The New York Times Project 1619 arrived in August 2019 – sort of just over two years ago – and created a speech that almost obscured the thing itself. This speech, in its third year of life, produced an extremely lumpy tote of cultural byproducts: mentions in state, local, and federal bills to ban the project from being taught in schools; response interviews with prestigious and critical historians from 1619 on the Trotskyist World Socialist Web Site (?); an exceptionally lively debate between two historians of the founding days of the Massachusetts Historical Society; and, recently, a lengthy essay explaining the origins of the project and setting it in centuries of American historiography, by Times Magazine editor-in-chief Jake Silverstein. The speech draped the project’s creator, Nikole Hannah-Jones, already a respected journalist, with all of his awards; the speech also made its presence on college and high school campuses a culture war issue.
This is all so unusual when it comes to the reception of historical media that I find it hard to think of an analogue. Most Historical Book Authors and Filmmakers with New History Documentaries Only to wish. As William Hogeland recently wrote for Slate, Project 1619 elicited such a reaction in part because of its message, which upset the kind of people who have severe and untreated Founding Fathers addictions, but in part because of the way the place and manner of its publication has collapsed all contexts: academia, traditional media, social media, education, politics. “One random summer Sunday the New York Times Magazine, of all things, unveiled to its general audience of intermediate readers what appeared to be a rough reframing of the entire history of the nation,” so it was. as Hogeland said.
The ideas of 1619, many of which are quite familiar to anyone who has followed academic history over the past several decades, may have landed as they did because of the Times platform and its unique cultural position. . But it was a tremendous act of synthesis and translation on the part of Hannah-Jones and the Times. A prestigious journal awarded fictional and non-fiction pieces about ideas that had evolved within the academy to excellent writers, wrapped it all up, gave it a nice artistic treatment and called it a ” project”. Not a book, not a museum exhibit, not a podcast – a project, a project that had a very easy-to-remember elevator speech: “Not 1776-1619.”
Turns out that setting was awesome: tacky, provocative, generative. The speech proved it. Now the project has turned into a book: The 1619 project: a new origin story. With that, the editors (Hannah-Jones, Caitlin Roper, Ilena Silverman and Silverstein) tried to respond to many of the criticisms leveled at the project while it was still a magazine special issue – a past iteration that Silverstein, in his recent essay contextualization, called “first effort.” The new book is much, much longer than the magazine version, and easier to read, despite its weight. The timeline pages provide a necessary chronological anchor for the essays, moving forward and backward in time. The magazine issue had chronological elements, but in the book the maps proliferated, with many new key events added: the passage by the Virginia House of Burgesses of the law that established the doctrine of partus sequitur ventrem, 1662; the proclamation of Lord Dunmore, 1775; the first gathering of black activists that would become known as the Colored Conventions, 1830.
Poetry and fiction run throughout the book and draw on the events of the timeline maps, providing more grounding in the âdates and namesâ of the story – an interesting tip, given the thematic nature of the essays; it might otherwise be easy to get lost. The shorter magazine sidebar essays appear to have been cut, or in some cases absorbed or accommodated in the longer essays, making things much more pleasantly symmetrical. There are seven new thematic essays in the book, bringing the total number to 17, and 19 new works of fiction and poetry, or 36.
Here is the line from Hannah-Jones’ opening essay that caused the most Strm und drang among historians after the publication of the magazine: “The fact that one of the main reasons the settlers decided to declare their independence from Great Britain was to protect the institution from slavery was conveniently excluded from our mythology founder. A few months after the publication of the special issue of the magazine, after strong protests from some greats of the historical profession, these settlers declaring independence acquired a qualifying prefix (“some of”) in the digital version of the trial. This change applies to the book, as noted and explained by Hannah-Jones in the introduction to the book. Other additions to this second version include additional context on slavery in other parts of the Americas, explorations of how the Haitian revolution affected American slave owners, and what Hannah-Jones called ” more nuance âon Abraham Lincoln’s views on race, added to his opening essay.
Of the additions, I liked the essay on “Dispossession,” a story of the overlap between indigenous and black oppression, by Tiya Miles the most. Miles had two short articles in the magazine issue, and is one of my favorite writers, whose recent book on “Ashley’s Sack” left me weak. (The fact that Ashley and her bag do not appear in this new book simply shows that Project 1619, even in its expanded form, will never be more than a portal to the many other stories, micro- and macro, of American Slavery That Academics Have Produced Over The Past Decades.) An essay on “The Church” by Anthea Butler, which opens with Barack Obama’s betrayal of Reverend Jeremiah Wright, goes back in time and advances until Reverend Raphael Warnock’s election to the Senate in 2021, provides critical context to the history of black resistance to white supremacy (a story that is, in general, greatly amplified in the new Project 1619) . A short fiction by Darryl Pinckney about reading the Emancipation Proclamation on Union-occupied Port Royal Island in South Carolina, which the author expanded from its even shorter form in the magazine, probably should be a movie. Jamelle Bouie’s essay on democracy, from the magazine, found here in a section titled “Politics,” has been wrapped in the new context of 2020 which only shows how right he was to call the tension reactionary in American politics which perceives only certain (white, landowner) voters to be legitimate.
If I have a problem with this mosaic of a book, which achieves the impossible on so many levels – going from argument to fiction to argument, from theme to theme, and back and forth in time, so easily – this is the amount of 2020 in this. Leslie Alexander and Michelle Alexander’s essay on “Fear”, new in the book, begins with George Floyd and looks back at white Americans’ reactions to events like the Haitian revolution, the Nat Turner uprising, the black vote. during reconstruction and the surge in black civil rights activism in the mid-20th century. It ends on a note of hope, with the protests of 2020. âMaybe our nation is finally starting to face our history,â they ask. As the authors finished this work, they couldn’t figure out what 2021 would bring – how much moderate Democrats would torpedo police reform, how ‘anti-CRT’ would assert itself as a new racist reaction code, how even the reception of the project itself would suggest a nation that would do anything not face its story.
But if The 1619 project– the product of so many minds thinking in so many directions – has one overriding argument, and that is that things don’t change in a linear fashion. The next edition will, I’m sure, find a way to explain.