The 1619 Project: An overdue reckoning on the insidious state of America

What is the 1619 project?

To begin with the basics, The 1619 Project is a magazine full of well-researched essays articulating the Black experience in America; it’s also been made into a class curriculum format that teachers can use. The enormous undertaking was an effort spearheaded by journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. For some background, Hannah-Jones had been offered tenure at UNC-Chapel Hill, but the offer came under review and with some pushback from UNC officials and some student groups, and she accepted the Knight Chair Appointment at Howard University instead.

What hole in education does the 1619 project fill?

The disconnect that runs through America is absolutely astounding, and sometimes even just plain fascinating to observe. I’m pretty sure by asking the average person who would disagree with the contents of The 1619 Project some questions, we could come to at least three agreements.

  • Number #1: Slavery happened. 
  • Number #2: Segregation happened. 
  • Number #3: I lied. I really think that’s about it.

What are we taught about racial inequality in school? As an attendee of public school for the last 12 consecutive years, I can say I am at least decently well-versed in American educational content. So for this section, I will be turning to myself for my expert opinion. 

To preface this, when I say we were taught about any of these subjects, it was the lightest, shallowest dip in the water humanly possible. The tip of the iceberg. 

We were taught about the Atlantic slave trade, and the slave labor in the US producing cotton for the benefit of the mother country, Britain, to make into material goods like cloth. We learned that in slavery, Black people were sold and abused horrifically, even shown graphic images of the physical effects of the abuse ( a scholarly way to say gore) and that Abraham Lincoln ended slavery, but not really. Then, a bit about Reconstruction. Then, off to the Civil Rights era: Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Birmingham, church bombings, and Freedom Riders, if we’re lucky. That’s…pretty much it. The problem is that we are taught in school that racial inequality is represented through contained actions and events. However horrific those events were, they are contained within the time they happened. It was dealt with, it’s healed, and it’s over now. This way, “education” provides people with the grounds to say that racism is so insignificant nowadays that it doesn’t even matter.

Racial trauma in this country is a horrific wound. Cuts don’t close the second you pull the knife away. Why and how people could possibly see an entire population’s life be in the total control of another for the duration of our country being established up until about fifty-ish years ago and think it has no impact on the problems faced by them is, as stated earlier, astounding.

The Opposition

People all over the country have been debating the validity of the project, especially when it pertains to its usage in classrooms. Many, like myself, say it is long-overdue to teach about America as it was and has become, bringing to the forefront the lasting impacts of slavery that much of the country is unable to recognize. However, critics of The 1619 Project claim it is completely inaccurate to draw cause and effect between things like slavery and healthcare, and that it runs a smear campaign on white Americans. 

Newt Gingrich, a former speaker of the House of Representatives, called the project a “lie,” based on the “… several hundred thousand white Americans who died in the Civil War in order to free the slaves.” (Serwer) This and other statements from other conservatives led me to another article by conservative commentator Naomi Schaefer Riley. She believed The 1619 Project doesn’t teach or aim to improve the country’s state, and it is only “embodying some of its more exasperating and less constructive contemporary ailments.” (Riley) Other opinions stated by Riley include her disbelief in slavery being the root cause of modern-day mass incarceration, and that this would simply teach Black Americans to hate their own country, which “isn’t productive.”

My personal theory is that conservatives respond the way they do to the growing teaching of critical race theory because of their strong belief in individualism. If someone is in trouble, they work their way out of it. If someone is still in trouble, that means they didn’t work hard enough. They are unable to grasp the larger picture of acting for the collective good of a community out of caring about the well-being of others. They are unable to grasp that people may be failing because of the failure or even malicious intent of a larger system. The white American rugged individualist reads about critical race theory, hears Black people articulating exactly in which ways this country is failing or hurting them, and concludes that they are making themselves the victim. 

Initiatives like The 1619 Project are key to uprooting the systems that have stunted our country since its foundation. Truth be told, America deserves a much harsher reality check than it could ever receive from a journalism project.