The New York Times launched an ambitious and controversial series of essays called the 1619 Project. 1619 is the year African slaves arrived in Virginia and began the legacy of slavery that has haunted the country ever since. The 1619 Projects contends that date is the true origin of the country and it intends to put the birth of slavery in the English colonies as a defining feature of the country. Predictably, the project has caused an uproar on twitter, in academia, among pundits and, soon, among politicians.
I have conflicting thoughts about the project, though I haven’t read even most of the essays yet. First, I believe strongly that we need to place slavery and Jim Crow in a more central understanding of our history. We’ve whitewashed history, leaving out the accomplishments of African-Americans and the use of slavery to build our country and its powerful economy. The negative impacts of slavery and the deeply ingrained institutional racism necessary to sustain it still negatively impact African Americans today while the positive and essential influences African Americans have had on our country are ignored, underappreciated or flat out denied. I hope that the 1619 Project can start to fix the misperceptions so we can further heal our nation.
However, I disagree that the country began with the first slaves arriving and that slavery is the defining characteristic of our country. I believe that the country was conceived as an ideal by very flawed white men who tried to form a country based upon the idealism of the Enlightenment. Their concept was morally superior to their realities or their personal actions. Still, it laid a foundation for building a country that has continued to evolve, at times embracing more enlightened ideals and at time torn between those accepting those ideals and fighting against reactionary forces that reject them.
Regardless of the goal of the project, we need to hear the voices that the New York Times is highlighting. The leader of the project is Nikole Hannah-Jones, a graduate of the University of North Carolina and a 2017 MacArthur fellow (also known as a genius grant). She’s brought attention to the problems facing the black community for years. Her introductory essay is powerful and she brings undisputed credibility to the project.
Instead of arguing over the NYT’s bold claims, let’s read the essays and hear the voices of some of America’s best black writers. As I wrote a week or so ago, America is due for a day of reckoning. This series is part of that. Let’s hope it can put the African American perspective in a more central place of our collective American story.