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Past & Present: The 1619 Project


In August, the United States observed the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved people kidnapped from West Africa and transported to the North America colonies. To observe this date, the New York Times, in partnership with the Pulitzer Center, published a 100-page edition of its Sunday magazine entitled “The 1619 Project.” 

It’s a collaborative undertaking of African American academics, journalists, novelists, poets and artists that juxtaposes contemporary reflections and essays on the impact of enslavement with primary documents, photographs, and autobiographical accounts. Project editor Nikole Hannah-Jones took the quadricentennial as an opportunity to move enslavement and its aftermath from a sidebar in U.S. history to its rightful place, at the center of all American cultural, economic, political, and social achievement. In so doing, she makes the argument that American history begins not in 1776, but in 1619.

The project takes an unyielding look at the impact of enslavement, and simultaneously debunks Americans’ more convenient comments used to distance themselves from it, comments such as, “I live in 2019,” “My ancestors didn’t arrive until after slavery ended,” “We lived in the North,” and “My family didn’t own slaves.” While these statements may be true, they articulate an inaccurate understanding of enslavement’s impact on all aspects of American life.

Instead, the collaborators argue corporate work structures, our love of sugar, cruelty in our prison systems, segregation in government policies, westward expansion, insurance and stock investments, traffic congestion, racial wealth gap and housing patterns, development of vaccinations, discriminatory medical practices, and right-wing politics are all connected to enslavement.

This tip-of-the-iceberg list is broad and requires Americans to rid themselves of the false beliefs that capitalism, institutions, and public policy are benign, and are, in fact, racist. As a nation, it’s past time for all of us to learn the real American history, stop sitting on the sidelines, and become anti-racists.

Dr. Robin C. Henry holds a Ph.D. in U.S. history from Indiana University and is an associate professor in the history department at Wichita State University. Her research examines the intersections among sexuality, law, and regional identity in the 19th- and early 20th-century United States.