Something remarkable occurred in American journalism on August 20, 2019.
Civil rights journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, in collaboration with the New York Times, dropped an incredible piece of journalism in the laps of the American public that continues to this very day to enlighten readers and make waves at the same time.
Nikole Hannah-Jones and her colleagues introduced to America, “The 1619 Project.”
The goal of the 1619 Project is to reframe American history by considering what it would mean to establish 1619 as our nation’s birth year as opposed to 1776 and place the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.
The inaugural launch of Hannah-Jones’ New York Times publication purposely coincided with the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in the Virginia colony in August of 1619.
I must admit, I completely missed the Project’s debut almost two years ago in August of 2019. I am still trying to figure out what exactly I was doing when this story dropped across America.
The New TSD, of course, was on it from the start. But we have found each other, and I am glad of it.
While controversial, the 1619 Project has proven to be a remarkable piece of work.
At the center of the controversy is the assertion by Hanna-Jones that the primary reason the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.
In other words, she implies that the defense of slavery was, in fact, the true impetus of the Revolutionary War.
At the beginning of the New York Times 1619 Project publication, Hanna-Jones’ essay does an excellent job of framing her narrative as to why the institution of chattel slavery had to be preserved and how it conflicts with those iconic words written in our Declaration of Independence.
You remember: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Her essay was recognized and celebrated with a Pulitzer Prize as the top commentary of 2019. Some acknowledged it as one of the most important essays ever.
The 1619 Project was not intended to be some sort of grievance platform by which Black America can use to feel better about themselves. Its purpose, however, is to remind us and provide critical context to the struggles Black Americans face in today’s society so that we can work together to find solutions based on truth, not lies.
If nothing else, the 1619 Project encourages us to examine the nuances and complexities of slavery and how it contributes to this grand experiment called democracy, regardless of how tragic and deplorable that reality is.
Of course, you can imagine the 1619 Project did not sit well with certain people, including the recent former president of the United States.
These people, on cue, immediately framed the Project as an extensive propaganda campaign, a conspiracy no less to deprive “true Americans” of their birthright.
One critic, Ilya Shapiro (right-wing conservative), wrote, “Writing about history is great, but a project intended to delegitimize mankind’s grandest experiment in human liberty and self-governance is divisive.”
For those people (and there are many), the topic of slavery in any context continues to be, as Abraham Lincoln once proclaimed, “…a worrisome presence in our democracy.”
Yep, he said that!
There is so much to learn from the material included in this Project. The impact on our economy, our health care system, schools and many other social constructs that continue to be impacted by the remnants of institutional slavery.
As the Atlantic Magazine’s Adam Serwer wrote, “U.S. history is often taught and popularly understood through the eyes of its great men, who are seen as either heroic or tragic figures in a global struggle for human freedom. The 1619 Project… sought to place ‘the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.’ Viewed from the perspective of those historically denied the rights enumerated in America’s founding documents, the story of the country’s great men necessarily looks vastly different.”
In other words, this body of work forces America to confront the contradictions of its own lofty ideals of a democratic society.
I still wonder on occasion why we’re still fighting – so viciously at times – racism in this country.
The 1619 Project reminds me of how racism, in multiple ways, has been baked into our DNA as a nation. But it also makes it abundantly clear that Black people are the forces by which this nation has realized its own lofty ideals about freedom and human dignity.
Someone (a Black person) once said, “Black people have seen the worst of America, yet, somehow, we still believe in its best.”
This nation has always been an experiment of various sorts, democracy and diversity included, and as such, it will continue to be fraught with imperfections.
But while 1776 is an important year in our nation’s history, 1619 has significant cachet as well and needs to be woven into the narrative of our nation in a much more substantial way.
It has been almost two years since the 1619 Project was first introduced to the American public.
I encourage everyone to read and listen to this material. It will provide both questions and answers to some of our most perplexing issues about race.
But that is as it should be, isn’t it?
Stay safe everyone!
(Follow TSD education columnist Curtis Weathers on Twitter (@curtisweathers); email: [email protected].)