‘The 1619 Project’ — Our Past is More Than Prologue

“They say our people were born on the water. The teal eternity of the Atlantic had severed them so completely from their home, it was like nothing had ever existed before. These African men and women from different nations, all shackled together in the hull of a ship. They were one people now. And although they tried to break our ancestors, to erase our identities, we forged a new culture of our own, giving birth to ourselves. It didn’t matter we were told that, by virtue of our bondage, we would never be American. Because it was by virtue of our bondage, that we became the most American of all.”

—Nikole Hannah-Jones, The 1619 Project


As I settled in to watch the first two episodes of Hulu’s new docuseries, I had to wonder what about Hannah-Jones’s truly remarkable work ignited more controversy. That she forced us to remove our rose-colored glasses about the history of this allegedly “free” and “democratic” country, and — yes — a lot of white forefathers are implicated? Or, that she dared assert that its black citizens are “the most American of all?”

As a body of work, The 1619 Project, which has been adapted and expanded into a six-part docuseries by Hulu, Onyx Collective, and Harpo Productions, is arguably the most divisive body of work influencing public opinion — and policy — today.

President Trump was quick to blast it, “The left has warped, distorted, and defiled the American story with deceptions, falsehoods, and lies.  There is no better example than the New York Times’ totally discredited 1619 Project. This project rewrites American history to teach our children that we were founded on the principle of oppression, not freedom. Nothing could be further from the truth. America’s founding set in motion the unstoppable chain of events that abolished slavery, secured civil rights, defeated communism and fascism, and built the most fair, equal, and prosperous nation in human history.”

Opinion is subjective. History shouldn’t be. In 1905, Spanish philosopher George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.” Forty years later, Winston Churchill paraphrased slightly, “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”

But, the take-away from The 1619 Project is more immediate, more relevant, and far more sobering. Hannah-Jones makes a compelling case that this country’s complicated and often shameful history is not something simply to learn from. It affects virtually every aspect of modern life.

The 1619 Project began as a series of articles for a special issue of The New York Times Magazine, in 2019. It was timed to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the arrival in Virginia of the first enslaved Africans. Its purpose was to “reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” The project, comprising essays, fiction, poetry, and photography, grew in scope, eventually earning Hannah-Jones a Pulitzer Prize for her “sweeping, provocative and personal” work.

The docuseries, which counts both Hannah-Jones and Oprah Winfrey as executive producers, along with Oscar-winner Roger Ross Williams and Emmy-winner Kathleen Lingo, divides the African-American experience into six thematic one-hour episodes. The first two launched this past week.

Episode one, “Democracy,” traces Black political participation, from Reconstruction, through Jim Crow, to today’s localized voting rights struggles in places like Georgia, where challenges range from redistricting to zip code “errors” in voters’ records. The point is made — and made well — that the right to vote, to participate in democracy, is intrinsic to citizenship. And, that “It is Black people who have been the perfecters of our democracy.” “I’m doing this, so you won’t have to in the future,” one tireless volunteer poll monitor explains.

Episode two, “Race,” explains how the “one-drop” rule can be directly traced to slaveholders (described chillingly as serial rapists) increasing their wealth. Excerpts from the diary of Fanny Kemble, actress turned plantation mistress, drive home the horrors of slavery, as do statistics citing the number of pregnancies, miscarriages, and stillbirths suffered by enslaved women. Although their fertility increased their value, they weren’t excused from their other labor, and many continued back-breaking work in the fields throughout their term. Even more disturbing are the rates of maternal and infant death experienced by Black American women today, the highest rates of any industrialized country. Hannah-Jones urges us to question why “Race” is still how we are characterized on everything from college applications to marriage licenses.

Upcoming episodes include hours devoted to Music, Capitalism, Fear, and Justice.

Throughout the docuseries, Hannah-Jones serves as narrator, guide, interviewer, and example, drawing from her own history as the biracial offspring of a Black Army veteran born to Mississippi sharecroppers and a white woman whose parents disowned her for marrying outside her race. Hannah-Jones’s personal anecdotes — sitting on a porch with an uncle who explains that her patriotic father may have supported the country, but the country didn’t support him — provide emotional punctuation marks. Hannah-Jones’s commentary throughout is, as expected, eloquent, intelligent, and sensitive. She also raises questions and challenges us to search for answers without flinching.

There has been plenty of flinching. Lawmakers in several states, including Arkansas, Iowa, Mississippi, Missouri, and South Dakota, have filed or passed legislation prohibiting educators from teaching “critical race theory.” And, this miniseries is already being banned in schools. But, as Hannah-Jones explains, “You don’t create a project like The 1619 Project because you want to make people comfortable.”

The 1619 Project, which I’d argue should be not just available but required viewing across our country, passionately demonstrates that America’s past is not prologue. It is ever-present, and deserves not just attention but a concerted effort and commitment to driving meaningful, lasting change.

The 1619 Project is available to stream on Hulu. New episodes will launch Thursdays through February 9.

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