The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why does ‘The 1619 Project’ worry people? It offers a peek at the truth.

Nikole Hannah-Jones in Brooklyn in July 2021. (John Minchillo/AP)
5 min

I am old enough to remember when Alex Haley’s “Roots” was first aired on television 46 years ago — and what happened afterward, at least where I lived.

Roots” is the story of Haley’s family, its struggles, triumphs and its decades in slavery. The series aired over a week in January 1977. It led to fights in my school district. Black students, having not heard or seen or been taught any specific truths about our origins in America, directed their anger at White students and fights ensued. “Roots” was a shock to the system.

Keep in mind that “Roots” featured a tame version of slavery. It showed whippings. It showed Black children separated from their parents. It didn’t show the rapes by slave owners or the forced “breeding” of African people. It could not show the full scale of the depravity, emotional abuse, torment and murder that drove and sustained American chattel slavery.

Nikole Hannah-Jones’s documentary series, “The 1619 Project,” which premiered last week on Hulu, doesn’t shy away from the full inhumanity of American slavery. It makes clear that Black Americans were treated no better and often worse than livestock. It confronts the fact that Black women were bred as if they were cattle. It reveals the full cruelty of American slavery and shows how Jim Crow by design broke African American psyches for decades. And, once more, people will be angry.

George F. Will: The malicious, historically illiterate 1619 Project keeps rolling on

And that’s what some White people are now worried about. In Florida and in other states, efforts are being made to stifle the teaching of Black American history. When Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) says, “No one should be instructed to feel as if they are not equal or shamed because of their race,” I believe he means White children.

These people aren’t interested in racial harmony. And they certainly aren’t interested in Black children. Their continued campaign to discredit Hannah-Jones and the teaching of Black history is about two things: protecting White children — and preventing any initiative to help correct the actions of White ancestors that still afflict Black Americans today.

Many White people watch programs like “The 1619 Project,” and see only a story about White people. That leads to another tragic misunderstanding of why this curriculum is so good for America.

When I watched the first two episodes of “The 1619 Project,” I thought very little about White people. I was captivated by the story of Hannah-Jones’s father, a military man who was proud to fly his enormous American flag in front of their modest house. I did not think about White people when she told the story of a Black man who was sent to prison and tortured for the crime of wanting to vote. Nor did I think of White people when she told the story of Black women who endured unimaginable torture and humiliations in the name of “science.”

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And while I am aware that it was White people who did all these things, I was not thinking about them as I watched. That’s because these stories aren’t about them, which in America is still rare.

Instead, my overwhelming feeling was of deep gratitude. Of awe at what Black Americans before me had to endure and what we are still enduring. I felt pride. And I felt like an American in a way that has eluded me for most of my life. I didn’t dwell on the people who perpetrated these atrocities. I found myself drawn only to the strength, resilience and resolve of the people who overcame them.

Those who focus on the idea that telling these truths is “divisive” are centering White feelings about our real history. Why deny Black students the feeling of gratitude and pride that comes with knowing how your people endured — so that they can overcome and thrive?

I don’t agree with everything presented in “The 1619 Project. ” At one point, Hannah-Jones suggests that the very foundation of America was about slavery. I don’t think that’s true.

Nikole Hannah-Jones isn’t done challenging the story of America

But the fact that I don’t believe that doesn’t invalidate the rest of her accounting — any more than I dismiss our broader history just because I don’t buy the myth that “the Indians” welcomed “the Pilgrims” with open arms and they became great friends — or the lie that every Founding Father was a hero and every “savage” needed to be “civilized.”

It took an ABC miniseries to give Black Americans just a peek at the truth — because our schools kept the full scope of our experience out of reach. They informed us of only enough to know that we were slaves until White America set us free.

“The 1619 Project” is not divisive or anti-American. It’s about showing Black Americans what we’ve been through and what we’re capable of and honoring those, Black and White, who sacrificed so much so that we could continue our fight against racism. Teaching Black history is about showing us, after all we’ve been through and are still going through, that we are all truly Americans.

No wonder some are so desperate to stop it.