The 1619 Project

By

Leonard Zwelling

Most magazine articles don’t change my point of view. Some do. Sometimes you can read a well-crafted piece that gets you to examine an issue in a whole new way. Never have I read a magazine or newspaper article that has caused me to doubt my entire view of American history. Until now.

The Sunday, August 18, 2019 issue of The New York Times Magazine is wholly devoted to a new proposal led by the person whose idea the 1619 Project was, Nikole Hannah-Jones. The hypothesis is simple. It is that the version of America’s origin that we really know, the basis for the everyday comings and goings of life in America, the essence of what America is to the people who live here did not begin on July 4, 1776. They had their origins in late August 1619 off the coast of Virginia, then a British colony, when a ship docked at Port Comfort and unloaded its cargo. People. African people kidnapped and pressed into slavery. It was the beginning of the slave trade and it was a full year before Plymouth Rock.

The entire magazine is devoted to making the case that everything from our political system, our laws, our rate of mass incarceration, our traffic jams, our culture, and our terrible health care system derived from the original American sin of slavery that began in 1619, 400 years ago.

I was not wholly convinced for some of the articles made the case better than others, but I was moved to reconsider everything I have ever believed about how America got to be America.

Let’s start with the obvious one.

Without the black struggle for full citizenship in the U.S., a struggle that persists to this day, all of the other struggles for civil rights—women, LGBTQ people, Asians, etc. would not have had a blueprint by which to operate. Taken to the personal, I had to address the fact that a generation before I went to Duke, not only couldn’t my black fraternity brothers have attended Duke, but I probably couldn’t have either.

Many of the articles focus on the South and the plantation system as groups of mass concentration camps. That they were. The inhuman cruelty that was part of the lives of generations of black people is deep in the fabric of how we treat each other today. White supremacy came from somewhere. Donald Trump came from somewhere. Ditto his supporters. Racial discrimination, police brutality, and the disproportionate number of black Americans in prison started at some time. 1619. That sounds about right.

Even the brutality that is American capitalism had its origins in slave ownership. Detailed business records were first kept by plantation owners long before Wall Street traders got MBAs. They learned to manage acres and acres of cotton or sugar fields and the free labor used to bring in the harvest.

Supposedly we have laws and amendments to the Constitution that guarantee black people the rights that all Americans are supposed to have. But is it true? There are still state legislatures using gerrymandering to minimize the impact of black voters and it’s not just in the south either. Try Wisconsin.

I learned in reading the articles that even the great Abraham Lincoln called five prominent black men to the White House. This was on August 14, 1862. The Civil War was not going well. Britain was threatening to intercede on behalf of the Confederacy. Was Lincoln going to offer emancipation to his guests? Nope. He wanted blacks to leave the country. He did not believe in black equality although he opposed slavery. Lincoln wanted to free blacks but have them leave America. But these black men knew no other country. Like today’s Dreamers, they could no more go to Africa than could the sons and daughters of illegal immigrants brought here by their parents as infants survive in Mexico.

What all of the history related in the magazine, none of which I had any knowledge of beside the story of the Tuskegee Experiment that allowed black men in the South to contract and suffer from syphilis long after the curing power of penicillin was known, is that if you think you understand what it means to be black in America, unless you are black, you probably don’t.

I would venture that many blacks are unaware of the history unearthed by the 1619 Project. Hopefully, every American will take the time to read the articles in this edition of the Times Magazine. These articles change everything—especially American history.

Until America confronts its original sin and all that derived from the slave trade including the fact that America grew powerful as a nation on the backs of those slaves when cotton was king in the world and both the South and the North where that cotton was processed into cloth got rich based on all of the free labor coming from Africa, long after Britain had outlawed slavery, America will struggle for self-understanding.

Many of the political struggles of today had their origins 400 years ago. If we don’t get that right, we will never be able to skillfully address the legacy of slavery. And not addressing it, is not an option.

Leonard Zwelling