The 1619 Project started as history. Now it’s also a political program.
From magazine to book, the authors are rethinking their message
The New York Times’s celebrated 1619 Project is as intriguing for the second half of its title as for the first. What is the project of this sprawling project; what are not just its principal conclusions and messages, but also its underlying methods and objectives? For a work of journalism — or history, or perhaps something in between — grounded in the specificity of a single date, there is also an elusiveness, almost a malleability, pervading the effort. Part of the challenge in assessing it involves the multiple formats in which the project has been showcased: There’s the New York Times Magazine special issue published on Aug. 18, 2019, with print and online versions; a broadsheet edition appearing the same day; a podcast spinoff; a new, lengthy book version; an illustrated children’s book; plus the many responses, updates and essays published by the Times defending, amending or otherwise explaining the project.
Together these elements form a powerful and memorable work, one that launched a seismic national debate over the legacy of slavery and enduring racial injustice in American life. It is also a work with a variety of competing impulses, ones that can at times confuse and conflict. This is evident in “The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story,” a book that softens some of the edges of the prior magazine collection but also transcends its original mission as a historical corrective, informing readers what they now must do or else risk personal complicity in the painful story they have just been told.
The elusiveness begins where the project begins — in 1619, with the first ship carrying enslaved Africans to reach the English American colonies, and that moment’s proper status in the history of the United States. In his note introducing the special issue, New York Times Magazine Editor Jake Silverstein first depicts the project as something of a thought experiment, counterfactual to the common notion of 1776 as the year of the nation’s birth. “What if, however, we were to tell you that this fact, which is taught in our schools and unanimously celebrated every Fourth of July, is wrong, and that the country’s true birth date, the moment that its defining contradictions first came into the world, was in late August of 1619?” Three sentences later, the question mark is gone, the tone more declarative. The barbaric system of slavery introduced that month is not just the United States’ “original sin,” Silverstein asserts; it is “the country’s very origin.” The project’s broadsheet supplement widens that perspective, declaring that “the goal of the 1619 Project is to reframe American history, making explicit that slavery is the foundation on which this country is built.” From what-if to no-matter-what, all on the same day.
This hardly settles matters. More than a year later, in an article titled “On Recent Criticism of The 1619 Project,” Silverstein indicated that the notion of 1619 as the country’s birth year should be regarded as a “metaphor” and not read literally. This is why, he explained, the Times had deleted a description of 1619 as our “true founding” that previously appeared in the project’s online presentation. But then, in an essay this month titled “The 1619 Project and the Long Battle Over U.S. History,” Silverstein wrote that the date indeed “could be considered” the moment of the United States’ “inception.”
In the new book version, Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Times journalist who conceived of the overall effort and wrote its lead magazine essay, offers a few interpretations. In the preface, she cautions that the project is “not the only origin story of this country — there must be many.” Then, in the opening chapter, Hannah-Jones repeats the text of her original magazine essay and refers to Black Americans as the country’s “true ‘founding fathers,’” as deserving of that designation "as those men cast in alabaster in the nation’s capital.” Some 400-plus pages later, in a concluding chapter, she writes that the origin story in the 1619 Project is “truer” than the one we’ve known.
What might an assiduous reader conclude from all this? That 1619 is a thought experiment, or a metaphor, or the nation’s true origin, but definitely not its founding, yet possibly its inception, or just one origin story among many — but still the truer one? For all the controversy the project has elicited, this muddle over the starting point is an argument that the 1619 Project is also having with itself.
These distinctions matter because, with this subject, framing is everything. History, Hannah-Jones writes in the new book, is not just about learning what happened. “It is also, just as important, how we think about what happened.” Had this effort been labeled “The Slavery Project” and made similar arguments about the enduring impact of Black enslavement and racism in American life, it would have been influential but probably would not have reverberated as widely. Reframing America’s start from July 1776 to August 1619 — from the “wrong” date to the “truer” story — and placing those landmarks in conversation with each other is what forces you to stop and think, to peer within competing frames.
Silverstein echoed this idea in his latest Times essay. History is not “a fixed thing,” he wrote, emphasizing instead the “dynamic, contested and frankly pretty thrilling process” by which historical understanding is remade. He was talking about historiography, he explained, the study of how history is written and how it evolves — history’s own history.
The 1619 Project, from magazine to book and all the forms in between, displays its own dynamic and contested historiography. Its evolution is sometimes forthright, sometimes subtle and sometimes grudging, as it figures out what it wants to say.
The new book, “The 1619 Project,” features expanded versions of the original 2019 essays, along with additional short fiction and poems complementing each chapter. There are also entirely new contributors, many of them historians. (This is a welcome upgrade after the original special issue sought to reframe history, yet did not include many practitioners of the discipline.) There is an almost relentless coherence to the new book. Many of the authors begin with a story of violence or racism or inequality, then assert that such injustices find their roots in colonial times or the post-Reconstruction era, and then spend the rest of the essay identifying the ties between those periods and ours. The approach is slightly formulaic but no less effective for its formula.
“Since the nation’s founding, our legal and political architecture has privileged the safety and self-defense of white people over that of Black people,” historian Carol Anderson writes in her essay “Self-Defense,” one of the strongest new contributions. Anderson traces the history of the Second Amendment, emphasizing how it did not concede the right of Black Americans to bear arms because “the enslaved were not considered citizens,” and how it was widely understood that the suppression of Black uprisings was among the purposes of the amendment’s “well regulated militia.” This chapter speaks to another titled “Fear,” authored by historian Leslie Alexander and legal scholar Michelle Alexander. They describe how, after Reconstruction, local police forces throughout the South “were often made up of former slave patrollers and members of the Ku Klux Klan” who targeted Black citizens for “daring to behave as though they were free.” Reflecting on the police murder of George Floyd, the co-authors write that the “kindling” had long been laid for the mass protests that the nation saw in 2020. “Nothing has proved more threatening to our democracy, or more devastating to Black communities, than white fear of Black freedom dreams.”
Several essayists from the original magazine edition have expanded or otherwise edited their works for the new book. Whether they are broadening or qualifying their arguments, the results are both instructive and uneven.
Consider sociologist Matthew Desmond’s chapter, “Capitalism.” In his original magazine essay, Desmond argued that many labor-management and record-keeping practices of modern American capitalism originated on plantations, with lasting consequences for the nation’s growth and industry. He indicated, for instance, that the vast increases in the productivity of America’s cotton fields — an average enslaved field worker in 1862 picked 400 percent more cotton than one had in 1801, he noted — flowed from the meticulous efforts to manage every detail and moment of those workers’ lives. “Bodies and tasks were aligned with rigorous exactitude,” Desmond wrote in the essay, describing the “uncompromising pursuit of measurement and scientific accounting displayed in slave plantations.”
Critics of this essay pointed out that some financial and management practices Desmond mentions, such as double-entry bookkeeping, predated the slave-plantation era. More consequentially, they argued that Desmond’s discussion of cotton productivity bypassed the real explanation for the increase. In the new book, Desmond addresses this, but only to a point. Following a detailed discussion of the management of enslaved labor, he again cites the boost in productivity. Then he adds this caveat: “Historians and economists have attributed this surge in productivity to several factors — for example, Alan Olmstead and Paul Rhode found that improved cotton varieties enabled hands to pick more cotton per day — but advanced techniques that improved upon ways to manage land and labor surely played their part as well.”
Note what is happening: A different explanation is introduced for an important point of fact, but the overall narrative remains — because “surely” it still holds. Readers should always be open to new historical interpretations, but when revising history, “surely” does not reassure. When facts complicate a story, they shouldn’t be tucked in an aside but taken up as part of that dynamic and contested process of discovery that Silverstein so praised.
Other entries in the book improve on the original contributions in distinct ways. Civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s chapter, “Punishment,” argues persuasively that mass incarceration and law enforcement brutality against Black Americans can be traced to the legacy of slavery and to a loophole in the 13th Amendment, which ended involuntary servitude “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” His writing here grows to include a discussion of recent juvenile-justice cases before the Supreme Court, including one that Stevenson himself argued, and he more fully establishes the “unbroken links” between slavery, Black Codes, convict leasing, White lynch mobs and the injustices of our time. “Black people still bear the burden of presumptive guilt,” he concludes.
In “Inheritance,” perhaps the most memorable of the chapters, journalist Trymaine Lee recounts at greater length the infuriating tragedy of Elmore Bolling, a Black businessman in Alabama who was killed (six pistol shots and one shotgun blast to the back) by two White men in December 1947. His offense: Succeeding while Black. Bolling leased land on which he had a large house, a general store and a gas station, and he also ran a delivery service and catering company. The Chicago Defender reported at the time that his killers were “jealous over the business success of a Negro.” Bolling had stressed the importance of education and business savvy to his children, but his two oldest — 14 and 15 at the time of his murder — would struggle through menial jobs for much of their lives, while the 12-year-old son who saw his father’s body lying in a ditch later spent part of his adulthood in a psychiatric institution. The children collected no inheritance, Josephine Bolling McCall, one of Elmore’s daughters, explains to Lee; “it was all taken away,” she said. Lee places this family’s story in the context of the post-Reconstruction dismantling of federal protections and support for newly emancipated Black Americans.
Times critic Wesley Morris’s magazine essay on the impact of Black musicians on American culture — and the brutal legacy of blackface minstrelsy on the Black American soul — was one of the sharpest contributions to the original 1619 Project collection (and his rendition in Episode 3 of the “1619” podcast is well worth the 34 minutes). “Decades of jams written, produced, and performed by Black artists sustain parties in places that sustain no actual Black people,” he writes in the book. The ingenuity and intuition of Black art constitute the “very core” of American culture, “in part because white people won’t stop putting it there.” Something about this White American desire for cultural Blackness “warps and perverts its source, lampoons and cheapens it even in adoration,” he laments. “Loving Black culture has never demanded a corresponding love for Black people. And loving Black culture has tended to result in loving the life out of it.”
This last passage is almost identical in the magazine and the book, but in the next paragraphs of the book chapter, something unexpected occurs. “But not always,” Morris writes. He pivots into new territory, an argument too lengthy and thoughtful to be dismissed as a reluctant caveat. “The ongoing disputes over whose stuff is whose obscures a more important irony: music has midwifed the only true integration this country has known,” Morris writes. He emphasizes that American musical history “effervesces with work made by white people alongside Black people,” with White artists working “in Black traditions with admiration and respect.” Whereas the magazine essay decried a kind of cultural gentrification through which “black people have often been rendered unnecessary to attempt blackness,” in his book chapter Morris also highlights the “crucial distinction between what’s appreciative and what’s appropriative.”
This is fertile soil in the debates over artistic and cultural appropriation. And the new version of Morris’s argument loses none of its power for acknowledging that the relationship between Black and White artists and artistry can be more complicated — less, well, black and white — than previously suggested. Morris isn’t just demanding that readers rethink their world; he is reconsidering it along with them.
The opening 2019 magazine essay by Nikole Hannah-Jones, “The Idea of America,” was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for commentary. (I am a member of the Pulitzer Prize Board but was recused from the discussion of that category because of a competing entry from The Washington Post.) The essay combined personal reflections and historical interpretations, and one of its most moving moments, when a young Hannah-Jones is asked by a teacher to draw the flag of her ancestral land, and she hesitates because she does not know what it is, has been transformed into a beautiful children’s book, “Born on the Water.” In the essay, Hannah-Jones recalls feeling embarrassed by her father’s insistence on flying the American flag outside their Iowa home and how she came to understand the impulse only years later. Black Americans’ struggles for freedom and equality have pushed this country to live up to its ideals, she wrote in the magazine, and therefore “no people has a greater claim to that flag than us.” The flag she should have drawn as a child, she realized, was the Stars and Stripes.
The essay also received high-profile criticisms, including from a group of historians whose letter requesting corrections was published in the Times, along with a lengthy response from Silverstein defending the work. In her preface to the book, Hannah-Jones characterizes the historians’ critique, but her portrayal does not always match their letter as published by the Times. (“They did not agree with our framing, which treated slavery and anti-Blackness as foundational to America,” she writes. “We applaud all efforts to address the enduring centrality of slavery and racism to our history,” the historians had written.) Their main criticisms included two of Hannah-Jones’s statements in the original essay: first, that “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery,” and second, that in the long struggle for equal rights, “for the most part, black Americans fought back alone.”
Hannah-Jones addresses both criticisms in the book, in part by reframing the disputes. On the matter of whether upholding slavery was a primary impulse behind the revolution, she writes in the preface that the sentence “had never been meant to imply that every single colonist shared this motivation.” As a result, she explains, the online version of her essay had been amended to refer to “some of the colonists,” and that is also how the line is rendered in the book. (An editor’s note by Silverstein, published more than six months after the original magazine package, explained this “clarification” in similar terms.)
I will not presume to represent a typical Times reader, but I never interpreted that original passage as suggesting that every single colonist shared this motivation; rather, I reasonably assumed it referred to a majority or a sizable minority. The Times’s two-word “update” to the project (“some of” the colonists) sidestepped the central issue: What was the range of motivations animating the revolution, and among them, how powerful was the desire to protect slavery? This was a clarification that clarified little.
In the opening chapter of the book, titled “Democracy,” Hannah-Jones adds two explanations supporting her interpretation of colonial motives. One involves the Dunmore Proclamation of November 1775, in which the royal governor of Virginia offered freedom to enslaved people if they joined the British side of the fight. (The declaration went unmentioned in Hannah-Jones’s original essay and did not appear in the magazine’s timeline of important events in African American life; now, it is featured in the book’s expanded timeline.) She writes that the proclamation “would alter the course of the Revolution,” appropriate phrasing given that the revolution was well underway by the time of the proclamation.
How influential was this episode in the fight for independence? Here Hannah-Jones narrows the story. She stresses that the proclamation “infuriated white Virginians” and that when you think about it, the revolution was mainly a Virginia thing, anyway. “Schoolchildren learn that the Boston Tea Party sparked the Revolution and that Philadelphia was home to the Continental Congress, the place where intrepid men penned the Declaration and Constitution,” she writes. “But while our nation’s founding documents were written in Philadelphia, they were mainly written by Virginians. . . . No place shaped the Revolution and the country it birthed more than Virginia.” It is a subtle but effective shift: Rather than expand history to encompass the range of the colonists’ rationales, Hannah-Jones limits the universe of colonists who matter. Now, Virginia is real colonial America.
In an Atlantic article published in late 2019, Hannah-Jones was quoted defending her original essay’s contention that Black Americans fought for freedom largely on their own. “It is not saying that black people only fought alone,” she said. “It is saying that most of the time we did.” In the book’s preface, she depicts the historians’ criticism as a matter of taste, or perhaps pique: “They did not like our assertion that Black Americans . . . have waged their battles mostly alone,” she writes. Then, in the opening chapter of the book, Hannah-Jones repeats the identical line from the essay, but with a telling phrase added (italicized here): “For the most part, Black Americans fought back alone, never getting a majority of white Americans to join and support their freedom struggles.”
“Alone” now means “without majority support.” The word is not omitted or replaced, but rather redefined, allowing the original phrasing and framing to endure. Is this tweak an admission that the historians’ criticism had merit? Hannah-Jones’s discussion of their letter in the book’s preface suggests no such reconsideration. But if the landscape within it shifts, should not a frame bend, shudder or occasionally crack?
“The 1619 Project” has taken pains to affirm its intellectual rigor. In his recent essay, Silverstein was appreciative of the feedback the original magazine issue received, which helped “deepen and improve” the project, and explained that the new book “was submitted to a peer-review process.” The acknowledgments section of the book provides more detail: “In preparing this book, we sought the counsel of numerous historians as peer reviewers. All of the essays were reviewed in their entirety by scholars with subject-area expertise.” It then thanks more than two dozen scholars by name. The list is impressive, no doubt, but soliciting feedback on your work from people you’ve selected is not quite what it means to undergo an independent peer review process, the appropriation of academic language notwithstanding.
The book, with its 50 pages of footnotes, is by necessity more academic in presentation than the original magazine edition. In its concluding sections, however, “The 1619 Project” displays its most significant evolution, moving away from its strictly historical inquiry. In a chapter titled “Progress,” historian Ibram X. Kendi writes that the popular notion of America making steady, if slow, headway toward greater racial justice is “ahistorical, mythical, and incomplete.” The “mantra” of incremental improvement can undermine efforts to promote real equality. Kendi cites Chief Justice John Roberts's majority opinion in Shelby County v. Holder (2013), which held that the country's progress against discrimination meant that certain states and counties no longer needed federal approval before amending their voting laws, as the Voting Rights Act required. (The decision unleashed a series of state-level initiatives creating obstacles to voting.) “Saying that the nation has progressed racially is usually a statement of ideology,” Kendi writes, “one that has been used all too often to obscure the opposite reality of racist progress.” The failures of the Reconstruction era led to the “Second Reconstruction” of the 20th-century civil rights movement, a cause and effect that Kendi says is too often “left out of the story.”
Kendi then introduces something else he says is left out of the story — that America requires a “Third Reconstruction” to address the unfulfilled promise of the second. Here the 1619 Project's project becomes explicitly political. Hannah-Jones fills in the details in the book's final chapter, “Justice,” where she identifies the racial wealth gap as the most serious challenge for Black Americans. “White Americans' centuries-long economic head start,” she writes, is what “most effectively maintains racial caste today.” To narrow that gap, the country must embark on “a vast social transformation produced by the adoption of bold national policies.”
Among these are a slate of priorities such as “a livable wage; universal healthcare, childcare, and college; and student loan debt relief,” Hannah-Jones indicates. They also include cash reparations for Black Americans — specifically, for those who can document having identified as Black for at least 10 years prior to any reparations process and who can “trace at least one ancestor back to American slavery.” Also suggested is a commitment to enforce civil rights laws regarding housing, education and employment, as well as “targeted investments” in Black communities across the country.
And so the New York Times’s 1619 Project is now enlisted in the service of a policy agenda and political worldview. The book’s concluding chapter underscores that link. “It is one thing to say you do not support reparations because you did not know the history, that you did not understand how things done long ago helped create the conditions in which millions of Black Americans live today,” Hannah-Jones writes. “But you now have reached the end of this book, and nationalized amnesia can no longer provide the excuse. None of us can be held responsible for the wrongs of our ancestors. But if today we choose not to do the right and necessary thing, that burden we own.”
It would be comforting if history always came with a policy road map, a detailed agenda that quickly placed us on its right side. Still, the 1619 Project’s activist turn need not necessarily affect how one regards the American origin story it presents. As Hannah-Jones writes in the first line of the book’s final chapter, “Origin stories function, to a degree, as myths designed to create a shared sense of history and purpose.” In this book, the 1619 Project makes both its history and its purpose clear.
Carlos Lozada is the Post’s nonfiction book critic and the author of “What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era.” Follow him on Twitter and read his latest book reviews, including: