What Is ‘The 1619 Project’ and What Are People Saying About It?

1619 project
©John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation- used with permission

The New York Times recently published an initiative called “The 1619 Project,” a collection of essays, short fiction and poems that attempts to “reframe” the history of the U.S. by demonstrating that slavery is central to the country’s development and still impacts American lives today. While many have welcomed the project, it has also received pushback from some who feel it is either misguided or promoting a false narrative.

“In August of 1619, a ship appeared on [the] horizon, near Point Comfort, a coastal port in the British colony of Virginia,” reads the project’s opening statement. “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.”

What Is The 1619 Project?

The 1619 Project is the brainchild of New York Times journalist, Nikole Hannah-Jones. In an interview with Joshua Johnson on NPR’s 1A, Jones explained that the initiative was a “culmination of more than 25 years of me thinking about that date.” She had never been taught in school that slavery had existed in America before the pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock, and “I just kept thinking that [the date] was going to pass in most American households, and no one was going to even know that there was an anniversary that we should be commemorating.”

It is Jones’ belief and the thesis of the project that “nothing in modern American society has been left untouched by that decision to buy that first group of 20 to 30 Africans and engage in the institution of slavery.” Isn’t it true, asked Johnson, that Americans already know slavery is significant and has affected our lives and history? Jones said no, but that in reality, we think of slavery as being “marginal” and a product of the South. Rather than being marginal, she believes it was and is central to the American experience.

Jones makes two claims in the interview and in her opening essay for The 1619 Project that some might find controversial. One is that the Constitution, before it was amended, was an inherently undemocratic document. Another is that one of the colonists’ possible motivations for revolting against the English was to protect the institution of slavery (which Britain was moving away from at the time).

“At our founding, we were not a democracy,” Jones told Johnson, because the Constitution denied the right to vote to women, black people, Native Americans, and even white people who did not own property. In her essay, she points out the hypocrisy of the colonists expressing outrage against British subjugation even while many of them owned slaves or at least profited from the insitution of slavery. She wrote, “As Samuel Johnson, an English writer and Tory opposed to American independence, quipped, ‘How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?’”

Slavery was key to our founding, said Jones, but “We absolutely don’t think of slavery as foundational. We think of it as kind of a blip, a mistake that we made, but that doesn’t have larger ramifications for everyday American life–and the reaction to this project, I think, is evidence of that.”

What Have the Reactions Been to The 1619 Project?

Responses to Jones’ project have ranged from thankfulness to wonder at why it is necessary to accusations of falsehood. On Fox and Friends, Newt Gingrich called the initiative “a lie” and on Twitter said it was propaganda.

Johnson read a comment by one person who said the project was another example of Democrats hating the U.S, and radio host and blogger Erick Erickson said it minimized what white people did to free slaves. He also criticized the Times for handing the initiative mainly to opinion writers. Jones corrected this statement in a tweet where she said there was only opinion writer on the project and multiple scholars (whom she listed).  

Southern Baptist Convention president J.D. Greear posted a series of tweets highlighting the 1619 anniversary and said, “If the church is to change our nation’s story for the future, we must begin by knowing and owning the story of our past.”

While some responded in support of Greear’s sentiment, quite a few pushed back on it for various reasons. Notably, a recent Barna study found that pastors and church leaders are more likely than other Christians to see slavery as something that still impacts people today.

Many people, black and white, have expressed gratitude for The 1619 Project. Because the initiative emphasizes how black Americans have shaped the U.S. by fighting for democracy, Jones said she has heard from many who have told her they now feel a sense of pride in their heritage instead of shame that they descended from slaves.

She told Johnson, “So many black people who have responded said that this has changed the way that they feel about themselves as Americans, and I think that’s probably the response that has meant that most to me.”

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Jessica Mouser
Jessica Mouser is a writer for ChurchLeaders.com. She has always had a passion for the written word and has been writing professionally for the past two years. She especially enjoys evaluating how various beliefs play out within culture. When Jessica isn't writing, she enjoys playing the piano, reading, and spending time with her friends and family.