Commentary: Understanding the 1619 Project

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by Mary Grabar

 

The cover of the August 18, 2019, issue of the New York Times Magazine was adorned with a photograph of a blackish, foreboding ocean captioned by these words: “In August of 1619, a ship appeared on this horizon, near Point Comfort, a coastal port in the British colony of Virginia. It carried more than 20 enslaved Africans, who were sold to the colonists. America was not yet America, but this was the moment it began. No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the 250 years of slavery that followed. On the 400th anniversary of this fateful moment, it is finally time to tell our story truthfully.”

What greeted the reader once he turned past an advertisement for a new, highly revisionist Broadway production of To Kill a Mockingbird was a reiteration of the initial message, boldly announced in giant white type. The number 1619 took up two-thirds of the vertical space against a black background. An introduction by New York Times Magazine editor Jake Silverstein appeared beneath the giant “1619” in the same white print, but much smaller: “It is not a year that most Americans know as a notable date in our country’s history. Those who do are at most a tiny fraction of those who can tell you that 1776 is the year of our nation’s birth.”

A confusingly worded promise followed. Readers would be allowed in on a historical secret. The bombshell: “What if, however, we were to tell you that this fact, which is taught in our schools and unanimously celebrated every Fourth of July, is wrong, and that the country’s true birth date, the moment that its defining contradictions first came into the world, was in late August of 1619?” Not only was the birthdate of America changed. The founders’ “self-evident” truths, “unalienable rights,” and appeal to “the Supreme Judge of the world” were reduced to—in Marxist jargon—“defining contradictions.”

The Times claimed that the exact date of this new birthing, unlike the traditional Independence Day, has “been lost to history,” but has “come to be observed on Aug. 20.” On—or at least around—that date “a ship arrived at Point Comfort in the British colony of Virginia, bearing a cargo of 20 to 30 enslaved Africans. Their arrival inaugurated a barbaric system of chattel slavery that would last for the next 250 years. This is sometimes referred to as the country’s original sin, but it is more than that: It is the country’s very origin.”

Instead of the “nation conceived in Liberty,” in the words of the Gettysburg Address, the transformationalists at the New York Times now insisted that Lincoln’s “last best hope of earth” was conceived in bondage, because “nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional” grew “[o]ut of slavery—and the anti-black racism it required.” Understanding American exceptionalism means recognizing not only such traditional markers as America’s “economic might,” “industrial power,” “electoral system,” and “the example it sets for the world as a land of freedom and equality,” but also its “diet and popular music, the inequities of its public health and education, its astonishing penchant for violence, its income inequality . . . its slang, its legal system and the endemic racial fears and hatreds that continue to plague it to this day.” The “seeds” for American exceptionalism were “planted” “long before our official birth date, in 1776, when the men known as our founders formally declared independence from Britain.”

According to the “1619 Project,” what would become the United States in 1776 derived from an obscure event 150 years earlier, whose precise details remain shrouded to this day in uncertainty.

The announced “goal” of the 1619 Project goes beyond the standard claims of a historian who has unearthed new evidence to illuminate darkened corners of the past. Indeed, the Project promised to do nothing less than “reframe American history” by “plac[ing] 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.” The country’s identity—America’s birthdate, exceptionalism, founders (demoted to “men known as our founders”), in fact, everything that defines “who we are”—is upended and made ready for jettisoning.

No doubt anticipating that the claims of the 1619 Project would likely be met with incredulity, the editor addressed the reader directly: “Perhaps you need some persuading.” Indeed.

Americans have been celebrating the Fourth of July for nearly 250 years—lately perhaps with less than unequivocal gusto, because of the fact that slavery has been playing a larger and larger role in school lessons and media. But to replace 1776 with 1619 would still be unthinkable for many. Just a month before the publication of the 1619 Project, Americans had celebrated the civic holiday as they had for centuries, with parades, picnics, and fireworks—the annual “recollections” Thomas Jefferson had hoped for in his dying days. Fourth of July parades continue to be a distinguishing feature of Americana, with small towns like the one where I live, Clinton, New York, featuring a parade with tractors; tow trucks; high school bands; a children’s bicycle contingent; local officials; “Hutch” the lawn service business owner tossing candy from his riding lawnmower to children decked out in red, white, and blue—and the pride of the village, volunteer fire department trucks in which some lucky little boy may get to ride.

The participating children could have been read books checked out from the library in preparation for the exciting day. “It’s America’s— / Happy Fourth of July! / On this star-spangled holiday / We’ll wave our flags high!” begins one featuring a father eagle and eaglet. Reprinted older books tell a simplified story about the founding and feature Thomas Jefferson writing the Declaration. Publishers are careful to present a diverse cast of characters. In one 2019 Newbery Medal-winner, featuring a boy tagged by his dog as he excitedly participates in the parade, dancing in front of the gazebo, picnics, and the singing of the “Star-Spangled Banner” in front of the bandshell in the town park when all stand and the “whole park is silent and still,” the main character is white, but his best friend is black, as is his neighbor Sally, who surprises him with her singing at the talent show.

It is not only conservatives who wear red, white, and blue on the Fourth. I’ve observed Democrats—candidates, officials, and members—marching in the parade and have walked past their homes swathed in red, white, and blue bunting. In July 2019, who would have questioned a holiday that has been celebrated since 1777, through wars and depression, in the East and West, North and South?

The proposed 1619 replacement founding date provides little reason for celebration. The project’s ten essays explore the many grim “aspects of contemporary American life, from mass incarceration to rush-hour traffic,” that “have their roots,” as editor Jake Silverstein’s introduction states, “in slavery and its aftermath.” The origins of these “familiar” phenomena, it is promised, will be revealed in the essays. Additionally, “17 literary works” will “bring to life key moments in African-American history.” The introduction offers what has become known as a “trigger warning”: “A word of warning: There is gruesome material in these pages, material that readers will find disturbing.” Mind you, not “may finding disturbing”—as warnings tell us before we click on videos of murders and brutal attacks—but “will find disturbing.”

Will it be more disturbing than what most adults see in the news? The editors think so, and they think you should, too: “That is, unfortunately, as it must be. American history cannot be told truthfully without a clear vision of how inhuman and immoral the treatment of black Americans has been. By acknowledging this shameful history, by trying hard to understand its powerful influence on the present, perhaps we can prepare ourselves for a more just future.”

Sprawled across the next two pages is a table of contents (here called an “Index”) above a “Literary Timeline” of the historical events prompting the creative works; “The 1619 Project Continues,” describing related materials in “a special section” in the newspaper “on the history of slavery, made in partnership with the Smithsonian,” an article in the Sports section, the launch of an audio series, and a “partnership” with the Pulitzer Center to bring the 1619 Project curriculum to students; and “Behind the Cover,” explaining the cover photograph of “the water off the coast of Hampton, Va., at the site where the first enslaved Africans were recorded being brought to Britain’s [sic] North American colonies”—to bring a sense of “grandeur” to the disembarkation of the Africans.

Turning the page, one sees a collection of photos of the contributors, almost all black and purposely chosen by race, as the editor’s introduction admits, describing the literary works as “all original compositions by contemporary black writers who were asked to choose events on a timeline of the past 400 years. The poetry and fiction they created is arranged chronologically throughout the issue, and each work is introduced by the history to which the author is responding.”

The photographs show the contributors, all professionals with enviable positions in media and academia, looking aggrieved. No one smiles. The Howard University Law School students shown towards the end of the issue have similar expressions, reinforced by an upward camera angle. They were chosen for the fact that they can trace their ancestry to slaves.

Out of a total 34 contributors, only four are historians—Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Kevin M. Kruse, Anne C. Bailey, and Tiya Miles—and none of them is recognized as a leading expert in the history of slavery. All four historians do advocacy scholarship, and the latter two, who devote some of their scholarship to slavery, wrote only short pieces for the 1619 Project. Indeed, Bailey, who teaches at Binghamton University, contributed only an extended caption for a photograph. Miles’s academic focus is in “conjoined Black and Native histories” and “nineteenth-century women’s struggles.”

There is a scattering of academics in other fields, such as law, English, medical science, and Africana studies, but the overwhelming majority of the thirty-four contributors are not scholars; they are journalists (most associated with the New York Times) and creative types, poets, novelists, artists, and photographers. Hannah-Jones, on the staff of the New York Times, “covers racial injustice” for the magazine.

The project has a didactic feel. After all, as the introductory material proudly informs the reader, it was to be shipped to schools upon launch. The introduction is hardly inviting to the sophisticated reader. From the outset, it is insinuated that the skeptic who does not accept the history shattering claims will fail the implied litmus test of compassion for slaves and their descendants. For a project that is intended to overturn over two hundred years of traditional history, it has little of the scaffolding of scholarship. The essays are not in the Montaignian tradition of assaying topics and inviting readers to consider a new perspective. The statement that the literary works will “bring to life key moments in African-American history” seems presumptuous to an adult reader, redolent of a textbook sales pitch or instructions within a textbook for the hapless student.

But the college student or recent graduate educated under the Common Core standards, in place since the Obama Administration, is probably used to having songs and poetry infused into lessons about history, and to reading history or other “informational texts” in English class. With the breakdown of the disciplines under Common Core, the lines between fiction and nonfiction have been blurred. Similarly, under Common Core, interpretations matter more than facts, personal stories more than established history, and acceptance of diversity more than reason and logic. To such readers, the inclusion of poems written to order in a document that purports to be making a serious case for correcting errors in our understanding of history may not seem too odd. Serious historians, though, did find the 1619 Project odd—and very wrong, not just in its emphases, but in its facts.

A Very Different “Idea of America” 

Prominent historians have objected to the 1619 Project’s numerous mistakes and misrepresentations of fact, and also to the fundamental historical misjudgment on which the entire project is built: the misrepresentation of the United States as “inhuman and immoral,” a regime indelibly stained by the “original sin” of slavery. This is the claim of Nikole Hannah-Jones in the 1619 Project’s lead inaugural essay, which also proclaims that “[a]nti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country.”

The title of that essay in the “Index” of the print magazine and in the list of links to the essays in the online version is “The Idea of America.” But the first sentence of the longer callout on the first page of the essay itself makes clear just what Hannah-Jones’s idea of America is: “Our founding ideals of liberty and equality were false when they were written.” And so, she charges in the body of the essay, “black Americans, simply by existing, served as a problematic reminder of this nation’s failings. White America dealt with this inconvenience by constructing a savagely enforced system of racial apartheid that excluded black people almost entirely from mainstream American life—a system so grotesque that Nazi Germany would later take inspiration from it for its own racist policies.”

What a word bomb! Hannah-Jones equates racial segregation (and only segregation in the United States) with Nazi genocide and concentration camps, with the jarring and anachronistic word “apartheid” thrown in. There were no Nuremberg trials in the United States, and “white America” is afflicted with “endemic racism that we still cannot purge from this nation to this day.” Alas, white Americans continue to believe that “black people” are “a slave race.”

Hannah-Jones’ statements are treated as the pronouncements of a veritable genius—in the hushed words of the editor’s introduction to the 1619 Project—“from whose mind this project sprang.” Thus it is fitting that the opening of her essay is printed in huge letters (in the original print version) that proclaim, “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.”

Hannah-Jones begins her essay with a personal story about her father, whom she recalls as a patriot who lovingly cared for the American flag and raised it on the appropriate occasions. Seeking a way to advance in a discriminatory society, he had joined the military in 1962, at age seventeen. But he was “passed over for opportunities” and “discharged under murky circumstances,” left to eke out an existence with “service” jobs. Thus the essay opens in a bitter tone, informed by the author’s racial identity and employing a common method of critical race theory: presenting history through “personal narratives.”

Hannah-Jones then recounts the history of her father’s family, from what she inappropriately calls an “apartheid state”—a part of Mississippi that had the dubious distinction of having the most lynchings of blacks in the state—to Iowa, where her grandmother moved only to face Jim Crow again, though a de facto version of it. Generation after generation, her family had learned that hard work does not pay. So she could not understand why her father would fly the flag of a country that “refused to treat us as full citizens.” It “felt like a marker of his degradation.” But of late, she writes, she has come to understand what 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.”

From that claim—that begins reasonably with the “indelible” “contributions” of black Americans but ends with the preposterous exaggeration that “the United States simply would not exist” without African Americans—Hannah-Jones segues into a re-creation of the 1619 arrival of the first cargo of Africans to what would become the United States. This landing preceded the arrival of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock by a year, she notes, and the decision by the English colonists “to form their own country” by 157 years. This timeline introduces the idea that the Africans were here first. The “Jamestown colonists bought 20 to 30 enslaved Africans from English pirates.” These “pirates” [sic], she says, “had stolen them from a Portuguese slave ship that had forcibly taken them from what is now the country of Angola.” They were “among the 12.5 million Africans who would be kidnapped” and brought in chains across the Atlantic Ocean, with 400,000 of them “sold into America,” where they built the wealth of the nation—and taught Americans what democracy is.

These 400,000 Africans and their descendants “transformed the lands to which they’d been brought.” The list of their accomplishments that follows is intended to convey the idea that all the prosperity of America from 1619 onwards was created by slaves. To wit:

Through backbreaking labor, they cleared the land across the Southeast. They taught the colonists to grow rice. They grew and picked the cotton that at the height of slavery was the nation’s most valuable commodity. . . . They built the plantations of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. . . . They laid the foundations of the White House and the Capitol, even placing with their unfree hands the Statue of Freedom atop the Capitol dome. They lugged the heavy wooden tracks of the railroads that crisscrossed the South and that helped take the cotton they picked to the Northern textile mills, fueling the Industrial Revolution. They built vast fortunes for white people North and South. . . .

The rhetorical device of anaphora—the repetition of “they” at the beginning of sentence after sentence—helps to create the impression that slaves are responsible for everything that made America prosperous. Other groups receive no credit, or even mention—except as the undeserving villains who profited from slave labor. There is at least one glaring error of fact here: the assertion that the hands that put the “Statue of Freedom atop the Capitol dome” were “unfree.” One slave, Philip Reid, a skilled foundry worker, is known to have worked on the statue. But the installation of the statue took place in late 1863, with the final piece placed on top of the Capitol Dome on December 2, 1863. President Lincoln had signed the Compensated Emancipation Act on April 16, 1862, abolishing slavery in the District of Columbia, and by then Reid was a free man.

The description of how white wealth was acquired from the “stolen labor” of slaves continues: “the second-richest man in the nation was a Rhode Island ‘slave trader.’” America’s war debts were paid off and “some of our most prestigious universities” were financed with the ill-gotten gains. Wall Street would not be “a thriving banking, insurance and trading sector” and New York City would not have become “the financial capital of the world” without the “relentless buying, selling, insuring and financing of [slaves’] bodies and the products of their labor.”

Reinventing Democracy

Not only did the “bondage” of slaves make America wealthy, but “[b]lack Americans have also been, and continue to be, foundational to the idea of American freedom. More than any other group in this country’s history, we have served, generation after generation, in an overlooked but vital role: It is we who have been the perfecters of this democracy.”

Move aside, founders—or, rather, “the men known as our founders,” to use editor Jake Silverstein’s characterization. “The United States is a nation founded on both an ideal and a lie,” according to Hannah-Jones, because “the white men who drafted [the] words [in the Declaration of Independence] did not believe them to be true for the hundreds of thousands of black people in their midst.” In contrast, “black Americans believed fervently in the American creed. Through centuries of black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals,” thus acting as “perfecters.” Then, confusing republican government and democracy, she writes, “Without the idealistic, strenuous and patriotic efforts of black Americans, our democracy today would most likely look very different—it might not be a democracy at all.”

Returning to her strategy of listing “firsts,” Hannah-Jones says that Crispus Attucks, “a fugitive from slavery” (whose actual identity remains murky), “gave his life for a new nation in which his own people would not enjoy the liberties laid out in the Declaration for another century.” In fact, the Declaration would not even be written until years later: Attucks died in the Boston Massacre of 1770—more than six years before the decision to declare independence had been made. But fuzzy timelines, identities, and causal factors are employed to advance the idea that “the year 1619 is as important to the American story as 1776” and that “black Americans, as much as those men cast in alabaster in the nation’s capital, are this nation’s true ‘founding fathers.’”

Hannah-Jones heightens the contrast between the supposed “‘true’ founding fathers” she is celebrating and the previously recognized founding fathers she is damning by repeated references to Monticello as a “forced-labor camp,” one of the many that imprisoned “one-fifth of the population within the 13 colonies.” There the enslaved “struggled under a brutal system of slavery unlike anything that had existed in the world before”; slaves were not even “recognized as human beings” and had no legal rights.

She then proceeds to attack the character of Abraham Lincoln, presenting him as someone who heartlessly sought to banish black Americans through colonization. She lists the temporary successes of Reconstruction, with the election of blacks, and then the rise of Jim Crow in reaction. She highlights the horrible blinding of newly discharged World War II veteran Isaac Woodard, claiming that “[t]here was nothing unusual about Woodard’s horrific maiming.” Postwar, a “wave of systemic violence” included “hundreds of black veterans [who] were beaten, maimed, shot and lynched.” Hannah-Jones blames racial disparities in income, health, and imprisonment on the continuing racism of white people.

When it comes to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Hannah-Jones credits blacks alone for showing the way to perfecting democracy through such measures as the 1965 Immigration Act. African Americans are presented as leading the way morally in spite of their status as the most persecuted:

No one cherishes freedom more than those who have not had it. And to this day, black Americans, more than any other group, embrace the democratic ideals of a common good. We are the most likely to support programs like universal health care and a higher minimum wage, and to oppose programs that harm the most vulnerable. . . . [B]lack Americans suffer the most from violent crime, yet we are the most opposed to capital punishment. Our unemployment rate is nearly twice that of white Americans, yet we are still the most likely of all groups to say this nation should take in refugees.

She then flashes back to “the teal eternity of the Atlantic Ocean” and the Middle Passage. A romanticized and utterly false view of slaves’ former lives in West Africa follows. “Just a few months earlier, they had families, and farms, and lives and dreams. They were free. They had names, of course, but their enslavers did not bother to record them.” In America they learned that “black equaled ‘slave.’” They were stripped of individuality and made into “property.” To this day, the effects of slavery persist: in styles of dress with “the extra flair,” created names, music that emerged from the sorrow songs—and poverty and crime. But it was “by virtue” of their “bondage” that blacks became the “most American of all.”

Hannah-Jones’s essay introduces the themes of the other essays in the 1619 Project. These include one by Wesley Morris titled “American Popular Music”: “For centuries, black music, forged in bondage, has been the sound of complete artistic freedom. No wonder everybody is always stealing it.” (Talk about casting a pall even on happy, positive things.) Another essay, by Matthew Desmond, attempts to quantify the contribution of slave labor to American economic growth. The 1619 Project argues that the United States’ economic might rests upon the labor of slaves whose descendants still suffer discrimination in a racist America.

And yet, the 1619 Project also contends, through their long-suffering from oppression and exploitation by whites, black Americans have been the nation’s moral guides, advocating “the common good” through signature programs of the Democratic Party such as universal health care. White Americans should listen and follow if they really believe in “democracy” (and racial equality). And black Americans need to be with the program.

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Mary Grabar, Ph.D., author of Debunking Howard Zinn: Exposing the Fake History That Turned a Generation Against America, is a resident fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization. Her next book, Debunking “The 1619 Project,” will be released on September 7, 2021.

 

 

 

 

 

 


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