Last August, the New York Times launched The 1619 Project, an ambitious effort to educate the public on the role of slavery in shaping America. The Project began with an issue of the Times Sunday Magazine devoted entirely to the subject of slavery. It has grown to include a podcast, and curriculum materials for schools. A book is planned. There is reason to believe that a generation of young, impressionable students will form their historical outlooks based on the Project.
Its title says much about its purpose: to challenge the notion that 1776 is the birth year of America. According to the Times, 1619, when slaves are said to have first arrived on our shores, “is the country’s very origin.”
It’s worth noting at the outset that the title of the Project may be misplaced. According to Professor Nell Painter, the first Africans to arrive on our shores in 1619 were indentured servants, not slaves — a status they shared with many impoverished white arrivals. Racialized slavery did not emerge in Virginia until the 1660s. But setting aside the question of dates, the abominable institution of slavery took root in the New World and two centuries would pass before it was extirpated.
Now any project that aims to educate the public on our nation’s history should be lauded. Much of the information imparted by the 1619 Project is thought-provoking and valuable. But its central theme should not go unchallenged.
Project creator Nickole Hannah-Jones, in her introductory essay, describes this theme:
Conveniently left out of our founding mythology is the fact 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. By 1776, Britain had grown deeply conflicted over its role in the barbaric institution that had reshaped the Western Hemisphere. In London, there were growing calls to abolish the slave trade. This would have upended the economy of the colonies, in both the North and the South…. In other words, we may never have revolted against Britain if the founders … had not believed that independence was required in order to ensure that slavery would continue. … [S]ome might argue that this nation was founded not as a democracy but as a slavocracy.
If these statements were true, if the purpose of the American Revolution was to preserve slavery, then our nation was founded in evil, and every American should properly feel some element of shame in his or her heritage.
But these statements are not true. They are wrong. Continue reading