The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story

The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story, edited by Nikole Hannah-Jones, Caitlin Roper, Elena Silverman and Jake Silverstein.

In 2019, The New York Times published a special issue commemorating the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved Africans’ arrival on American shores.  The creation of the issue was imagined and led by The Times’ Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Nikole Hannah-Jones. Subsequently, Hannah-Jones and her colleagues expanded the issue to book form.  From its initial publication as a special issue, to the book, The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story, has enlightened, enraged and engaged readers across the political spectrum.  The book’s title suggests its startling premise: that the date when the first enslaved Africans arrived in what would later become the United States is the nation’s more accurate birthdate.  The 1619 Project asks readers to place both the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the center of the American story.

In these essays, written by noted scholars and historians, The 1619 Project examines all aspects of our history, from race to politics, to economics, and from food to music.  One of its most controversial conclusions is that the founding fathers, many of whom were slave holders, sought to declare their independence from England, not only because they wished to ensure (for white men) the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but because they feared that England would soon abolish slavery, an institution upon which the colonies were overwhelmingly dependent for their economic survival.

In other essays, the writers place slavery and race at the center of political, economic and social policies and decision making, as well as everyday life. They examine a wide range of topics including Lincoln’s attitudes toward slavery, Reconstruction and Jim Crow, the New Deal, and the presidency of Barack Obama.

These essays are as thoroughly researched and documented as they are unsettling.  The 1619 Project leads readers to ask a number of important questions.  What is history?  Is it facts, based on documents, statistics and other verifiable data?  Or is history the conclusions we draw from that data and the meaning we make of those facts and conclusions?  Moreover, who controls those facts?  Which facts get recorded and which are hidden or lost?  How do the assumptions, beliefs and subconscious biases of historians and others distort what actually happened?  

The late Dartmouth Professor Bill Cook once said, “We have an American history and a national narrative and they ain’t the same.”  I thought about that statement often while reading The 1619 Project.  The story we were all told about our country, its founding and its character, is powerful and a source of pride.  But it’s also slanted and incomplete.  Books like The 1619 Project ask us to acknowledge the contradictions between slavery and liberty and to include them in the national narrative.

Questions and controversies such as these are what lead libraries to place value on balanced collections which offer differing points of view for readers to consider.  Readers looking for criticism of The 1619 Project, may be interested in Red, White, and Black: Rescuing American History From Revisionists and Race Hustlers, edited by Robert L. Woodson, Sr.

Also accessible at the library are numerous journal articles presenting a variety of opinions on all sides of the argument posed by The 1619 Project.

Marilyn

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