The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story
This book uses a variety of terms to describe aspects of the era of slavery. In almost every case, the editors have avoided the word “slave” to describe persons held in bondage; the alternate term “enslaved person” accurately conveys the condition without stripping the individual of his or her humanity. In some instances where it does not refer to a person (e.g., “slave state”) and in some of the historical poetry and fiction, “slave” does appear.
The editors have also attempted to limit the use of terms that are sometimes used euphemistically, such as “plantation” or “master,” or to substitute when possible other terms that more accurately convey the historical situation of enslavement. As this book contains the work of many different authors, some of them representing different scholarly fields, there remains some heterogeneity in how these terms are deployed.
I was maybe fifteen or sixteen when I first came across the date 1619. Whenever I think about that moment, my mind conjures an image of glowing three-dimensional numbers rising from the page. Of course, in reality, they were printed in plain black text on the cheap page of a paperback. Still, while the numbers did not literally glow, I remember sitting back in my chair and staring at the date, a bit confused, thrown off-kilter by an exhilarating revelation starting to sink in.
For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated with the past. Even as a young girl, I loved watching documentaries and feature films about events that took place in a bygone era. As a middle school student, I read all of my dad’s Louis L’Amour westerns and the entire Little House series because they transported me to the mythic American frontier. I loved sitting in my grandparents’ basement, leafing through aged photo albums filled with square black-and-white images and asking questions about the long-dead relatives frozen in the frame. My favorite subjects in school were English and social studies, and I peppered my teachers with questions. History revealed the building blocks of the world I now inhabited, explaining how communities, institutions, relationships came to be. Learning history made the world make sense. It provided the key to decode all that I saw around me.
Black people, however, were largely absent from the histories I read. The vision of the past I absorbed from school textbooks, television, and the local history museum depicted a world, perhaps a wishful one, where Black people did not really exist. This history rendered Black Americans, Black people on all the earth, inconsequential at best, invisible at worst. We appeared only where unavoidable: slavery was mentioned briefly in the chapter on this nation’s most deadly war, and then Black people disappeared again for a full century, until magically reappearing as Martin Luther King, Jr., gave a speech about a dream. This quantum leap served to wrap the Black experience up in a few paragraphs and a tidy bow, never really explaining why, one hundred years after the abolition of slavery, King had to lead the March on Washington in the first place.
We were not actors but acted upon. We were not contributors, just recipients. White people enslaved us, and white people freed us. Black people could choose either to take advantage of that freedom or to squander it, as our depictions in the media seemed to suggest so many of us were doing.
The world revealed to me through my education was a white one. And yet my intimate world—my neighborhood, the friends I rode the bus with for two hours each day to and from the schools on the white side of town, the boisterous bevy of aunts, uncles, and cousins who crowded our home for barbecues and card games—was largely Black. At school, I searched desperately to find myself in the American story we were taught, to see my humanity—our humanity—reflected back to me. I snatched Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry from our elementary school library shelf because it was the one book with a Black girl on the cover. In high school, when my advanced placement English teacher assigned us a final project on a famous American literary figure, I wrote about the only Black poet I had been exposed to: Langston Hughes.
My public high school in Waterloo, Iowa, offered a one-semester elective called “The African American Experience,” which I took my sophomore year. Only other Black kids filled the seats each day, and the only Black male teacher I’d ever have taught the course. Rail-thin and mahogany-skinned, with a booming laugh that revealed the wide gap between his front teeth, Mr. Ray Dial deftly navigated our class through the ancient Mali, Songhai, Nubian, and Ghana empires (it was he who taught me that “from here to Timbuktu” referred to an African center of learning), surveying the cultures and knowledge and civilizations that existed among African peoples long before Europeans decided that millions of human beings could be forced across the ocean in the hulls of ships and then redefined as property. He taught us about Richard Allen founding the first independent Black denomination on this soil, and how hard enslaved people fought for the legal right to do things every other race took for granted, such as reading or marrying or keeping your own children. He taught us about Black resistance and Black writers. He taught us about Martin but also Marcus and Malcolm and Mamie and Fannie.
Sitting in that class each day, I felt as if I had spent my entire life struggling to breathe and someone had finally provided me with oxygen. I feel a pang of embarrassment now when I recall my surprise that so many books existed about Black people and by Black people, that Black people had so much history that could be learned. I felt at once angry and empowered, and these dueling emotions drove an appetite for learning Black American history that has never left me. I began asking Mr. Dial for books to read beyond the assigned texts, devouring them, then asking for others.
“Dr. Hannah!” he exclaimed one day, flashing his trademark toothy grin as he put a book in my hands: Before the Mayflower, by the historian and journalist Lerone Bennett, Jr. As soon as I got home that afternoon, I sat down at our dining room table and pulled it from my book bag. A few dozen pages in, I read these words:
She came out of a violent storm with a story no one believed…. A year before the arrival of the celebrated Mayflower, 113 years before the birth of George Washington, 244 years before the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, this ship sailed into the harbor at Jamestown, Virginia, and dropped anchor into the muddy waters of history. It was clear to the men who received this “Dutch man of War” that she was no ordinary vessel. What seems unusual today is that no one sensed how extraordinary she really was. For few ships, before or since, have unloaded a more momentous cargo.1
I had assumed that Before the Mayflower referred to Black people’s history in Africa before they were enslaved on this land. Tracing my fingers across the words, I realized that the title evoked not a remote African history but an American one. African people had lived here, on the land that in 1776 would form the United States, since the White Lion dropped anchor in the year 1619. They’d arrived one year before the iconic ship carrying the English people who got the credit for building it all.
Why hadn’t any teacher or textbook, in telling the story of Jamestown, taught us the story of 1619? No history can ever be complete, of course. Millions of moments, thousands of dates weave the tapestry of a country’s past. But I knew immediately, viscerally, that this was not an innocuous omission. The year white Virginians first purchased enslaved Africans, the start of American slavery, an institution so influential and corrosive that it both helped create the nation and nearly led to its demise, is indisputably a foundational historical date. And yet I’d never heard of it before.
Even as a teenager, I understood that the absence of 1619 from mainstream history was intentional. People had made the choice not to teach us the significance of the year. And it followed that many other facts of history had been ignored or suppressed as well. What else hadn’t we been taught? I was starting to figure out that the histories we learn in school or, more casually, through popular culture, monuments, and political speeches rarely teach us the facts but only certain facts.
In the United States, few examples better reveal this than how we’re taught about the foundational American institution of slavery. A 2018 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) called Teaching Hard History found that in 2017 just 8 percent of U.S. high school seniors named slavery as the central cause of the Civil War, and less than one-third knew that it had taken a constitutional amendment to abolish it. The majority of high school students can’t tell you that the famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass had once been enslaved; nor can they define the Middle Passage, which led to the forced migration of nearly 13 million people across the Atlantic and transformed—or, arguably, enabled—the existence of the United States.2
Considering the confusing and obfuscatory way school curricula tend to address the institution of slavery, this is unsurprising. Myriad examples exist. As recently as six years ago, a McGraw-Hill world geography textbook referred to African people brought to the Americas in the bowels of slave ships not as the victims of a forced migration who were violently coerced into labor but as “workers,” a word that implies consensual and paid labor.3 Within the last decade, Alabama social studies courses for second graders listed Harriet Tubman, the woman who became famous for escaping slavery and then helping others do the same, as an “exemplary” American without ever mentioning the words “slave” or “slavery.”4 In Texas, which, because of its large population, plays an outsized role in shaping the content of national textbooks, the Republican-led state board of education approved curriculum standards that equated the Confederate general Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, who fought against the United States government, with Douglass as examples of “the importance of effective leadership in a constitutional republic.”5
School curricula generally treat slavery as an aberration in a free society, and textbooks largely ignore the way that many prominent men, women, industries, and institutions profited from and protected slavery.6 Individual enslaved people, as full humans, with feelings, thoughts, and agency, remain largely invisible, but for the occasional brief mention of Douglass or Tubman or George Washington Carver.
One of the reasons American children so poorly understand the history and legacy of slavery is because the adults charged with teaching them don’t know it very well, either. A 2019 Washington Post–SSRS poll found that only about half of American adults realize that all thirteen colonies engaged in slavery.7 Even educators struggle with basic facts of history, the SPLC report found: only about half of U.S. teachers understand that enslavers dominated the presidency in the decades after the founding and would dominate the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. Senate until the Civil War.8 Of more than seventeen hundred social studies teachers surveyed in the SPLC study, “a bare majority say they feel competent to teach about slavery. Most say that the available resources and preparation programs have failed them.”9 As the renowned slavery historian Ira Berlin wrote in an essay in Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory, “The simple truth is that most Americans know little about the three-hundred-year history of slavery in mainland North America with respect to peoples of African descent and almost nothing of its effect on the majority of white Americans.”10
Berlin, who was white and who died in 2018, contributed to a wave of important research and scholarship in the past fifty years, much of it by Black historians, that challenged those prevailing views about American history. The work of these scholars, who were often inspired to ask new questions about our past by focusing on primary source material inaccessible to or ignored by previous generations, has made clear the central role that slavery and anti-Blackness played in the development of our society and its institutions. To argue otherwise, among professional historians, is now widely understood to be anachronistic and ahistorical.
But this scholarship, so uncontroversial among historians, has often struggled to permeate mainstream understanding of American history, which is still wedded to a mythology of our founders as unimpeachable heroes and our founding as divine event. There is, as the historian Jelani Cobb told me, a “gap between the academy and the world. So while scholars of color and progressive white scholars have spent decades fighting and, for the most part, winning these battles in the academy and in the profession, they’ve remained isolated from the rest of the world.”11 As a result, the American public has an outdated and vague sense of the past. And yet the 2019 Washington Post poll found that despite their meager knowledge of slavery, two-thirds of Americans believe that the legacy of slavery still affects our society today. They can see and feel the truth of this fact—they just haven’t learned a history that helps them understand how and why.12
“We are committing educational malpractice,” says Hasan Kwame Jeffries, a historian at Ohio State University.13 Jeffries served as chair of the advisory board that produced the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Hard History report. “Our preference for nostalgia and for a history that never happened is not without consequence,” Jeffries writes. “Although we teach [students] that slavery happened…in some cases, we minimize slavery’s significance so much that we render its impact—on people and on the nation—inconsequential.” This, Jeffries continues, “is profoundly troubling” because it leaves Americans ill-equipped to understand racial inequality today, and that, in turn, leads to intolerance, opposition to efforts to address racial injustice, and the enacting of laws and policies detrimental to Black communities and America writ large. “Our narrow understanding of the institution…prevents us from seeing this long legacy and leads policymakers to try to fix people instead of addressing the historically rooted causes of their problems,” he notes.14
In other words, we all suffer for the poor history we’ve been taught.
At the start of 2019, two and a half decades after I first learned of the year 1619 in the pages of a book my teacher gave me, most Americans still did not know that date. As the four-hundred-year anniversary approached that August, I understood that, like so much of the uncomfortable history of our country, this momentous date would likely come and go with little acknowledgment of its significance. But by 2019, I was no longer a curious teenager attending a public high school in a small Midwestern town. I now worked at one of the most powerful media institutions in the world. I wanted to try to use that global platform to help force a confrontation with our past and the foundations upon which this country was built.
I made a simple pitch to my editors: The New York Times Magazine should create a special issue that would mark the four-hundredth anniversary by exploring the unparalleled impact of African slavery on the development of our country and its continuing impact on our society. The issue would bring slavery and the contributions of Black Americans from the margins of the American story to the center, where they belong, by arguing that slavery and its legacy have profoundly shaped modern American life, even as that influence had been shrouded or discounted. The issue would pose and answer these questions: What would it mean to reframe our understanding of U.S. history by considering 1619 as our country’s origin point, the birth of our defining contradictions, the seed of so much of what has made us unique? How might that reframing change how we understand the unique problems of the nation today—its stark economic inequality, its violence, its world-leading incarceration rates, its shocking segregation, its political divisions, its stingy social safety net? How might it help us understand the country’s best qualities, developed over a centuries-long struggle for freedom, equality, and pluralism, a struggle whose DNA could also be traced to 1619? How would looking at contemporary American life through this lens help us better appreciate the contributions of Black Americans—not only to our culture but also to our democracy itself? I wanted to do for other Americans what reading Lerone Bennett’s book, and absorbing decades of scholarship on Black American history, had done for me. I wanted people to know the date 1619 and to contemplate what it means that slavery predates nearly every other institution in the United States. I wanted them to be transformed by this understanding, as I have been.
As soon as I received the green light, I reached out to nearly two dozen scholars covering the fields of history, economics, law, sociology, and the arts who specialize in slavery and its legacy and convened a brainstorming session at The New York Times. I asked them to help us produce a list of modern American institutions and phenomena that could be traced back to slavery. We filled a whiteboard with ideas, and then over the next six months, the magazine worked to create a project that would try to unflinchingly tell a four-hundred-year story that connected the past to the present.
Every day, I felt the weight of this responsibility and the height of the stakes. I immersed myself in the sorrow of the suffering of millions of Black people and the depravity of those who visited that suffering upon them, but also in the audacious resistance and resilience of Black Americans. I read every word of the project, I looked at every image. On the day when we printed the pages of the magazine and tacked them to the wall to review before publishing the issue, I turned to my dear friend Wesley Morris, who had written an essay about music for the project. We wrapped our arms around each other and sobbed.
The night before publication, sleep taunted, refusing to grant me grace. As I lay in bed, my mind flicked back to that teenage girl in high school, the daughter and granddaughter of people born onto a repurposed slave-labor camp in the deepest South, people who could not have imagined their progeny would one day rise to a position to bring forth such a project. I also worried: What if we told a story that centered slavery and Black Americans and, well, no one read it? What if despite all of our work, no one actually cared?
On Sunday, August 18, the day we published the magazine in print, tweets and Instagram posts and videos began popping up all over the country. People were telling stories of going to store after store in search of it only to find all the copies of the Sunday New York Times sold out. A man in North Carolina posted a video of himself looking giddy, his fingers wrapped around the magazine, saying he’d driven miles but he’d finally snagged a copy. Parents stashed copies away to pass on to their children. Incarcerated people wrote to me, seeking the issue. Over the coming weeks, readers started holding 1619 reading clubs, and the #1619 hashtag on Instagram showed teachers decorating their classrooms with 1619 Project art and families baking 1619 Project cookies. Across the country, at libraries, museums, cultural centers, and schools, people gathered to talk about the 1619 Project and slavery’s impact on America. Then–U.S. Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer spoke about the project in the Capitol Visitor Center’s Emancipation Hall. He related a story I told in my opening essay about my father and the American flag. In the run-up to the 2020 presidential election, Democrats seeking the nomination mentioned the project in their speeches.
Educators in all fifty states began teaching a curriculum based on the project, and I met hundreds of high school students who, somewhat breathlessly, recounted the same off-kilter sense of exhilaration while reading the 1619 Project that I had felt reading Before the Mayflower. Black students, especially, told me that for the first time in their lives, they’d experienced a feeling usually reserved for white Americans: a sense of ownership of, belonging in, and influence over the American story. Arterah Griggs, who attended a public high school in Chicago, the first district in the country to make the project part of its curriculum, told a reporter from the Chicago Sun-Times what the project helped her realize: “We were the founding fathers. We put so much into the U.S. and we made the foundation.” Another student, Brenton Sykes, said, “Now that I’m aware of the full history of America without it being whitewashed or anything, it kind of makes me see things in a different light. I feel like I have to carry myself better because I know what my ancestors went through.”15
I will never forget the woman I met after giving a talk in New Orleans, one of the most brutal slave-trading cities in our country. Almost ninety years old, she came up and hugged me, wiping her eyes as she thanked me for helping birth a project that had allowed her to release the shame that comes with being told that the only thing Black people have contributed to this country is our brute labor. “I always knew the truth,” she told me. “But I didn’t have the facts of what happened.”
On one of my last trips before the pandemic, I brought my nine-year-old daughter, Najya, with me to a talk I gave at the university that Thomas Jefferson founded in Charlottesville, Virginia, a university built largely by enslaved people to educate the sons of the men who owned them. Before the lecture, we took a walk through the town square, where we saw the site of a slave auction block, and we marveled, her hand in mine, at some numbers recently scrawled on the lamppost by the placard marking the spot: 1619.
As the reach of the 1619 Project grew, so did the backlash. A small group of historians publicly attempted to discredit the project by challenging its historical interpretations and pointing to what they said were historical errors. They did not agree with our framing, which treated slavery and anti-Blackness as foundational to America. They did not like our assertion that Black Americans have served as this nation’s most ardent freedom fighters and have waged their battles mostly alone, or the idea that so much of modern American life has been shaped not by the majestic ideals of our founding but by its grave hypocrisy. And they especially did not like a paragraph I wrote about the motivations of the colonists who declared independence from Britain.
“Conveniently left out of our founding mythology,” that paragraph began, “is the fact 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.” Later, in response to other scholars who believed we hadn’t been specific enough and to clarify that this sentence had never been meant to imply that every single colonist shared this motivation, we changed the sentence to read “some of the colonists.” But that mattered little to some of our critics. The linking of slavery and the American Revolution directly challenged the cornerstone of national identity embedded in our public history, the narratives taught to us in elementary schools, museums and memorials, Hollywood movies, and in many scholarly works as well.16
The assertions about the role slavery played in the American Revolution shocked many of our readers. But these assertions came directly from academic historians who had been making this argument for decades. Plainly, the historical ideas and arguments in the 1619 Project were not new.17 We based them on the wealth of scholarship that has redefined the field of American history since at least the 1960s, including Benjamin Quarles’s landmark book The Negro in the American Revolution, first published in 1961; Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877; Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family; and Alan Taylor’s The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772–1832. What seemed to provoke so much ire was that we had breached the wall between academic history and popular understanding, and we had done so in The New York Times, the paper of record, in a major multimedia project led by a Black woman.
The project came under intense scrutiny, as should any major work that seeks to disrupt conventional narratives. Those outside the academy tend to think of history as settled, as a simple recounting of what events happened on what date and who was involved in those incidents. But while history is what happened, it is also, just as important, how we think about what happened and what we unearth and choose to remember about what happened. Historians gather at conferences, present research, and argue, debate, and quibble over interpretations of fact and emphasis all the time. Scholars regularly publish articles that analyze, question, or disagree with the respected and peer-reviewed work of their colleagues. As Mary Ellen Hicks, a historian and Black studies scholar, wrote in a Twitter thread, “The discussions about the 1619 project…have made me realize that historians may have missed an opportunity to demystify the production of scholarly knowledge for the public. The unsexy answer is that we produce constantly evolving interpretations, not facts.” Hicks explained that historians can look at the same set of facts—President Lincoln’s public remarks on colonization, for example—and come to different conclusions about whether his speeches reflected his personal views on repatriating Black Americans outside the United States or that he was simply engaging in a political strategy to avoid scaring away white moderates who opposed both slavery and Black citizenship. “The reality is,” she wrote, “a valid interpretation could come down on both sides of the issue.”18
But some who opposed the 1619 Project treated a few scholars’ disagreements with certain claims and arguments as justification to dismiss the entire work as factually inaccurate, even as other equally prominent scholars defended and confirmed our facts and interpretations.
In truth, most of the fights over the 1619 Project were never really about the facts. The Princeton historian Allen C. Guelzo, a particularly acerbic critic, published several articles that denounced the 1619 Project for treating “slavery not as a blemish that the Founders grudgingly tolerated…not as a regrettable chapter in the distant past, but as a living, breathing pattern upon which all American social life is based.” Guelzo then made clear that the source of his antipathy was not just what the project was saying but who was saying it: “It is the bitterest of ironies that the 1619 Project dispenses this malediction from the chair of ultimate cultural privilege in America, because in no human society has an enslaved people suddenly found itself vaulted into positions of such privilege, and with the consent—even the approbation—of those who were once the enslavers.”19
In the months after the project was published, the opposition went from broadsides from critics to government attempts to prevent the project from being taught in schools and universities. In July 2020, a prominent U.S. senator, Tom Cotton, introduced a bill called the “Saving American History Act,” which sought to strip federal funding from public schools teaching the 1619 Project.20 More than a dozen Republican legislatures have introduced similar bills, including in my home state of Iowa and my dad’s home state of Mississippi. (Both of those bills failed; the Cotton bill went nowhere.)
In September 2020, after a summer that saw the largest protest movement for racial justice in our country’s history, President Trump, who’d railed against the 1619 Project, used an executive order to hastily convene what he called the 1776 Commission. This group spent weeks assembling its report, which Trump released as one of the last acts of his presidency, on Martin Luther King Day. Written without input from any scholars who specialize in American history, it sought to reinforce the exceptional nature of our country, and to put forth a “patriotic” narrative that downplays racism and inequality and emphasizes a unity predicated on seeing slavery, segregation, and ongoing racial injustice as aberrations in a fundamentally just and exceptionally free nation.21
The commission faced wide condemnation, with forty-seven groups representing academic historians signing a statement drawn up by the American Historical Association that accused the commission of issuing a report “written hastily in one month after two desultory and tendentious ‘hearings,’ without any consultation with professional historians of the United States” and failing “to engage a rich and vibrant body of scholarship that has evolved over the last seven decades.”22 President Joe Biden rescinded the executive order in one of his first acts in office.23 But by July 2021, regulations enforcing the ideology of the 1776 Commission and/or seeking to ban the teaching of the 1619 Project and teaching about racism had either been enacted or were being considered in eighteen states.24 Republican legislators in Texas introduced the 1836 Project, named after the year Texas declared independence from Mexico in order to found a slaveholding republic.25 That project seeks to establish a “patriotic education” in public schools. In other words, many people want laws passed that would ensure that students continue to learn the version of American history that American children have always been taught.
What these bills make clear is that the fights over the 1619 Project, like most fights over history, at their essence are about power. “Why would we expect the nation’s power structure even to acknowledge, much less come to terms with, such a dark and formative chapter in our collective family history?” the renowned historian Peter H. Wood wrote in a 1999 paper on slavery and denial. “After all, as several eminent academics have recently reminded us, ‘nations need to control national memory, because nations keep their shape by shaping their citizens’ understanding of the past.’ ”26
As Frederick Douglass wrote in his 1892 autobiography, “The story of the master never wanted for narrators. The masters, to tell their story, had at call all the talent and genius that wealth and influence could command. They have had their full day in court. Literature, theology, philosophy, law and learning have come willingly to their service, and if condemned, they have not been condemned unheard.”
Our part, as Douglass said, “has been to tell the story of the slave.”27
After the special issue’s publication, as people across the political spectrum debated the 1619 Project, we began to think about turning it into a book. With more time, we knew, we could create a more fully realized version of the project, with additional contributors exploring a broader range of subjects. We wanted to learn from the discussions that surfaced after the project’s publication and address the criticisms some historians offered in good faith, using them as road maps for further study. For example, we expanded the essay on slavery and American capitalism to include important material on the constitutional bases of property rights. We added more nuance to a section on the evolution of President Lincoln’s racial views in my opening essay, and we included more information in other chapters about slavery elsewhere in the Americas that predated 1619. We also added seven new essays written by historians, on subjects ranging from slavery and the Second Amendment to settler colonialism and the expansion of slavery to how the Haitian Revolution helped to deeply embed fear of Black Americans in the national psyche.28 And we substantially expanded, revised, and refined the project’s original ten essays and added a final essay, written by me, on the subject of economic justice, which brings the book to a close with a look to future solutions. The literary timeline that imagines moments in the history of slavery, anti-Blackness, resistance, and struggle has also been expanded. It now consists of thirty-six original works of fiction and poetry by some of this nation’s most profound Black writers, which through a chorus of voices try to tell a story of the past four hundred years. The book opens with a poem by Claudia Rankine on the arrival of the White Lion in 1619 and closes with a poem by Sonia Sanchez on the murder of George Floyd and the 2020 protest movement it spawned. We also added a series of photographic portraits, some from the distant past, some contemporary, of regular Black Americans, the descendants of American slavery, who have lived through all this history with resilience, beauty, pride, and a humanity that is too often unrecognized.
Just like the original project, the book relies heavily on historical scholarship, but is not a conventional history. Instead, it combines history with journalism, criticism, and imaginative literature to show how history molds, influences, and haunts us in the present. This essential feature of American life, the way our unreconciled past continues to affect our present, has been made starkly apparent in the two years since we first published the 1619 Project. During that time, the nation witnessed the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others, highlighting the long legacy of state violence against Black Americans. When the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, Black people suffered disproportionately severe health outcomes, mirroring an enduring legacy of racially driven medical and health disparities: in 2020, Covid-19 slashed the life expectancy of Black men by three years and eliminated ten years of progress toward narrowing the life-expectancy gap between Black and white Americans. And there were the efforts by President Donald Trump and his followers to undermine a free and fair 2020 presidential election—one where high Black turnout in key heavily Black cities would largely determine the results. That, along with the introduction of hundreds of voter suppression laws by Republican lawmakers, demonstrated once again the belief among some white people that Black and other non-white Americans are illegitimate voters, a racist and undemocratic position that has plagued the country since the end of the Civil War. Another echo of the past: in the face of this attempted disenfranchisement, Black voters organized and overcame efforts to suppress their votes in an election where many feared that the nation was careening toward authoritarianism, showing yet again the vital and unparalleled role of Black people in preserving our democracy.
The legacy of 1619 surrounds us, whether we acknowledge it or not. This is why, in assembling this book, we have described the history it offers as an origin story. Like all origin stories, this one seeks to explain our society to itself, to give some order to the series of dates, actions, and individuals that created a nation and a people. In doing so, we argue that much about American identity, so many of our nation’s most vexing problems, our basest inclinations, and its celebrated and unique cultural contributions spring not from the ideals of 1776 but from the realities of 1619, from the contradictions and the ideological struggles of a nation founded on both slavery and freedom. The story of Black America cannot be disentangled from the story of America, and our attempts to do so have forced us to tell ourselves a tale full of absences, evasions, and lies, one that fails to satisfactorily explain the society we live in and leaves us unable to become the society we want to be.
The typical origin story of the United States begins with scrappy colonists inspired by noble ideals declaring independence and launching the American Revolution. In this version, “the American Revolution is a timeless story of the defense of freedom and the rights of all humankind,” write the editors of the anthology Remembering the Revolution: Memory, History, and Nation Making from Independence to the Civil War. For centuries, this story has worked as a powerful source of national cohesion for white Americans. “Today Americans most often recall tales of a Revolution led by a group of ‘demigods’ who towered above their fellow colonists, led them into a war against tyranny, and established a democratic nation dedicated to the proposition that all men were endowed by their creator with equal rights,” the editors continue. “Above all, it is the story of the founding of a nation.”29
Many historians have been seduced by the desire to manage the story of our founding, protecting our identity as an exceptional, fundamentally just nation, the freest in the history of the world. “Our memory of the past is often managed and manipulated,” according to the historian Gary B. Nash.30 The revolutionary period remains “a sacred relic.”31 “Even for many white liberal historians, the Revolution is the last thing that people let go of,” says Woody Holton, a scholar whose work centers on the role of slavery in the American Revolution.32
But for Black Americans, the traditional origin story has never rung true. Black Americans understand that we have been taught the history of a country that does not exist. What I have heard again and again since the original project was published is that the 1619 Project, for many people, finally made America make sense.
As the Howard University historian Ana Lucia Araujo writes in Slavery in the Age of Memory, “despite its ambitions of objectivity,” public history is molded by the perspectives of the most powerful members of society. And in the United States, public history has often been “racialized, gendered and interwoven in the fabric of white supremacy.”33 Yet it is still posed as objective. “History is the fruit of power,” writes Michel-Rolph Trouillot in Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, and “the ultimate mark of power may be its invisibility; the ultimate challenge, the exposition of its roots.”34 In exposing our nation’s troubled roots, the 1619 Project challenges us to think about a country whose exceptionalism we treat as the unquestioned truth. It asks us to consider who sets and shapes our shared national memory and what and who gets left out. As the Pulitzer Prize–winning historian David W. Blight writes in Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, our nation’s “glorious remembrance” is “all but overwhelmed by an even more glorious forgetting.”35
Not all Americans have been so willing to forget. Black Americans, because of our particular experience in this land, because we have borne the brunt of this forgetting, are less given to mythologizing America’s past than white Americans. How do you romanticize a revolution made possible by the forced labor of your ancestors, one that built white freedom on a Black slavery that would persist for another century after Jefferson wrote “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”? I put it something like this a few years ago, while reporting on school resegregation in Alabama: white Americans desire to be free of a past they do not want to remember, while Black Americans remain bound to a past they can never forget.36
This is why the memories and perspectives of Black Americans have so often been marginalized and erased from the larger narrative of this nation: we are the stark reminders of some of its most damning truths. Eight in ten Black people would not be in the United States were it not for the institution of slavery in a society founded on ideals of freedom. Our nation obscures and diminishes this history because it shames us. During the Revolution and in the decades after, Black Americans such as Sojourner Truth, John Brown Russwurm, and Ida B. Wells used the rhetoric of freedom and universal rights espoused by white colonists and enshrined in our founding documents to reveal this nation’s grave hypocrisies. In 1852, as white Americans commemorated this nation’s founding, Frederick Douglass reminded them that millions of their countrymen and -women suffered in absolute bondage:
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.37
During World War II, as white Americans prided themselves on the fight to liberate Europe, Black Americans launched the Double V for Victory campaign to remind this nation that Black soldiers who were fighting abroad in a Jim Crow military also sought victory against the fascism they experienced at home. And more recently, when millions of white Americans expressed shock that violent insurrectionists would try to overturn an election in the “world’s oldest democracy,” Black Americans reminded them that violent efforts to subvert U.S. democracy were not novel nor unprecedented and that true democracy has been attempted in this country only since 1965, when after a bloody and deadly decades-long Black freedom struggle, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act.
Our myths have not served us well. We are the most unequal of the Western democracies. We incarcerate our citizens at the highest rates. We suffer the greatest income inequality. Americans’ life spans are shorter than those of the people in the nations we compare ourselves to. The 1619 Project seeks to explain this present-day reality and challenge these myths not to tear down or further divide this country, as some critics suggest, but so that we can truly become the country we already claim to be. Whether we grapple with these ugly truths or not, they affect us still. The 1619 Project is not the only origin story of this country—there must be many—but it is one that helps us fundamentally understand the nation’s persistent inequalities in ways the more familiar origin story cannot. With this project, we work toward a country that, in the words of Douglass, “shall not brand the Declaration of Independence as a lie.”38 If we are a truly great nation, the truth cannot destroy us.
On the contrary, facing the truth liberates us to build the society we wish to be. One of the criticisms of the project is that we focus too much on the brutality of slavery and our nation’s legacy of anti-Blackness. But just as central to the history we are highlighting is the way that Black Americans have managed, out of the most inhumane circumstances, to make an indelible impact on the United States, serving as its most ardent freedom fighters and forgers of culture. The enslaved and their descendants played a central role in shaping our institutions, our intellectual traditions, our music, art, and literature, our very democracy. The struggle of Black Americans to force this country to live up to its professed ideals has served as inspiration to oppressed people across the globe. Too long have we shrouded and overlooked these singular contributions. They form a legacy of which every American should be proud.
I am reminded of a story that the famed sociologist, civil rights activist, and writer W.E.B. Du Bois related in his 1939 sociological study Black Folk Then and Now. He recounted watching a talk to the graduating class of Atlanta University in which the scholar Franz Boas regaled the students with stories of the Black kingdoms of Africa. Du Bois had by then earned a PhD from Harvard University, the first Black person to ever do so, and was teaching at historically Black Atlanta University at the time. “I was too astonished to speak,” he recalled. “All of this I had never heard and I came then and afterwards to realize how the silence and neglect of science can let truth utterly disappear or even be unconsciously distorted.”39
Du Bois had described the same experience I would endure some five decades later in high school. But perhaps new generations will tell a different story. Last year, after many years without any courses dedicated to Black history, my old high school began once again offering “The African American Experience.” Our history is still optional: it remains an elective. But in that class, students now study the work of a girl from Waterloo who took that course all those years ago and would remain forever changed by the date 1619.
A Note about This Book
Preface: Origins by Nikole Hannah-Jones
The White Lion, poem by Claudia Rankine
Chapter 1: Democracy by Nikole Hannah-Jones
Daughters of Azimuth, poem by Nikky Finney
Loving Me, poem by Vievee Francis
Chapter 2: Race by Dorothy Roberts
Conjured, poem by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers
A Ghazalled Sentence After “My People…Hold on” by Eddie Kendricks and the Negro Act of 1740, poem by Terrance Hayes
Chapter 3: Sugar by Khalil Gibran Muhammad
First to Rise, poem by Yusef Komunyakaa
Proof [dear Phillis], poem by Eve L. Ewing
Chapter 4: Fear by Leslie Alexander and Michelle Alexander
Freedom Is Not for Myself Alone, fiction by Robert Jones, Jr.
Other Persons, poem by Reginald Dwayne Betts
Chapter 5: Dispossession by Tiya Miles
Trouble the Water, fiction by Barry Jenkins
Sold South, fiction by Jesmyn Ward
Chapter 6: Capitalism by Matthew Desmond
Fort Mose, poem by Tyehimba Jess
Before His Execution, poem by Tim Seibles
Chapter 7: Politics by Jamelle Bouie
We as People, poem by Cornelius Eady
A Letter to Harriet Hayden, monologue by Lynn Nottage
Chapter 8: Citizenship by Martha S. Jones
The Camp, fiction by Darryl Pinckney
An Absolute Massacre, fiction by ZZ Packer
Chapter 9: Self-Defense by Carol Anderson
Like to the Rushing of a Mighty Wind, poem by Tracy K. Smith
no car for colored [+] ladies (or, miss wells goes off [on] the rails), poem by Evie Shockley
Chapter 10: Punishment by Bryan Stevenson
Race Riot, poem by Forrest Hamer
Greenwood, poem by Jasmine Mans
Chapter 11: Inheritance by Trymaine Lee
The New Negro, poem by A. Van Jordan
Bad Blood, fiction by Yaa Gyasi
Chapter 12: Medicine by Linda Villarosa
1955, poem by Danez Smith
From Behind the Counter, fiction by Terry McMillan
Chapter 13: Church by Anthea Butler
Youth Sunday, poem by Rita Dove
On “Brevity”, poem by Camille T. Dungy
Chapter 14: Music by Wesley Morris
Quotidian, poem by Natasha Trethewey
The Panther Is a Virtual Animal, poem by Joshua Bennett
Chapter 15: Healthcare by Jeneen Interlandi
Unbought, Unbossed, Unbothered, fiction by Nafissa Thompson-Spires
Crazy When You Smile, poem by Patricia Smith
Chapter 16: Traffic by Kevin M. Kruse
Rainbows Aren’t Real, Are They?, fiction by Kiese Laymon
A Surname to Honor Their Mother, poem by Gregory Pardlo
Chapter 17: Progress by Ibram X. Kendi
At the Superdome After the Storm Has Passed, poem by Clint Smith
Mother and Son, fiction by Jason Reynolds
Chapter 18: Justice by Nikole Hannah-Jones
Progress Report, poem by Sonia Sanchez