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The 1619 Project Is The Reckoning America Needs

The New York Times Magazine cover for the 1619 project.
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The New York Times Magazine cover for the 1619 project.

If you’re offended by the 1619 Project, the initiative conceived of by New York Times staff writer Nikole Hannah-Jones that debuted last week in observation of the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American Slavery, see how long you can keep that energy going. And if you’ve not yet heard of the initiative, here’s an opportunity to get familiar with the America you live in. Because it’s not just a project, it’s a reckoning that, like Ta-Nehisi Coates’ seminal piece on reparations for The Atlantic in 2014, the opening of the National Museum of African American History in 2016, and Bryan Stevenson’s lynching memorial last year, is an integral and intentional tenet of a slow but steady endeavor to shift the national narrative on the issue of race and blackness, and on our understanding about the legacy of slavery in America.

These efforts are in conversation with each other, stitched together by a thread of endurance, clarity and perhaps above all, a deep, abiding love for black people and black culture. Hannah-Jones, who was awarded the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” grant in 2017 and is the recipient of multiple other awards for excellence in journalism, assembled an impressive list of mostly black contributors for the project that includes reporters, poets, essayists, playwrights, artists, and photographers. Her own lead essay, “America Wasn’t a Democracy, Until Black Americans Made it One,” beautifully written and impeccably researched, is a paean to a deeply personal patriotism she only discovered through writing the piece. “Writing this love song to my people ended up being the most patriotic thing I have ever produced,” Hannah-Jones tweeted. “Only if you don’t consider black people fully American, as ‘We the People’ who worked to make our founding ideals a reality, could you see it any other way.”

To the surprise of no one who recognizes that the current president is a white supremacist stoking acts of domestic terrorism and racial violence, there were a lot of people who saw it another way—a lot of high profile white conservatives and opinion writers, among them former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who denounced the project both on Twitter, and on Fox News, where he called the project “a lie.”

Hannah-Jones, unbothered, and an absolute model of integrity, responded to Gingrich’s criticism with the following tweet:

She has a lot to be proud of beyond getting the hackles up of a man whose 1994 Contract with America included a bid to increase prison financing and construction, an admonishment of “illegitimacy and teen pregnancy,” and plans to cut public funding to the Congressional Black Caucus.

Although I agree, drawing the ire of Gingrich would make me feel like I was doing something right, too.

Further, the pushback from Gingrich and his ilk only further illustrates the impact and necessity of the 1619 Project, which is at once spectacular and damning—an illumination that bleeds and breathes, rooted in black language, black life, and black history. Ostensibly, the project aims to reframe the legacy of slavery in America, and to make clear and plain that the contributions of black Americans go far beyond the wealth and capital generated by our enslavement. “Black Americans have also been, and continue to be, foundational to the idea of American freedom,” writes Hannah-Jones in her essay. “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.”

I read this not as a statement of exclusion—the genocide of free indigenous people happened before America became America—but rather, as the reclamation of a narrative that we deserve to own. A defining, accurate history that so many generations until now have never been taught.

Its inherent service and utility aside—the Pulitzer Center has partnered with the NYT to create a full education curriculum of the project—the quality of the work in the 1619 Project is masterful. From Dannielle Bowman’s stirring, spare photograph on the NYT Magazine cover, to the poetry of Clint Smith and Rita Dove, fiction by Jesmyn Ward and Barry Jenkins, and reporting by Trymaine Lee and Linda Villarosa, it’s nearly impossible not to live alongside their words as you read. And I can’t help but to feel like that’s also part of the point of the project—to live along with it, revisit it, share it, discuss it. For us to live within the words, and the words to live within us.

America, we all know, was built on the backs of black people. But what is intentionally less known, less taught, less available in common conversation, is that black people remember and carry with us the weight of what was built every day. The 1619 Project shifts the weight in an effort to build another America. Our America.

Rebecca Carroll is a cultural critic and Editor of Special Projects at WNYC, where she develops, produces and hosts a broad array of multi-platform content, including podcasts, live events and on-air broadcasts. Rebecca is also the author of several interview-based books about race and blackness in America, including the award-winning Sugar in the Raw, and her personal essays, cultural commentary and opinion pieces have been published widely. Her memoir, Surviving the White Gaze, is due out from Simon & Schuster in 2020.

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