I know I mostly write about the technology, but I decided to take an important digression today. Last week was the release for The 1619 Project, a new book by Nikole Hannah-Jones that is a collection of the essays, poems and stories written by over fifty African American writers. The book is the expanded version of the essays published in the New York Times Magazine in 2019 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first African slaves to the US. There is also a five episode podcast to accompany the original project. To the conservative right, The 1619 Project is an attempt to tear down the founding story of the United States, divide our country based on race, and infect our children with a liberal left ideology. As of this writing, 17 Republican-led states have put forward legislation that would ban the use of this book in a classroom. To the left, this is a mandatory textbook that must be taught in every college and grade school.
As a self-proclaimed history geek, I’ve been watching this debate unfold with fascination. I’ve taken the time to not only read the criticisms - at least one coming from a historian I respect - but also the book version of The 1619 Project and the original New York Times essays. Here are the four things I think the critics have wrong about this book.
#1: It’s Not Intended As a History
Many of the criticisms focus on the fact Nikole Hannah-Jones is not a historian. They often pick a specific assertion in the book - e.g. that slavery was a driving reason behind the American Revolution - and use it to discount the entire work. But The 1619 Project is not really a history, and I’ve never heard Hannah-Jones claim she was a historian. Histories focus on a single person or era, and detail chronologically the events that transpire. Histories do not move freely between topics and eras, blending into the narrative opinion, poems, historical fiction, and commentary. So if you read The 1619 Project as a history, you will lose out on much of the power of this work. This book defies any simple categorization. Instead I recommend you take its subtitle at face value: this is an origin story. The origin story of African Americans in the United States.
#2: It’s Not Trying to Rewrite US History
Another common criticism of The 1619 Project is that it’s trying to rewrite history: to replace the founding story of our nation with one that puts white supremacy at its core. Much of this criticism comes from statements made publicly by Hannah-Jones and the original New York Times marketing that the real founding date of our nation is 1619 instead of 1776. This is a controversial statement, which defenders claim was not intended to be taken literally. It is also great marketing, since that slogan has likely sold many books.
But this assertion is not really discussed in the book, and is not pertinent to the thesis of The 1619 Project. Instead the book focuses on the deeply conflicted history our country has with race. Yes some of the stories are difficult to hear, laying bare the barbarity of enslavement - the forced labor camps, the use of fear and torture in pursit of profits, the rapes, the lynchings, the industrialization of slave labor, the corruption of the judicial system, and more. It also shows us the horrors that followed the post-Civil War Reconstruction, where the South used Jim Crow laws and horrifying violence to prevent any social and economic progress from African Americans. And it shows how we have used language to disinfect the barbarity of the past. In the last chapter, Hannah-Jones asks why we consider it acceptable to have weddings at plantations - the site of forced labor camps - when we would never think to do this at Auschwitz.
While these stories are difficult to hear, they are every bit a part of US history as the signing of the Declaration of Independence or the Battle of Gettysburg or the moon landing. It doesn’t matter whether or not your ancestors owned slaves. If we as Americans can collectively feel proud of the Declaration of Independence as part of our national heritage, we can also acknowledge and openly discuss our deeply conflicted history with race. Our founding story is not so fragile that it cannot survive a true accounting of our history. We can still revere George Washington as a great man, while also admitting that he may not always have been a good one. After all, the Founding Fathers, like us, were human.
#3: It’s Not Factually Inaccurate
The authors of The 1619 Project are all accomplished professionals that include historians, journalists, lawyers and professors. Their work was heavily fact checked, and the book provides extensive footnotes as reference. But as I mentioned previously: this book is not a history, but an origin story. It is not a chronological accounting of the dates, names and places. Instead, the authors probe the history of African Americans to explore how this past has impacted the current health, economic, political and social status of Black people today.
Yes it’s true that we can never definitively prove the impact industrialized of slave labor had on American capitalism, or how the enslavement of people shaped our approach to prison systems, or how the loss of generational wealth impacted the current financial status of Black citizens. But the writers make compelling cases based on historical facts that cannot be ignored. Their work also makes clear that we will never understand the present if we don't first understand our past.
#4: It Cannot Be Dismissed
I read a recent conservative right article that interviewed a historian deeply critical of The 1619 Project. The article could easily have been a celebrity hit piece in the National Enquirer. The interviewed historian personally attacked Nikole Hannah-Jones and her family, casting aspersions about her experience and background. It was clearly a desperate plea to make The 1619 Project go away. But no matter what you think of this book, it is not going to go away. The attacks from the right alone have ensured this will become a bestseller. But the content of this work - the meticulous and clear-eyed exploration of every dimension of the African American journey - will ensure it is remembered as a seminal work decades into the future. It will serve as an inspiration for current and future generations of African Americans, whose contributions have been lost in our histories, and who have never had the benefit of a true accounting of their origin.
The 1619 Project provides you an opportunity to learn about the struggles of African Americans from their perspective - from the barbarity of slavery, to the fight for freedom, to the lost hope of Reconstruction, to the Civil Rights Era, to Black Lives Matter protests. It is a chance to learn about the many contributions of Black Americans, from music to culture to democracy. Along the way, you may find assertions that you agree and disagree with. Since this is an origin story - not a history - you don’t have to agree with everything you read. The power of the narrative is in opening your eyes to the history of our country from a purely African American perspective - and from this, to better understand our current challenges with race, social justice, and democracy.
So don’t listen to the critics. The 1619 Project is a must-read for everyone.