrative. But what if it’s not true?
The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story makes a compelling case that the USA’s real founding event occurred much earlier, in August of 1619. It wasn’t a convention of white men but rather the arrival of the first ship carrying enslaved Blacks from Africa to North America, to Jamestown, Virginia.
The 1619 Project reframes American history starting from 1619, centering on slavery and its continuing legacy. It examines how slavery and anti-Black racism shaped and continue to impact American society, economics, and politics in profound ways.
The book grew out of a special issue of The New York Times Magazine published in August 2019 commemorating the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved people. It’s a collection of 18 essays, interleaved with poems and short fiction. Each essay takes some aspect of American society – capitalism, healthcare, music, etc. – and analyzes how it has been influenced by the legacy of slavery and racism.
The project was created by Nikole Hannah-Jones, a journalist covering racial injustice at The New York Times Magazine. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2020 for her essay on democracy in the August 2019 commemorative magazine. She’s also received a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant, a Peabody Award and three National Magazine Awards. She is currently the Knight Chair in Race and Journalism at Howard University.
Hannah-Jones wrote the opening and concluding essays of the book.
The 1619 Project
Created by Nikole Hannah-Jones & The New York Times Magazine
One World, New York, 2021
I won’t go into the details of each one, but I will say I thought Hannah-Jones’s essay Democracy, Dorothy Roberts on Race, Ibram X. Kendi’s piece titled Progress, and finally Hanah-Jones again on Justice were the most impactful for me.
The Economics of Slavery
I learned so much from this book. I’ll try to highlight some overall impressions and important lessons. I know I’m not doing it justice.
First, the book drives home the idea that slavery is an economic system. This sounds obvious, but the point is that in America, anti-Black racism and the very idea of race itself followed from slavery. They were purposefully created and then legislated in order to justify the economic exploitation of enslaved Blacks. The racial hierarchy that places whites above Blacks, and above Asian, Latinx and Indigenous people too, was first spelled out in colonial laws called slave codes that gave a legal foundation for the institution of slavery.
These laws were the origin of systemic racism in America.
People quickly came to believe that Blacks deserved their enslavement. Hannah-Jones says,
“This belief, that Black people were not merely enslaved but a slave race, is the root of the endemic racism we cannot purge from this nation to this day.” [p. 22]
Enslaved people were property. Again, obvious, but the full implications perhaps are not. Citing research into the origins of capitalism in America, Hannah-Jones reports that,
“At the time of the Civil War, the value of the enslaved human beings held as property added up to more than all of this nation’s railroads and factories combined.” [p. 459]
This is an appalling statement for two reasons (at least). First, it shows the enormous dependence of the US economy on enslaved labor. Second, the mere existence of such a statistic reveals that enslavers had developed meticulous systems for assigning, tracking and accounting for the monetary value of human beings.
It means that slavery wasn’t just an isolated aberration contained in the southern US.
Thomas Jefferson mortgaged enslaved Blacks to finance Monticello. That means banks accepted enslaved people as collateral.
Insurance companies wrote policies to protect enslavers against the loss of enslaved labor. Manufacturing companies produced cloth from the cotton grown and picked by enslaved Blacks. Slavery permeated the entire US economy, north and south.
Enslavers had absolute authority over the enslaved. They could buy and sell them, of course, as well as murder and rape with impunity.
Slave codes in the colonies, and later the States, defined slavery as heritable and matrilineal. If your mother was an enslaved person, you were too. The slave codes thus provided a financial incentive for rape: enslavers could and did rape enslaved women and then either add the children to their enslaved workforce or sell them for a profit.
A lot of this terrible historical detail was new to me, and I suspect it may be new to many Americans. It’s certainly not taught in schools.
The 1619 Project is just as important for the way it challenges American myths.
Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to Be An Antiracist, which I reviewed here, argues in his essay that the idea of American progress towards racial justice is a dangerous myth. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous quote that “the arc of the moral universe, although long, is bending toward justice” conveys a sense of inevitability. It absolves people, whites especially, from the on-going struggle for justice. As Kendi notes, the arc doesn’t bend by itself, it requires people taking action over long periods of time to bend it. It’s more accurate, he says, to view American history as a centuries long duel between forces fighting for Black equality, and forces fighting to maintain and widen Black exclusion.
Hannah-Jones isn’t the first to point out the contradictions inherent in a nation claiming to be founded on liberty and justice for all – except enslaved people. But she further argues that it is Blacks who are America’s truest freedom fighters. It is Blacks who most devotedly uphold the ideals of the Constitution. It was, after all, Black resistance to Jim Crow laws in the South and the Black civil rights movement of the 1960’s that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. She says,
“The truth is that as much democracy as this nation has today, it has been borne on the backs of Black resistance and visions for equality. Our founding fathers may not have actually believed in the ideals they espoused, but Black people did. … For generations, we have believed in this country with a faith it did not deserve. Black people have seen the worst of America, yet, somehow, we still believe in its best.” [p. 33-34]
The 1619 Project has generated a huge amount of controversy. I want to look into this here.
Some criticism of the project has come from professional historians. The arguments are pretty well covered in this article in The Atlantic so I won’t go into detail.
The main item of contention is Hannah-Jones’s assertion that one of the primary reasons for the colonists declaring independence from Britain was their desire to preserve the institution of slavery. Apparently, they feared the anti-slavery movement getting underway in Britain at the time would eventually force them to abandon slavery if they remained British colonies.
Of course, this is an explosive claim that blows apart the myth of the American Revolution as a noble struggle for freedom.
Hannah-Jones later softened her claim to “some colonists.”
Despite this criticism, the vast majority of the material in the book is, apparently, undisputed by historians even if it is not widely known by the general public.
Another sort of criticism comes from conservatives who hate the challenge to the traditional white-dominated narrative of American history. Since they can’t dispute the facts, many of them have resorted to name-calling. Republican Newt Gingrich dismissed the project as “propaganda” in a Newsweek op-ed, while admitting that Hannah-Jones essay was well-written and worth reading. Others have called it “divisive” or said that it’s trying to “delegitimize” the noble American experiment, which the book reveals isn’t so noble after all.
Meanwhile lawmakers in some Republican-controlled state legislatures including Florida and Texas, already frothing at the mouth about “critical race theory,” have moved to ban The 1619 Project, and materials based on it, from school curricula.
I’m ashamed to report that this backlash also affects blue states like Washington where I live. Recently some Republican members of the state legislature introduced HB 1807, “an Act relating to the protection of quality civic education and academic discourse.” It purports to be about introducing a mandatory civics course for Washington’s K-8 students. What it’s really about is preventing books like The 1619 Project, How to Be An Antiracist or other “critical race theory” materials from being used or even discussed in Washington schools.
It’s a disgrace. Ironically, it also proves a central point of The 1619 Project: that America has still not faced up to the legacy of slavery and racism.
White readers, like me, may feel uncomfortable reading The 1619 Project. I certainly did.
The historical details presented in The 1619 Project are horrific. The book also challenges a huge swath of the conventional white narrative of American history and it proposes a dramatically different and troubling origin story for the country.
I found it a disturbing, even depressing book. But I have to remind myself that Blacks and other oppressed groups lived through this history, and are still experiencing its effects today, while I have the privilege of reading about it from a comfortable armchair.
Reading The 1619 Project might lead to feelings of shame and guilt or defensiveness and anger. I felt all those things.
I don’t think those reaction are helpful though. I prefer the approach described by Isabel Wilkerson in her book Caste, which I reviewed here. Wilkerson says Americans today are like people who’ve just
bought inherited* an old house. Even though we didn’t build the house or lay its foundations, we still have to deal with its flaws. Ignoring the sagging roof or the leaky pipes or the moldy-smelling basement will not make them go away. And if we pretend those problems don’t exist for too long, they will turn into devastating crises.
We’re responsible now, and we should be judged by how we act in our own time.
What does that mean, practically speaking?
I think it starts with educating ourselves about the atrocious chapters of American history, as well as the inspiring ones, because that history is still affecting us today. I can’t predict whether the book’s attempt to reframe America’s founding from 1776 to 1619 will succeed or even find broad acceptance. Regardless, The 1619 Project is well worth reading, and yes, studying in classrooms.
And then what?
Hannah-Jones concludes the book with a call for reparations. I don’t know much about this subject, but after reading the book, I think there’s a clear moral case in favor of them.
How would they work? Would they compensate all Blacks or just descendants of the enslaved? What about reparations for Indigenous people?
Would they even be enough? After all the abolition of slavery in 1865 and the Reconstruction Amendments didn’t end racism. And the backlash led to a century of violent repression under Jim Crow.
Could reparations ever become politically accepted?
I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. But they deserve to be considered. I expect we’ll be grappling with them in the years to come.
One thing we should not be doing is backsliding. Unfortunately, that appears to be the direction we’re headed right now. Just look at all the voter suppression laws passed by Republican-controlled State legislatures after Donald Trump’s defeat in 2020.
In that light, it’s possible to see The 1619 Project as a celebration of Black persistence in the struggle for equality and belief in the ideals of the country.
Maybe the rest of us should draw some inspiration from that persistence. As Hannah-Jones says near the end of her Democracy essay,
“What if America understood, finally, now, at the dawn of its fifth century, that we [Blacks] have never been the problem, but the solution?” [p. 36]
Thanks for reading.
* Update (Feb. 4, 2022): I originally used the phrase “bought an old house” but a reader pointed out correctly that “inherited” is actually a far more apt analogy. And that inherited house may well have been constructed by enslaved laborers. I checked the book and Isabel Wilkerson used the word “inherit” too (p. 16). I’ve corrected my error.
We Still Can’t See American Slavery for What it Was
Jan. 28, 2022, column by Jamelle Bouie, New York Times columnist and a 1619 Project contributor, about recent research into the trans-Atlantic slave trade.