The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story
by Nikole Hannah-Jones, Caitlin Roper, Ilena Silverman, and Jake Silverstein
Review by Alan Singer
The 1619 Project was released as an issue of the Sunday New York Times Magazine on August 18, 2019, 400 years after the arrival of the first slave ship at the British Virginia colony. It is now published in book formats. According to the Times, the project’s goal is to “reframe American history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year. Doing so requires us to place the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are as a country” (4-5). The introductory essay by project director Nikole Hannah-Jones opens with a full-page bold-faced headline, “Our founding ideals of liberty and equality were false when they were written. Black Americans fought to make them true. Without this struggle, America would have no democracy at all” (14). For the essay, Hannah-Jones received a 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary.
Other essays in the issue covered the role capitalism played in the establishment of chattel slavery and the plantation system in British North America; persistent racism after the Civil War that continues to shape the current era including Jennen Interlandi on unequal health care; Jamelle Bouie on undemocratic democracy; Brian Stevenson on mass incarceration; Trymaine Lee on the racial wealth gap; and African America contributions to America, especially American culture.
The 1619 Project has been criticized from across the political spectrum since it was released. Former President Donald Trump denounced it as anti-American propaganda in his call for “patriotic history,” former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos described it as “insidious lies,” and the World Socialist website branded it as a “politically motivated falsification of history” The New York Times Magazine printed a letter from five prominent American historians along with a response by the magazine’s editor-in-chief. The historians, who demanded corrections be made in the 1619 Project, applauded “efforts to address the enduring centrality of slavery and racism to our history,” but were “dismayed at some of the factual errors in the project” that “suggest a displacement of historical understanding by ideology.” Their claims, however, were at least as ideological in nature. The historians charged the “project asserts that the United States was founded on racial slavery, an argument rejected by a majority of abolitionists and proclaimed by champions of slavery like John C. Calhoun.” Actually, that was the position taken by William Lloyd Garrison, who publicly burned a copy of the United States Constitution on July 4, 1854, a document he called “a covenant with death, and an agreement with Hell.” The group also ignored Frederick Douglass’ 1852 Independence Day speech where he calls the Fourth of July a day that reveals the “gross injustice and cruelty” of American society. For Douglass, “There is not a nation of the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States at this very hour.”