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 some 350 African slaves, taken in bondage possibly from what is now Angola. Those poor souls 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.
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 U.S. 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. 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 U.S., 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.”
For right-wing nationalists, there’s little room for the recognition of fundamental evil, of an original sin, in the founding myth of the nation. A commentator for the far-right Federalist website complained that the project’s goal was to “delegitimize America and further divide and demoralize its citizenry.”
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.
These battles over historical memory are hardly unique to the United States. In countries like Turkey and India, nationalist ruling parties have launched a steady assault on the legacies of their republics’ secularist founders. Russian President Vladimir Putin has sought to rehabilitate Josef Stalin, an epochal dictator with the blood of millions on his hands.
In Europe, far-right politicians routinely gripe about shouldering the stigma of their nations’ fascist pasts. A leader of Germany’s ultranationalist AfD party in 2017 bemoaned how the country’s focus on atoning for the horrors of the Holocaust rendered Germans “a totally defeated people.” That same year, France’s Marine Le Pen denied that the French should feel guilty in the present for the deportations of French Jews to their deaths in Nazi concentration camps.
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.”