The New York Times is speaking truth to the story we’ve been taught about the origin of the United States, and reframing it around a single pivotal historical event — the arrival 400 years ago of the first African slaves.
To commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first slaves arriving by ship at the Virginia colony, New York Times Magazine has launched what may be its magnum opus — The 1619 Project.
New York Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones is leading the project, which has been years in the making and will be ongoing for the next two years. She wrote the opening essay, entitled “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true.”
The project’s goal is to reframe the history of the U.S., understanding that 1619 is its true founding — not July 4, 1776, the officially-taught beginning of nationhood when the U.S. declared independence from Britain.
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The 1619 Project places “the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are,” Hari Sreenivasan wrote for PBS.
Of course, there will be some serious blowback. Some Euro-centric conservatives are freaking out.
Here are 10 things to know about the Nikole Hannah-Jones 1619 Project.
Hannah-Jones is an award-winning investigative reporter covering racial injustice for The New York Times Magazine. She has investigated the persistence and maintenance of racial segregation in housing and schools, and wrote one of the most widely read analyses of the racial implications of the controversial Fisher v. University of Texas affirmative action Supreme Court case.
“I see my work as forcing us to confront our hypocrisy, forcing us to confront the truth that we would rather ignore,” Hannah-Jones says on her website.
The contributions of Black Americans are the cornerstone on which the rich cultural legacy of the U.S. was built, according to the 1610 Project.
In a PBS interview, Hannah-Jones said, “We wanted to use the platform of The Times to force us to confront the reality of what slavery has meant for our development as a nation … one of things we hear all the time is, well that was in the past; why do you have to keep talking about the past? … you can look at all of these modern phenomenon that you think are unrelated to slavery at all and we are going to show you how they are.”
One of the little-known reasons that the founders wanted to break off from Britain is they were afraid that Britain was going to begin regulating slavery and maybe even move towards abolition, Hannah-Jones said in an interview. That’s not something we’re taught about in our origin stories.
“We were making so much money off of slavery that the founders wanted to be able to continue it,” Hannah-Jones said.
The 1619 Project includes a story about traffic patterns, a story about why we’re the only Western industrial country without universal health care, about why Americans consume so much sugar, about capitalism, and democracy.
President Donald Trump, who has criticized the New York Times for carrying out a “racism witch hunt” against him, tweeted angrily on Sunday.
“Journalism has reached a new low in the history of our Country. It is nothing more than an evil propaganda machine for the Democrat Party. The reporting is so false, biased and evil that it has now become a very sick joke.”
The resistance tweeted back: “The presidency has reached a new low. I’m glad journalists today keep us informed on your crimes.”
The Times’ 1619 Project clearly sucked the air out of Trumpland. Conservative commentator, journalist and never Trumper, David Frum, clapped back on Twitter that the president seemed to resent the spotlight being anywhere else but on him.
Newt Gingrich, a historian, conservative and former House Speaker, called the whole 1619 Project “a lie” during a Fox-feedback-loop interview, as reported by Media Matters.
“Look, I think slavery is a terrible thing, but…” Gingrich said. “… for most Americans, most of the time, there were a lot of other things going on. There were several hundred thousand white Americans who died in the Civil War in order to free the slaves. The fact is that I saw one reference that The New York Times claims that the American Revolution was caused in part to defend slavery. That is such historically factually false nonsense. This is a tragic decline of The New York Times into a propaganda paper worthy of Pravda or Izvestia in the Soviet Union.”
By 1776, African Americans comprised about 20 percent of the entire population in the 13 mainland colonies, according to Rosemarie Zagarri, an expert on gender and politics during the American Revolution.
Gingrich trolled Mara Gay, a member of the NY Times editorial board.
Peter Shulman, an associate professor of history at Case Western Reserve, tweeted that Gingrich has demonstrated a lack of perspective on the African slave trade.
“You wrote a dissertation about colonialism in the Belgian Congo while never going there once and only discussed the perspective of the white colonizers,” Shulman tweeted.
Trump has tweeted at least a dozen times that the New York Times is failing. That’s not true. “In Q2, we surpassed 2 million digital news subscriptions, meaning a record 3.3 million people subscribe to @nytimes,” the Times tweeted on July 27.
Trump’s public animosity for the newspaper has served as valuable free publicity for the company, Fortune reported.
Wall Street is known for money, but money derived in a way that most of us don’t recognize, Hannah-Jones reported on NPR. Enslaved people were bought and sold on Wall Street in Manhattan. “That’s been completely erased from our national memory and completely erased from the way that we think about the North,” she said. “At the time of the Civil War, New York City’s mayor actually threatened to secede from the union with the South because so much money was being made off of slave-produced cotton that was being exported out of New York City. It is that erasure I think that has prevented us from really grappling with our history and so much in modern society that we see that is still related to that.”
Slavery was introduced to Manhattan in 1626, but it was not until Dec. 13, 1711 that Wall Street became the city’s first official slave market for the sale and rental of enslaved Africans and Indians. The slave market operated until 1762 at the corner of Wall and Pearl Streets. It was a wooden structure with a roof and open sides and could hold approximately 50 men. The city directly benefited from slavery, charging taxes on every person who was bought and sold there.
Hannah-Jones, who leads the NY Times’ 1619 Project, was still in college when her grandmother died. Her grandmother grew up a sharecropper. “She would be astounded to see what I became and I think that that’s an important part of this story,” she said.
“I’m part of the first generation of Black Americans in the history of this country who was born into a country where it was not legal to discriminate against me just because I descended from people from Africa.
“We’ve made tremendous progress in a very short period of time. Really just one or two generations out of legal Jim Crow, you could have someone like me at the New York Times producing this work. And it really is a story of Black ascension once the legal barriers have been removed.”