Review: The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story

The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story by Nikole Hannah-Jones
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The old adage that history is written by the victors while not always true definitely has enough truth to it that one should always be concerned and critical of histories that reinforce a largely harmonious, homogeneous, and heartening history.  This is why The 1619 Project is so refreshing and powerful because it amply challenges the conventional history told in schools and popular media that centers white men's striving for more freedom (which often translates into wealth and power for everyone but is still concentrated among white men).  In its place, the writers center the enslavement of black people as the economic, intellectual, social,  medical, cultural, and legal center of the U.S.'s history. It does this effectively, drawing amply on substantial and wide-ranging established historians and primary sources to illustrate this picture.  After reading, it is hard to unsee the argument made; they provide such rich, numerous, and gut-wrenching examples to make their case. 

For instance, in order to craft the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the founders relied on enslaved people to free up their time and their minds to create, debate, and write these documents. That is, there's a one-to-one relationship between the enslaving of people (taking away their rights and freedoms) and the construction of the founding documents of the United States on this concept of freedom. Our tax structure and the complications we have with supporting it and do it effectively like other countries stems from bypassing income tax in the Constitution because the South wanted enslaved people to count for population counts when it related to political representation but not economic contribution.  Entire portions of medical breakthroughs come through experiments on Black bodies (dead or alive) because of racialized assumptions (validated by social and legal norms) about their bodies being less than and disposable.  The rise of policing marginalized populations began in earnest in the US with the rise of slave patrols and these slave patrols did not go away with the end of slavery, rather they were eventually converted into police patrols that harassed and arrested Black people on petty or made-up charges; this, in turn, led them to be re-enslaved through convict labor contracts (an institution that was at times as brutal as slavery).  

Poems and fictional pieces are interspersed with essays, providing a richer understanding of how these shifts may have been experienced or understood.  These pieces add insight and more feeling, essential to round out the work since such works were often not possible at the time (since legal and educational structures have kept enslaved people from writing and publishing for nearly as long as they have allowed it).  The book has some strong parallels to Four Hundred Souls, edited by Ibram X. Kendi, and feels like a perfect complementary pairing where this book provides more arching histories and Kendi's anthology brings the reader into the more specific histories of individuals.  Still, if one wants a cumulative look at the scholarship and understanding of the U.S.'s origin story; this is the book to read.

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