The 1619 Project (2021) is an anthology of essays investigating the origins of the slave trade in America, and how it has shaped what the country would become. It’s also an exploration of how we create history, and how these stories shape our political present. The essays are accompanied by fictional excerpts and poetry, bringing to life the experiences of enslaved people in America.
Introduction: Learn about the untold history of America, and why it matters.
A British pirate ship, the White Lion, docked in Jamestown, Virginia. Twenty to thirty enslaved Africans were shackled on board – survivors of an ordeal that eclipses our worst imaginings, bonded in pain, uncertainty, and their profound significance in the creation of the United States. They’d been captured from a Portuguese slave ship, which had sailed from what is now known as Angola. Here, at this grim end to all that they’d endured so far, they were sold to the English colonists living there, in exchange for goods and replenishments. The year was 1619, and this was the incident that marked the start of the trade in enslaved people, which would see millions of women, men and children kidnapped and sold to work in perpetuity, in American forced labor camps. The wealth and attendant social and political power that proliferated from the institution of slavery alone, make it one of the most influential elements in the birth of the country. The year 1619 therefore marks a very different origin story for the founding of the nation – one that diverges from the story you’re probably used to.
And yet most people aren’t even aware of the significance of that date. In fact, only 8 percent of US high school seniors are familiar with the history of slavery. And only half of US adults realize that enslaved people were imprisoned in all 13 colonies.
This ignorance isn’t accidental. It’s convenient to erase the history of slavery from the public record – to focus on the “plucky pilgrims who fought for freedom” rather than confront the violence and human rights abuses perpetrated by the Founding Fathers.
But without coming to grips with the past we can’t understand the challenges we face in the present. Because the legacy of 1619 is alive and well today. It’s baked into our institutions, our social systems, and our laws.
The 1619 Project aims to fill the gaps in our historical record, and reveal the true history of slavery and how it’s shaped the United States as we know it. But it doesn’t stop there. It offers a way forward, and provides concrete solutions for how to start to repair the harm caused by the slave trade, which has sustained over 400 years of discriminatory, racist legislation and violence.
In this summary, you will learn
- how enslaved people created the foundation of American prosperity;
- why the Declaration of Independence was based on a lie; and
- how reparations for the descendants of enslaved people are essential for American democracy.
A history of silences, and flying the flag of a country that abandoned you.
Let’s begin with two powerful moments in Nikole Hannah-Jones’s life. The first takes place in the author’s childhood home.One of the things Hannah-Jones remembers most clearly from her childhood is the American flag that fluttered on the front lawn of their family home.
It was her father’s pride and joy, and he went to great lengths to make sure it was always immaculate. The house might fall into disrepair, but the flag was replaced as soon as it became a little bit frayed.
Hannah-Jones didn’t understand her father’s patriotism at all. This was a man born in Mississippi, one of the most violently racist states in the country – someone whose mother hadn’t been allowed to vote or use the library. A descendent of enslaved people who’d been forced to toil in inhumane conditions, this was a man who’d experienced discrimination in every aspect of his life. It impacted where he was allowed to live, what kind of education he had access to, and what kind of jobs he could get. He’d joined the military, believing it would give him access to the privileges afforded white US citizens, only to be overlooked when it came to promotions, and eventually discharged. This was a fiercely intelligent man who spent his life working in service jobs that barely allowed him to get by.
So, when the country he’d grown up in had let him down so much, how could he be so patriotic? Why did he insist on flying that red, white, and blue flag?
Like many teenagers, Hannah-Jones was mortified by her father’s insistence on flying the flag. Added to that, she thought his patriotism was misguided, that he’d been lulled into participating in his own degradation.
The second moment takes place in her classroom, at school.
Her social-studies teacher has given all the students an assignment: Draw the national flag of the country where your ancestors came from.Hannah-Jones locks eyes with the only other Black child in the class. Like many descendants of enslaved people, they don’t know exactly where their ancestors came from, just that it’s somewhere in Africa. The moment is uncomfortable; it’s awkward; it’s subtle in its cruelty. They’re denied the glee their white classmates experience in tracing their heritage back to Scotland, or Italy. Hannah-Jones goes to the globe and picks a random African country, and draws that flag. She doesn’t even consider drawing the flag of the country where she was actually born, a place where her ancestors had lived for hundreds of years.
As a child, Nikole Hannah-Jones had absorbed the message that as a Black person she didn’t really belong in the United States. She wasn’t a “real” American. And she’d absorbed the message that Black people hadn’t contributed much to the country, except “perhaps” their physical labor. After all, there were no Black people among the Founding Fathers, no Black men with their faces carved into Mount Rushmore, no Black politicians staring back at her from the pages of the history books she’d read in school.
In short, if the history books were to be believed, Black people featured very minimally in the story of the United States. They popped up in the section about enslaved people, as a victimized population who were held in subjugation until they were “freed” by Abraham Lincoln. Then Black people disappeared from the history books until suddenly someone called Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech about “having a dream.”
So who could’ve blamed Hannah-Jones for believing that Black people didn’t really have much to do with the forming of the United States, nevermind anything to be proud of? She’d later learn that, like many Americans, she’d bought into the biggest lie of all – a lie her father disavowed every time he flew that flag in their garden. She’d realize that her father’s reasons for flying the flag were more complex than she could’ve imagined; he knew something she didn’t about the country she’d grown up in. She’d realize that her school education was missing vital parts of the history of herself, her father, and other Black Americans.
You see, what you think you know about the founding of America has been warped and distorted. From the date the first ship arrived, to the reason the pilgrims decided to declare independence, to the role Black people have played in forming the country.
Even though it happened hundreds of years ago, these stories matter. And they matter more than you know. They matter to girls like Hannah-Jones, staring at a globe and trying to figure out where they come from. And they matter to every person who wants to understand the tendrils of white supremacy that still choke them, no matter how much they try to escape it. They matter to politicians and teachers and historians, and anyone with an interest in systemic poverty, and racism, and why it is that Black people, today, in the United States, are murdered for going to the shops or jogging around their neighbourhoods, or even lying asleep in their beds. So, let’s talk about why the date 1619 is so important. Let’s talk about how its legacy has shaped America.
In the usual telling, America is born with the Declaration of Independence, where all men are declared equal – a full 157 years after that fateful August in 1619, in Jamestown, Virginia. But that’s where the real story begins. You see, the arrival of the pirate ship – the White Lion – marked the start of the trade in enslaved people. Over the course of hundreds of years, 12.5 million people were kidnapped and made to endure the perilous trip across the Atlantic – the Middle Passage – and sold into the cruel and inhumane business of slavery. Over two million people would die on that journey, before reaching their destination. And if it weren’t for slavery, it’s very probable that indpendence would’ve been sought at a different moment for very different reasons, if at all. Let’s go into this last statement a bit more.
There would be no America as we know it today without this evil and lucrative trade. Enslaved people cleared the land for crops and taught colonists how to grow rice and survive plagues, like smallpox. They did the back-breaking work of planting and harvesting cotton – the country’s most successful export, which would impact national economies the world over. And they laid the railways that made the Industrial Revolution possible. Enslaved people made the country extraordinarily wealthy.
So, understandably, slave owners were very wary of abolition. So wary, in fact, that they decided to declare independence from Britain in order to keep on participating in the trade.
How did this play out? To answer that, let’s visit a different moment in history. A moment that is taught in the school history books.
The year is 1776, and Thomas Jefferson is sitting at his desk, penning the Declaration of Independence – the declaration that is still quoted today. It states:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.”
This revolutionary statement was also an exercise in hypocrisy. If all men were created equal, why did Jefferson have an enslaved person – by the name of Robert Hemings – waiting on him hand and foot, at the very moment he was penning this document? Jefferson also held 130 enslaved people captive at his forced labor camp, Monticello. In fact, his status as an enslaver was the source of his wealth.
Jefferson, of course, was not alone in trading in enslaved people. One fifth of all the people living in the colonies at that time were enslaved, and you don’t get to those numbers without a thriving network of active participants.
So, how did the Founding Fathers justify this brutality that went against their own declaration? By arguing that enslaved people weren’t really human – that, rather, they were property. Slave codes were introduced across the colonies to enact this into law. Enslaved people weren’t allowed to marry, or learn to read. They had no rights to their children, who were often separated from them and sold on, and they had no legal recourse in the courts. Enslavers could rape and murder enslaved people with no consequence. And, of course, the enslaved were denied their freedom.
So, even as Jefferson was declaring that “all men were equal,” the Founding Fathers benefited from the forced labor of Black people who they’d contrived to pretend were not in fact equal.
But slavery wasn’t only an unfortunate contradiction to the Declaration of Independence. It was a large part of the reason that America became independent in the first place. In other words, there might well be no America if it weren’t for slavery.
In the story we know so well, colonists fight a noble battle for freedom against the British, taking up arms to declare independence against the Crown. But the more uncomfortable truth is that colonists declared independence because they wanted to prevent enslaved people from becoming free.
You see, up until 1776, the 13 colonies were under British rule. However, there were signs that the British were making moves to abolish the slave trade. In 1772, an enslaved man by the name of James Somerset successfully won his freedom when the British courts ruled it unconstitutional to hold people as slaves on British soil.
Then, in 1775, the enslaver James Madison got wind of a rumor that the British Parliament was in the process of introducing legislation that would free enslaved people in all the colonies.
The last straw came in 1775, when the Earl of Dunmore, John Murrray, threatened Virginia colonists with freeing all the enslaved people in their forced labor camps if they took up arms.
The message was clear. If the colonies stayed under British rule, their rights to keeping enslaved people would come under threat. Instead of risking that, all 13 colonies banded together in a rare show of unity to declare independence from the Crown, and protect the vast wealth generated by the forced labor of the hundreds of thousands of enslaved people in the country.
The Declaration of Independence was created in the service of a perverse freedom: the freedom to keep other human beings captive.
But there’s another, even greater paradox here: while white colonists might not have truly believed in the Declaration of Independence, Black people did. Even as they experienced first-hand how it was to be treated as less-than, as property, they fought fiercely for the ideals enshrined by that declaration.
And they’ve never stopped fighting.
Black Americans have fought tirelessly for democracy.
Black Americans have not only contributed to this country through their enormous, back-breaking labors. They’ve also contributed by fighting for democracy. Real democracy. By trying to hold the country to the lofty promises Thomas Jefferson made when he penned that declaration in 1776. He may not have truly believed in it, but Black people certainly did.
Think of the many struggles for equality that play out in American courts today. Like the fight for the legalization of same sex marriage. Or for disabled people to have equal opportunities to find employment. Or for the evangelical churchgoer fighting discrimination from an employer. These rights are protected by the Fourteenth Amendment, a clause in the constitution that enshrines equality in the eyes of the law.
And that amendment would never have been added had it not been for the work of Black activists, fighting for equality against terrible odds.
When enslaved people were finally freed, they didn’t turn against their captors, as had been feared. Instead, they worked to try and make America more equitable and prosperous. In a period after the Civil War, called the Reconstruction, Black activists and, later, politicians, were responsible for ushering in some of the most progressive legislation America has known. Like the Civil Rights Act of 1868, which to this day guarantees citizenship to anyone born in the United States. And the Fifteenth Amendment, which ensured that all men could vote, regardless of color.
In a brief window, from 1865 to 1877, Black and white politicians worked together to rebuild the country with a vision of a truly equal society, passing legislation against housing discrimination, and creating the first universal public school system in America. In 1873, the University of South Carolina became the first fully integrated university.
But, sadly, these gains wouldn’t last. A supreme court ruled that racial segregation was legal in 1896, despite the Fourteenth Amendment. Southern states devised laws and codes to once again disenfranchise Black voters. And Black people were prohibited from doing jury service, or living near white people, or attending mixed schools. The opportunity to rebuild an egalitarian society was lost. It’s telling that the gains made during Reconstruction now sound radical, over 150 years later.
But Black Americans haven’t given up on democracy. For example, in the 2020 elections, Black activists campaigned tirelessly against voter suppression. Black voters are most likely to support universal health care and a higher minimum wage, and in spite of being twice as likely to be unemployed, Black folks are also much more willing to give shelter to refugees. Black activists have largely fought alone – the majority of white Americans don’t support their struggle. And these aren’t fights for the interests of Black communities only – the activism and struggle have paved the way for all marginalized people to be treated equally. It’s not a zero-sum equation.
Hannah-Jones now sees her father’s decision to proudly fly the flag in their garden very differently. It’s not a sign of subjugation to the colonial powers. In fact, it’s a sign of proud defiance. Her father was asserting that America belonged to him, too. Because his people had helped build the land, and shape it into the democracy it is.
However, this contribution has never been acknowledged. Not in the history books and not by the American government. That has to change.
Racial justice is economic justice.
Take a moment to travel to the mid-1940s, to a small town in Alabama, where a Black entrepreneur, Elmore Bolling, ran a successful business. Bolling owned a gas station, general store, and delivery service. He leased a large tract of land, where he built a large house, and grew cotton, corn and sugarcane. He and his wife expanded their operations to include a restaurant doing Friday-night fish fries and selling ice cream – a rare delicacy at the time. Bolling’s business provided a safe place for Black people to get gas and hang out with friends and family. It also provided employment to more than 40 people from the area.
That ended one day in 1947, when two white men stopped Bolling’s truck as he was making deliveries, and shot him six times. He was, as one person put it, a “marked man” because he’d become too successful. The white men were enraged by his prosperity, and they killed him for it.
The effect on Bolling’s family was devastating. They quickly lost everything that he’d built. The family fled the state, and scraped by doing menial labor. Bolling had dreamed of all his children getting a good education, but ultimately only one got a college degree.
Imagine how things could have turned out if the Bollings had been left to continue their successful business. Imagine what kinds of lives their children and grandchildren would be living now. Imagine how many Black-owned businesses would have blossomed up around it, bringing economic prosperity to Black communities in Alabama.
The story of what happened to Elmore Bolling has been repeated time and again in American history. Whether through discriminatory legaslation or blatant violence, Black people have been denied any form of economic stability or prosperity.
When enslaved people were finally freed, they immediately asked for some form of compensation for what they’d endured, some form of reparations for the enormous sacrifices they’d made to ensure America became the prosperous country it is today.
Over and over, those requests were denied. Enslaved people were free by law, but in real, economic terms they were still held captive, often forced to work as impoverished sharecroppers on the same labor camps where they’d been enslaved on to avoid going hungry. Consequently, there is nothing to pass down to other generations, no opportunity to enjoy the intergenerational wealth that white Americans have profited from.
It’s important to remember that racism has always been about money. Slavery was justified by bogus argumentation that centered on the dehumanization of Black people – rationale that allowed white enslavers to become obscenely wealthy through their constant and violent exploitation.
When explicitly racist policies have been overturned, lawmakers have been quick to replace them with so-called “race neutral” ones that achieved the same results through economic policies. For example, after the Fifteenth Amendment was introduced in the late 1800s to allow Black men to vote, white politicians introduced poll taxes. They knew that Black people – who had been systematically impoverished – wouldn’t be able to pay.
And when segregation was overturned in the courts, white politicians found other ways to enact discriminatory policies: Black people were denied the mortgages that would have allowed them to buy homes in so-called “white” areas, and were excluded from the unions that were a pathway to the middle-class jobs held by white people. While white people were allowed to accumulate intergenerational wealth through generous government policies, Black people have systematically been kept poor. In spite of all the enormous gains by the Civil Rights Movement, income disparity between Black and white households is the same today as it was in the 1950s.
So, when you talk about racial justice, it’s not enough to just talk about changing laws. A new law won’t bring back the lost value of a house affected by redlining. It won’t bridge the gulf created by decades of inferior education and lost opportunities. It does nothing to actually level the playing field. Racial justice is economic justice.
The United States government allocates five million dollars every year to support Holocaust survivors. Japanese Americans who were imprisoned in internment camps have also received reparations in recognition for what they endured. But, for three decades, congress has refused to even consider the question of reparations for the descendants of enslaved people.
After centuries of discrimination, what is needed are reparations.
White Americans like to believe that the struggle for racial justice has already been won. They point to milestones in civil-rights legislation, or the election of President Barack Obama, to make the point. Implicit is the idea that we should just “move on,” that Black people could lift themselves up if they just tried hard enough. But the American government has systematically impoverished Black people over four centuries, through enslavement, and then Jim Crow, and now economic segregation. Black poverty is not individual, or accidental. It’s the outcome of carefully designed policies. So achieving equality also needs to happen by careful design, on a federal level.
And reparations aren’t a zero-sum game. They aren’t a punishment, and they don’t need to come out of white Americans’ pockets. They need to come from the federal government. What’s good for Black Americans is good for all Americans. After all, the hard-fought gains of civil-rights activists benefit us all.
The year 1619 marks a painful date in the history of America.
We could try and forget that date, as we have for so long.
Or we could use it to inspire us. To remind us of the centuries of Black activists who’ve been working to create a democracy worthy of the Declaration of Independence. We can use it as a reminder of what’s possible when we’re willing to tell stories about what really happened, instead of ignoring inconvenient truths.
The story of America isn’t over yet. By acknowledging the legacy of slavery, we finally have the potential to build a country that doesn’t live in its shadow. A country where civil rights aren’t just talked about. A country that uplifts the most vulnerable of its inhabitants, and affirms their humanity before the law.
In accounting for the past, there’s an opportunity to shape a different kind of future. A future that really does live up to those words that Jefferson wrote in 1776.
To recap, that August day in 1619, when the White Lion docked in Virginia, set into motion the creation of America – an America built on enslaved labor. An America whose colonists’ freedom from the British Empire came at the price of human captivity and exploitation. The origin story of America starts with that date. But it’s not only a story of enslavement. It’s also a story about the incredible contribution of Black Americans, who have fought tirelessly to help America become the country it promised to be in the Declaration of Independence.
About the author
Nikole Hannah-Jones is a Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter covering racial injustice for The New York Times Magazine, and creator of the landmark 1619 Project. In 2017, she received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, known as the Genius Grant, for her work on educational inequality. She has also won a Peabody Award, two George Polk Awards, three National Magazine Awards, and the 2018 John Chancellor Award for Excellence in Journalism from Columbia University. In 2016, Hannah-Jones co-founded the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting, a training and mentorship organization geared toward increasing the number of investigative reporters of color. Hannah-Jones is the Knight Chair in Race and Journalism at Howard University, where she has founded the Center for Journalism and Democracy. In 2021, she was named one of Time’s 100 most influential people in the world.
The 1619 Project is an ongoing initiative from The New York Times Magazine that began in August 2019, the four hundredth anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It is led by Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, along with New York Times Magazine editor-in-chief Jake Silverstein and editors Ilena Silverman and Caitlin Roper.
History, Politics, Society Science, Culture, African American Demographic Studies, Black & African American History, Race, Social Movements, Social Justice, Cultural, Historical
Table of Contents
PREFACE: Origin by Nikole Hannah-Jones
CHAPTER ONE: Democracy by Nikole Hannah-Jones
CHAPTER TWO: The Creation of Race by Dorothy Roberts
CHAPTER THREE: Uprisings, Fear and Policing by Michelle and Leslie Alexander
CHAPTER FOUR: Second Amendment by Carol Anderson
CHAPTER FIVE: Native Americans and Slavery by Tiya Miles
CHAPTER SIX: The Roots of Capitalism by Matthew Desmond
CHAPTER SEVEN: Rule by Political Minority by Jamelle Bouie
CHAPTER SEVEN: Black Activism and Birthright Citizenship by Martha Jones
CHAPTER EIGHT: Mass Incarceration by Bryan Stevenson
CHAPTER NINE: The Sugar Trade by Khalil Muhammad
CHAPTER TEN: The Wealth Gap by Trymaine Lee
CHAPTER ELEVEN: The Roots of Racial Health Disparities by Linda Villarosa
CHAPTER TWELVE: Music by Wesley Morris
CHAPTER THIRTEEN: The Black Church by Anthea Butler
CHAPTER FOURTEEN: Health Care by Jeneen Interlandi
CHAPTER FIFTEEN: Traffic by Kevin Kruse
CHAPTER SIXTEEN: The Myth of Progress by Ibram Kendi
CHAPTER SEVENTEEN: Economic Justice by Nikole Hannah-Jones
#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • NAACP IMAGE AWARD WINNER • A dramatic expansion of a groundbreaking work of journalism, The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story offers a profoundly revealing vision of the American past and present.
ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR: The Washington Post, NPR, Esquire, Marie Claire, Electric Lit, Ms. magazine, Kirkus Reviews, Booklist
In late August 1619, a ship arrived in the British colony of Virginia bearing a cargo of twenty to thirty enslaved people from Africa. Their arrival led to the barbaric and unprecedented system of American chattel slavery that would last for the next 250 years. This is sometimes referred to as the country’s original sin, but it is more than that: It is the source of so much that still defines the United States.
The New York Times Magazine’s award-winning “1619 Project” issue reframed our understanding of American history by placing slavery and its continuing legacy at the center of our national narrative. This new book substantially expands on that work, weaving together eighteen essays that explore the legacy of slavery in present-day America with thirty-six poems and works of fiction that illuminate key moments of oppression, struggle, and resistance. The essays show how the inheritance of 1619 reaches into every part of contemporary American society, from politics, music, diet, traffic, and citizenship to capitalism, religion, and our democracy itself.
This is a book that speaks directly to our current moment, contextualizing the systems of race and caste within which we operate today. It reveals long-glossed-over truths around our nation’s founding and construction—and the way that the legacy of slavery did not end with emancipation, but continues to shape contemporary American life.
Featuring contributions from: Leslie Alexander • Michelle Alexander • Carol Anderson • Joshua Bennett • Reginald Dwayne Betts • Jamelle Bouie • Anthea Butler • Matthew Desmond • Rita Dove • Camille T. Dungy • Cornelius Eady • Eve L. Ewing • Nikky Finney • Vievee Francis • Yaa Gyasi • Forrest Hamer • Terrance Hayes • Kimberly Annece Henderson • Jeneen Interlandi • Honorée Fanonne Jeffers • Barry Jenkins • Tyehimba Jess • Martha S. Jones • Robert Jones, Jr. • A. Van Jordan • Ibram X. Kendi • Eddie Kendricks • Yusef Komunyakaa • Kevin M. Kruse • Kiese Laymon • Trymaine Lee • Jasmine Mans • Terry McMillan • Tiya Miles • Wesley Morris • Khalil Gibran Muhammad • Lynn Nottage • ZZ Packer • Gregory Pardlo • Darryl Pinckney • Claudia Rankine • Jason Reynolds • Dorothy Roberts • Sonia Sanchez • Tim Seibles • Evie Shockley • Clint Smith • Danez Smith • Patricia Smith • Tracy K. Smith • Bryan Stevenson • Nafissa Thompson-Spires • Natasha Trethewey • Linda Villarosa • Jesmyn Ward
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“Pleasingly symmetrical . . . [a] mosaic of a book, which achieves the impossible on so many levels—moving from argument to fiction to argument, from theme to theme, and backward and forward in time, so smoothly.” – Slate
“A wide-ranging, landmark summary of the Black experience in America: searing, rich in unfamiliar detail, exploring every aspect of slavery and its continuing legacy . . . Again and again, The 1619 Project brings the past to life in fresh ways. . . . Multifaceted and often brilliant.” – The New York Times Book Review
“The groundbreaking project from The New York Times, which created a new origin story for America based on the very beginnings of American slavery, is expanded into a very large, very powerful full-length book.” – Entertainment Weekly
“The ambitious project that got Americans rethinking our racial history—and sparked inevitable backlash—even before the reckoning that followed George Floyd’s murder, is expanded into a book incorporating essays from pretty much everyone you want to hear from about the country’s great topic and great shame.” – Los Angeles Times
“This fall’s required reading.” – Ms.
“[A] groundbreaking compendium . . . These bracing and urgent works, by multidisciplinary visionaries ranging from Barry Jenkins to Jesmyn Ward, build on the existing scholarship of The 1619 Project, exploring how the nation’s original sin continues to shape everything from our music to our food to our democracy. This collection is an extraordinary update to an ongoing project of vital truth-telling.” – Esquire
“By teaching how the country’s history has been one of depriving the rights of one group for the gain of another, and how those marginalized worked to claim those rights for all, The 1619 Project restores people erased from the national narrative, offering a motivating, if sobering, origin story we need to understand if we are ever going to truly achieve ‘liberty and justice for all.’” – Women’s Review of Books
“Those readers open to fresh and startling interpretations of history will find this book a comprehensive education.” – Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Powerful . . . This invaluable book sets itself apart by reframing readers’ understanding of U.S. history, past and present.” – Library Journal (starred review)
“Pulitzer winner Hannah-Jones . . . and an impressive cast of historians, journalists, poets, novelists, and cultural critics deliver a sweeping study of the ‘unparalleled impact’ of African slavery on American society.” – Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“For any lover of American history or letters, The 1619 Project is a visionary work that casts a sweeping, introspective gaze over what many have aptly termed the country’s original sin.” – BookPage (starred review)
“Readers will discover something new and redefining on every page.” – Booklist (starred review)
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Chapter 1 Democracy
My dad always flew an American flag in our front yard. The blue paint on our two-story house was sometimes chipped; the fence, or the rail by the stairs, or the front door might occasionally fall into disrepair, but that flag always flew pristine. Our corner lot, which had been redlined by the federal government, was along the river that divided the Black side from the white side of our Iowa town. At the edge of our lawn, high on an aluminum pole, soared the flag, which my dad would replace with a new one as soon as it showed the slightest tatter.
My dad was born into a family of sharecroppers on a white plantation in Greenwood, Mississippi, where Black people bent over cotton from can’t-see-in-the-morning to can’t-see-at-night, just as their enslaved ancestors had done not long before. The Mississippi of my dad’s youth was an apartheid state that subjugated its Black residents—almost half of the population—through breathtaking acts of violence. White residents in Mississippi lynched more Black people than those in any other state in the country, and the white people in my dad’s home county lynched more Black residents than those in any other county in Mississippi, for such “crimes” as entering a room occupied by white women, bumping into a white girl, or trying to start a sharecroppers union. My dad’s mother, like all the Black people in Greenwood, could not vote, use the public library, or find work other than toiling in the cotton fields or toiling in white people’s houses. In the 1940s, she packed up her few belongings and her three small children and joined the flood of Black Southerners fleeing to the North. She got off the Illinois Central Railroad in Waterloo, Iowa, only to have her hopes of the mythical Promised Land shattered when she learned that Jim Crow did not end at the Mason-Dixon Line.
Grandmama, as we called her, found a Victorian house in a segregated Black neighborhood on the city’s east side and then found the work that was considered Black women’s work no matter where Black women lived: cleaning white people’s homes. Dad, too, struggled to find promise in this land. In 1962, at age seventeen, he signed up for the army. Like many young men, he joined in hopes of escaping poverty. But he went into the military for another reason as well, a reason common to Black men: Dad hoped that if he served his country, his country might finally treat him as an American.
The army did not end up being his way out. He was passed over for opportunities, his ambition stunted. He would be discharged under murky circumstances and then labor in a series of service jobs for the rest of his life. Like all the Black men and women in my family, he believed in hard work, but like all the Black men and women in my family, no matter how hard he worked, he never got ahead.
So when I was young, that flag outside our home never made sense to me. How could this Black man, having seen firsthand the way his country abused Black Americans, the way it refused to treat us as full citizens, proudly fly its banner? My father had endured segregation in housing and school, discrimination in employment, and harassment by the police. He was one of the smartest people I knew, and yet by the time I was a work-study student in college, I was earning more an hour than he did. I didn’t understand his patriotism. It deeply embarrassed me.
I had been taught, in school, through cultural osmosis, that the flag wasn’t really ours, that our history as a people began with enslavement, and that we had contributed little to this great nation. It seemed that the closest thing Black Americans could have to cultural pride was to be found in our vague connection to Africa, a place we had never been. That my dad felt so much honor in being an American struck me as a marker of his degradation, of his acceptance of our subordination.
Like most young people, I thought I understood so much, when in fact I understood so little. My father knew exactly what he was doing when he raised that flag. He knew that our people’s contributions to building the richest and most powerful nation in the world were indelible, that the United States simply would not exist without us.
In August 1619, just twelve years after the English settled Jamestown, Virginia, one year before the Puritans landed at Plymouth, and some 157 years before English colonists here decided they wanted to form their own country, the Jamestown colonists bought twenty to thirty enslaved Africans from English pirates. The pirates had stolen them from a Portuguese slave ship whose crew had forcibly taken them from what is now the country of Angola. Those men and women who came ashore on that August day mark the beginning of slavery in the thirteen colonies that would become the United States of America. They were among the more than 12.5 million Africans who would be kidnapped from their homes and brought in chains across the Atlantic Ocean in the largest forced migration in human history until the Second World War. Almost two million did not survive the grueling journey, known as the Middle Passage.
Before the abolition of the international slave trade, more than four hundred thousand of those 12 million enslaved Africans transported to the Americas would be sold into this land. Those individuals and their descendants transformed the North American colonies into some of the most successful in the British Empire. Through backbreaking labor, they cleared territory across the Southeast. They taught the colonists to grow rice and to inoculate themselves against smallpox. After the American Revolution, they grew and picked the cotton that, at the height of slavery, became the nation’s most valuable export, accounting for half of American goods sold abroad and more than two-thirds of the world’s supply. They helped build the forced labor camps, otherwise known as plantations, of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, sprawling properties that today attract tens of thousands of visitors from across the globe captivated by the history of the world’s greatest democracy. They laid the foundations of the White House and the Capitol, even cast with their unfree hands the Statue of Freedom atop the Capitol dome. They lugged the heavy wooden tracks of the railroads that crisscrossed the South and carried the cotton picked by enslaved laborers to textile mills in the North, fueling this country’s Industrial Revolution. They built vast fortunes for white people in both the North and the South—at one time, the second-richest man in the nation was a Rhode Island “slave trader.” Profits from Black people’s stolen labor helped the young nation pay off its war debts and financed some of our most prestigious universities. The relentless buying, selling, insuring, and financing of their bodies and the products of their forced labor would help make Wall Street a thriving banking, insurance, and trading sector, and New York City a financial capital of the world.
But it would be historically inaccurate to reduce the contributions of Black people to the vast material wealth created by our bondage. Black Americans have also been, and continue to be, foundational to the idea of American freedom. More than any other group in this country’s history, we have served, generation after generation, in an overlooked but vital role: it is we who have been the perfecters of this democracy.
The United States is a nation founded on both an ideal and a lie. Our Declaration of Independence, approved on July 4, 1776, proclaims that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” But the white men who drafted those words did not believe them to be true for the hundreds of thousands of Black people in their midst. A right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” did not include fully one-fifth of the new country. Yet despite being violently denied the freedom and justice promised to all, Black Americans believed fervently in the American creed. Through centuries of Black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals. And not only for ourselves—Black rights struggles paved the way for every other rights struggle, including women’s and gay rights, immigrant and disability rights.
Without the idealistic, strenuous, and patriotic efforts of Black Americans, our democracy today would look very different; in fact, our country might not be a democracy at all.
One of the very first to die in the American Revolution was a Black and Indigenous man named Crispus Attucks who himself was not free. In 1770, Attucks lived as a fugitive from slavery, yet he became a martyr for liberty in a land where his own people would remain enslaved for almost another century. In every war this nation has waged since that first one, Black Americans have fought—today we are the most likely of all racial groups to serve in the United States military.
My father, one of those many Black Americans who answered the call, knew what it would take me years to understand: that the year 1619 is as important to the American story as 1776. That Black Americans, as much as those men cast in alabaster in the nation’s capital, are this nation’s true founding fathers. And that no people has a greater claim to that flag than we do.