The 1619 Project
The 1619 Project is an ongoing project developed by The New York Times Magazine in 2019 which "aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of [the United States'] national narrative". The project was timed for the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in the Virginia colony in 1619. It is an interactive project directed by Nikole Hannah-Jones, a reporter for The New York Times, with contributions by the newspaper's writers, including essays on the history of different aspects of contemporary American life which the authors argue have "roots in slavery and its aftermath." It also includes poems, short fiction, and a photo essay. Originally conceived as a special issue for August 20, 2019, it was soon turned into a full-fledged project, including a special broadsheet section in the newspaper, live events, and a multi-episode podcast series.
|"The 1619 Project"|
The 1619 Project logo
|Publisher||The New York Times|
The project has sparked criticism and debate among prominent historians and political commentators. In a letter published in The New York Times in December 2019, historians Gordon S. Wood, James M. McPherson, Sean Wilentz, Victoria Bynum and James Oakes expressed "strong reservations" about the project and requested factual corrections, accusing the project of putting ideology before historical understanding. In response, Jake Silverstein, the editor of The New York Times Magazine, defended the accuracy of the 1619 Project and declined to issue corrections. In March 2020, historian Leslie M. Harris, who served as a fact-checker for the 1619 Project, wrote that the authors had ignored her corrections, but that the project was a needed corrective to prevailing historical narratives.
In September 2020, renewed controversy arose over edits that had been made to the project without accompanying editorial notes, which critics—including Brett Stephens of the Times—claimed showed the New York Times was backing away from some of its more controversial claims. In response, senior figures at the Times defended the 1619 Project and the Times' editorial practices.
The 1619 Project was launched in August 2019 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of enslaved Africans in the English colonies and its legacy. The first enslaved Africans in the English colonies of mainland North America arrived in August 1619. A ship carrying 20–30 people who had been enslaved by a joint African-Portuguese war on Ndongo in modern Angola, landed at Point Comfort in the colony of Virginia.
The project dedicated an issue of the magazine to a re-examination of the legacy of slavery in America, at the anniversary of the 1619 arrival of the first slaves to Virginia, challenging the notion that the history of the United States began in 1776. The initiative quickly grew into a larger project. The project encompasses multiple issues of the magazine, with related materials in multiple other publications of the Times as well as a project curriculum developed in collaboration with the Pulitzer Center, for use in schools. The project employed a panel of historians and had support from the Smithsonian, for fact-checking, research and development. The project was envisioned with the condition that almost all of the contributions would be from African-American contributors, deeming the perspective of black writers an essential element of the story to be told.
August 14 magazine issue
The first edition, which appeared in The New York Times Magazine on August 14, 2019, published in 100 pages with ten essays, a photo essay, and a collection of poems and fiction by an additional 16 writers, included the following works:
- "America Wasn't a Democracy Until Black Americans Made It One", essay by Nikole Hannah-Jones
- "American Capitalism Is Brutal. You Can Trace That to the Plantation", essay by Matthew Desmond
- "A New Literary Timeline of African-American History", a collection of original poems and stories from 16 different writers, including Clint Smith, Yusef Komunyakaa, Eve L. Ewing, Reginald Dwayne Betts, ZZ Packer, Barry Jenkins and Jesmyn Ward, among others
- "How False Beliefs in Physical Racial Difference Still Live in Medicine Today", essay by Linda Villarosa
- "What the Reactionary Politics of 2019 Owe to the Politics of Slavery", essay by Jamelle Bouie
- "Why Is Everyone Always Stealing Black Music?", essay by Wesley Morris
- "How Segregation Caused Your Traffic Jam", essay by Kevin Kruse
- "Why Doesn't America Have Universal Healthcare? One Word: Race", essay by Jeneen Interlandi
- "Why American Prisons Owe Their Cruelty to Slavery", essay by Bryan Stevenson
- "The Barbaric History of Sugar in America", essay by Khalil Gibran Muhammad
- "How America's Vast Racial Wealth Gap Grew: By Plunder", essay by Trymaine Lee
- "Their Ancestors Were Enslaved by Law. Now They're Lawyers", photo essay by Djeneba Aduayom, with text from Nikole Hannah-Jones and Wadzanai Mhute
The essays discuss details of modern American society, such as traffic jams and the American affinity for sugar, and their connections to slavery and segregation. Matthew Desmond's essay argues that slavery has shaped modern capitalism and workplace norms. Jamelle Bouie's essay draws parallels between pro-slavery politics and the modern right-wing politics. Bouie argues that America still has not let go of the assumption that some people inherently deserve more power than others.
Unannounced revision of initial claims
In September 2020, lead 1619 Project writer Nikole Hannah-Jones criticized conservatives for their depiction of the project, arguing that it "does not argue that 1619 is our true founding." Atlantic writer Conor Friedersdorf responded on Twitter by citing statements from Hannah-Jones arguing that 1619 was the nation's true founding. Philip Magness noted in a Quillette essay that the claim that the project aimed to "to reframe the country's history, understanding 1619 as our true founding" had been removed from the opening text of project's page on the New York Times' site without an accompanying correction notice. Magness argued that this showed that the Times was quietly revising its position. This unannounced substitution was decried by the conservative National Association of Scholars, which published a public letter in reaction to the change, asking for the revocation of the project's Pulitzer prize.
Responding to the criticism, Hannah-Jones said that the argument about dating the founding to 1619 was self-evidently metaphorical. In an opinion column in the New York Times, Bret Stephens wrote, "These were not minor points. The deleted assertions went to the core of the project's most controversial goal, 'to reframe American history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year'", and argued that "The question of journalistic practices, however, raises deeper doubts about the 1619 Project’s core premises." This column led to tension within the Times, and prompted statements by Times executive editor Dean Baquet, publisher A. G. Sulzberger and New York Times Magazine editor Jake Silverstein in support of the 1619 Project. Responding to criticism, Hannah-Jones wrote on Twitter, "Those who've wanted to act as if tweets/discussions about the project hold more weight than the actual words of the project cannot be taken in good faith", and that "Those who point to edits of digital blurbs but ignore the unchanged text of the actual project cannot be taken in good faith."
Accompanying material and activities
The magazine issue was accompanied by a special section in the Sunday newspaper, in partnership with the Smithsonian, examining the beginnings of the transatlantic slave trade, written by Mary Elliott and Jazmine Hughes. Beginning on August 20, a multi-episode audio series titled "1619" began, published by The Daily, the morning news podcast of the Times. The Sunday sports section had an essay about slavery's impact on professional sports in America: "Is Slavery's Legacy in the Power Dynamics of Sports?". The Times plans to take the project to schools, with the 1619 Project Curriculum developed in collaboration with the Pulitzer Center. Hundreds of thousands of extra copies of the magazine issue were printed for distribution to schools, museums and libraries.
The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting has made available free online lesson plans, is collecting further lesson plans from teachers, and helps arrange for speakers to visit classes. The Center considers most of the lessons usable by all grades from elementary school through college.
Reaction from historians
Beginning in October 2019, the World Socialist Web Site published a series of interviews with prominent historians critical of the 1619 Project, including Victoria E. Bynum, James M. McPherson, Gordon S. Wood, James Oakes, Richard Carwardine and Clayborne Carson. In an essay for The New York Review of Books, historian Sean Wilentz accused the 1619 Project of cynicism for its portrayal of the American Revolution, the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln, who Wilentz wrote is "rendered as a white supremacist."
In December 2019, five leading American historians—Sean Wilentz, along with McPherson, Wood, Bynum, and Oakes—sent a letter to the Times expressing objections to the framing of the project and accusing the authors of a "displacement of historical understanding by ideology." The letter disputed the claim, made in the Hannah-Jones' introductory essay to the 1619 Project, that "one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery". The Times published the letter along with a rebuttal from the magazine's editor-in-chief, Jake Silverstein. Wood responded in a letter, "I don't know of any colonist who said that they wanted independence in order to preserve their slaves [...] No colonist expressed alarm that the mother country was out to abolish slavery in 1776." In an article in The Atlantic, Wilentz responded to Silverstein, writing, "No effort to educate the public in order to advance social justice can afford to dispense with a respect for basic facts", and disputing the factual accuracy of Silverstein's defense of the project.
Also during December 2019, twelve scholars and political scientists specializing in the American Civil War sent a letter to the Times saying that "The 1619 Project offers a historically-limited view of slavery." While agreeing to the importance of examining American slavery, they objected to the portrayal of slavery as a uniquely American phenomenon, to construing slavery as a capitalist venture despite documented anti-capitalist sentiment among many Southern slaveholders, and to presenting out-of-context quotes of a conversation between Abraham Lincoln and "five esteemed free black men." The following month, Times editor Jake Silverstein replied with notes from the research desk, concluding that the scholars had requested the inclusion of additional information, rather than corrections to existing information.
In January 2020, historian Dr. Susan Parker, who specializes in the studies of Colonial United States at Flagler College, noted that slavery existed before any of the 13 Colonies. She wrote in an editorial in The St. Augustine Record that "The settlement known as San Miguel de Gualdape lasted for about six weeks from late September 1526 to the middle of November. Historian Paul Hoffman writes that the slaves at San Miguel rebelled and set fire to some homes of the Spaniards." Writing in USA Today, several historians among them Parker, archaeologist Kathleen A. Deagan also of Flagler, and Civil Rights activist and historian David Nolan all agreed that slavery was present decades before the year 1619. According to Deagan, people have "spent their careers trying to correct the erroneous belief," and Nolan said that in ignoring the earlier settlement, the authors were "robbing black history."
In March 2020, historian Leslie M. Harris, who was consulted for the Project, wrote in Politico that she had warned that the idea that the American Revolution was fought to protect slavery was inaccurate, and that the Times made avoidable mistakes, but that the project was "a much-needed corrective to the blindly celebratory histories." Hannah-Jones has also said that she stands by the claim that slavery helped fuel the revolution, though she concedes she might have phrased it too strongly in her essay, in a way that could give readers the impression that the support for slavery was universal. On March 11, 2020, Silverstein authored an "update" in the form of a "clarification" on Times' website, correcting Hannah-Jones's essay to state that "protecting slavery was a primary motivation for some of the colonists." This "clarification" was reportedly prompted by a private warning to Silverstein by Harvard classicist and political scientist Danielle Allen that she might go public with criticism if the passage on the revolution were not corrected.
The 1619 Project received positive reviews by Alexandria Neason in the Columbia Journalism Review, and by Ellen McGirt in Fortune magazine, which declared the project "wide-reaching and collaborative, unflinching, and insightful" and a "dramatic and necessary corrective to the fundamental lie of the American origin story."
Andrew Sullivan critiqued the project as an important perspective that needed to be heard, but one presented in a biased way under the guise of objectivity. Writing in The Week, Damon Linkler found the 1619 Project's treatment of history "sensationalistic, reductionistic, and tendentious." Timothy Sandefur deemed the project's goal as worthy, but observed that the articles persistently went wrong trying to connect everything with slavery. In the National Review, Phillip W. Magness wrote that the Project provides a distorted economic history borrowed from "bad scholarship" of the New History of Capitalism (NHC), and Rich Lowry wrote that Hannah-Jones' lead essay leaves out unwelcome facts about slavery, smears the Revolution, distorts the Constitution, and misrepresents the founding era and Lincoln. The World Socialist Web Site criticized what its editors consider the Times' reactionary, politically motivated "falsification of history" that wrongly centers around racial rather than class conflict. Marxist political scientist Adolph Reed dismissed the 1619 Project as "the appropriation of the past in support of whatever kind of 'just-so' stories about the present are desired."
In February 2020, a rival project called the 1776 Project, published under the aegis of The Washington Examiner, was launched by a number of African-American academics who dispute the narrative of the 1619 Project.
On October 9, 2020, New York Times columnist Bret Stephens stated in an op-ed that the 1619 Project "has failed," pointing to "avoidable mistakes" in the Project's central claims. Calling it "a thesis in search of evidence, not the other way around," Stephens cites historians who have been critical of the Project themselves, and argues that the editors at The Times, "however much background reading they might have done, are not in a position to adjudicate historical disputes." Stephens also criticized the New York Times Magazine for surreptitiously editing the published text of the Project.
The publication of the project received varied reactions from political figures. Democratic Senator Kamala Harris praised the project in a tweet, stating "The #1619Project is a powerful and necessary reckoning of our history. We cannot understand and address the problems of today without speaking truth about how we got here."
On the other hand, several high-profile conservatives criticized the project. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, for instance, criticized the project as "brainwashing" "propaganda," in a tweet, and later wrote an op-ed characterising it as "left-wing propaganda masquerading as 'the truth'." Republican Senator Ted Cruz also equated it with propaganda. President Donald Trump, in an interview on Fox News, said,
I just look at—I look at school. I watch, I read, look at the stuff. Now they want to change—1492, Columbus discovered America. You know, we grew up, you grew up, we all did, that's what we learned. Now they want to make it the 1619 project. Where did that come from? What does it represent? I don't even know.
In July 2020, Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas proposed the "Saving American History Act of 2020", prohibiting K-12 schools from using federal funds to teach curriculum related to the 1619 project, and make schools that did ineligible for federal professional-development grants. Cotton added that "The 1619 Project is a racially divisive and revisionist account of history that threatens the integrity of the Union by denying the true principles on which it was founded." On September 6, 2020, Trump responded on Twitter to a claim that the State of California was implementing the 1619 project into the state's public school curriculum. Trump stated that the Department of Education was investigating the matter and, if the aforementioned claim was found true, federal funding would be withheld from Californian public schools. On September 17, Trump announced the 1776 Commission to develop a "patriotic" curriculum.
Project creator Nikole Hannah-Jones was awarded the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for the introductory essay to the 1619 Project. The award cited her "sweeping, provocative and personal essay for the ground-breaking 1619 Project, which seeks to place the enslavement of Africans at the center of America's story, prompting public conversation about the nation's founding and evolution." In October 2020, the National Association of Scholars (NAS) published an open letter with 21 signatories calling on the Pulitzer Prize Board to rescind Hannah-Jones' prize due to its claim that "protecting the institution of slavery was a primary motive for the American Revolution, a claim for which there is simply no evidence."
New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute named the 1619 Project as one of the 10 greatest works of journalism in the decade from 2010 to 2019.
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- Official website
- Print edition (2019 August). The New York Times Magazine.
- Podcast series (2019 August–October).
- “The New York Times’ 1619 Project.” World Socialist Web Site (2019–2020).
Implementation in schools
- “The 1619 Project Sparks Dialogue and Reflection in Schools Nationwide.” Pulitzer Center (2019 December 20).
- “1619 Project.” Buffalo Public Schools (2019 December).
- “The 1619 Project and Chicago Public Schools.” Chicago Public Schools (2019 September 17).
- “Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting: 2019 Annual Report.” Pulitzer Center (2020).
- “‘Your story is in the textbooks. Ours isn’t.’ Buffalo schools adopt The 1619 Project.” WBFO. NPR (2020 January 17).