In the summer of 1619, two warships manned by English privateers raided a Portuguese vessel the pirates hoped was brimming with gold. Instead, they found and divided up an altogether different cargo: some 350 African slaves, taken in bondage possibly from what is now Angola. What happened to all those poor souls may never be known — they were among the early wave of the more than 12 million Africans sent across the Atlantic to live and die in slavery in the New World.
But we do know that, in August of that year, the English privateers appeared not far from the colony of Jamestown, in modern-day Virginia, and bartered 20 to 30 of these Africans for food from the English settlers there. That transaction 400 years ago marked the first landfall of black people on the shores of what would become the United States.
In recent weeks, it has been the subject of a spate of coverage in mainstream media, including an ambitious series of reported essays published in a special issue of The New York Times magazine this past weekend. The “1619 Project” takes this arrival as a seminal event with which to reframe the history of the United States. It charts how — from prison systems to land laws, the origins of capitalism to the evolution of the American diet — there’s little that defines the United States that doesn’t somehow have the legacy of slavery at its foundation.
For the project’s lead reporter, Nikole Hannah-Jones, it underscores the black condition in America. “We are the constant reminder of … the lie at our origins that, while Thomas Jefferson was writing the Declaration of Independence, his enslaved brother-in-law was there to serve him and make sure that he’s comfortable,” she said in an interview with PBS. “If you believe that 1776 matters,” she added, “if you believe that our Constitution still matters, then you also have to understand that the legacy of slavery still matters and you can’t pick and choose what parts of history we think are important and which ones aren’t.”
The project was deeply researched and fact-checked with the assistance of a panel of historians. Elements of it were conducted in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution, a venerable pillar of American learning. It’s a serious work of popular history that starts America’s clock four centuries ago.
What followed was 250 years of brutal slavery in the United States, then a century of de facto apartheid rule. Hannah-Jones, 43, stresses that she is part of only the first generation of black Americans born in a country where it was not legal to discriminate against them.
But this reframing proved all too much for an assorted cast of American conservatives. Newt Gingrich, a former Republican speaker of the House, blasted the Times for printing “propaganda.” President Donald Trump echoed the talking points of right-wing media, decrying the “zero credibility” paper’s “Racism Witch Hunt.” And conservative pundit Erick Erickson lamented the “racial lenses” that the project deployed to look at a history of black subjugation.
The project’s proponents swatted away such claims, arguing that there’s nothing divisive about a more thorough and just accounting of the past — and that these criticisms only justified the urgent need for it now. Trump and his ilk may scoff at efforts to think more deeply about America’s racial sins, but he has defended those who marched in favor of monuments to white supremacy.
“Coinciding with the Trump presidency and resurgent white nationalism, the 400th anniversary of slavery in what would become the United States has inspired renewed scrutiny of the curse of color caste on our collective consciousness,” wrote academic Wendell Nii Laryea Adjetey in The Washington Post last month. “The widening wealth and health gaps between African Americans and whites, hyper-criminalization and mass incarceration of African Americans, the meaning and future of affirmative action, and efforts to save Confederate flags and memorials are but a few contentious issues that will trigger further conflict.”
Those who engage with history more seriously than politicians understand that recognition of a national darkness need not be an impediment to national pride. “This America is a community of belonging and commitment, held together by the strength of our ideas and by the force of our disagreements,” wrote Harvard historian Jill Lepore in her latest book, “This America: The Case for the Nation.” “A nation founded on universal ideas will never stop fighting over the meaning of its past and the direction of the future … The nation, as ever, is the fight.”