I wasn’t planning to borrow from Kinsey’s occasional tendency of reviewing something that everyone has already read and talked about, but Rebecca assured me that it hadn’t crossed her path until I told her about it.
So…the 1619 Project:
In August of 1619, a ship appeared on this horizon, near Point Comfort, a coastal port in the British colony of Virginia. It carried more than 20 enslaved Africans, who were sold to the colonists. No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the years of slavery that followed. On the 400th anniversary of this fateful moment, it is finally time to tell our story truthfully.
The more I read as an adult, the more I realize just how sanitized the history I was taught was, and most particularly when it comes to slavery. This project is a collection of writing looking at the history of slavery, how it has roots in every sector of our country, and the ongoing harm it does today. It includes over a dozen pieces – mostly written essays but also poems, short works of fiction, and photo essays. It is large in scope, both in size and range of topics, and it is a daunting read that I honestly wasn’t sure I could manage.*
Then I started seeing some of the buckwild responses from conservatives who very clearly had not read any of it, and decided that I had to read it, out of spite if nothing else (for proof of what I’ll read out of spite, see Atlas Shrugged). And no lie, it is a hard read, though I suspect less difficult for black readers, who may mostly feel relieved to see published acknowledgement of what they already knew. I’ve set myself to read just one of the entries each day, so I’m only four in at the point of this review, but I feel like every sentence hits me like a ton of bricks:
This violence was meant to terrify and control black people, but perhaps just as important, it served as a psychological balm for white supremacy: You would not treat human beings this way. The extremity of the violence was a symptom of the psychological mechanism necessary to absolve white Americans of their country’s original sin.
— from “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true.” by Nikole Hannah-Jones
During slavery, “Americans built a culture of speculation unique in its abandon,” writes the historian Joshua Rothman in his 2012 book, “Flush Times and Fever Dreams.” That culture would drive cotton production up to the Civil War, and it has been a defining characteristic of American capitalism ever since. It is the culture of acquiring wealth without work, growing at all costs and abusing the powerless. It is the culture that brought us the Panic of 1837, the stock-market crash of 1929 and the recession of 2008. It is the culture that has produced staggering inequality and undignified working conditions.
— from “In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation.” by Matthew Desmond
It is discouraging to face the degree to which slavery has permeated every aspect of our culture, and heartbreaking to read over the history with its many missed opportunities to have chosen the moral path. Rebecca told me a proverb a while ago that has resonated: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”
I am so angry that generation after generation knew they were committing atrocities but chose to bury it in propaganda that has grown to corrupt the entire country, bringing us to the breaking point we are at now. What could our country have looked like if those first colonists had welcomed the first 20 Africans as much-needed neighbors and partners to help them settle and farm?
However, I very much hope that through publishing this project, and having people read it and continue to discuss it, we can do the work that so many previous generations evaded, so that future generations won’t curse us the way I’m cursing our forefathers.
Edited to add: USA Today has a devastating infographic illustrating the sheer numbers we are talking about here.
*For what it is worth, I found it easier to navigate on my phone than on my laptop, since the mobile design is more linear for ease of scrolling. The New York Times calls it ‘interactive’ but I think that mostly refers to the unusual scrolling layout on the website than any sort of “audience participation” aspect.