Review: ‘The 1619 Project’

May 14, 2022

From the May-June 2022 issue of News & Letters

The 1619 Project is a collective, ongoing effort to correct the theoretical course of the historical narrative of the U.S., to steer it true to its origins founded on the labor of enslaved Africans, the expropriation of Native American land, habitat, language and culture, and the manipulative exploitation of poor whites.


The 18 essays tackle U.S. history from 1619—the date the first 20 enslaved Africans were brought to Virginia—from multiple perspectives. Each essay is grounded in a wealth of original sources, scholarly works, interviews and oral histories. Pages with historical events, photographs of ordinary African-Americans and poetry surround each essay, adding a human touch and dramatic quality to this epic 400 year tale. Tragically, this pioneering work was immediately attacked as “Critical Race Theory” and by attempts to ban it from schools. Ironically, the bans greatly enlarged its readership.

Although every essay reveals historical facts, more important, previously unrecognized connections are brought out. In “Sugar,” Kahlil Gibran Muhammad describes Louisiana sugar production as the “white gold” which yielded more profit—and killed more enslaved workers—than either cotton or tobacco. Its brutality increased with the arrival of white planters escaping the Haitian Revolution.[1] Today it impacts unhealthy diets. “One of the great ironies,” Muhammad writes, is tha “the enslaved created an industry…[which] has taken its greatest toll on Black communities.”

“Race,” by Dorothy Roberts, presents laws like the Second Amendment, designed to quell slave rebellions and interracial sex. “The laws that invented race also created a regime intent on policing Black women’s sexuality and controlling Black women’s bodies…” Although she traces this oppression—and resistance, like Black women’s contribution of “reproductive justice” to feminism’s battle for abortion rights—she does not include Black Lives Matter, co-founded by Black lesbian and queer radical women in 2013.


Matthew Desmond’s essay “Capitalism”—actually American labor history—notes, “Rare…movements of multiracial solidarity” but sees them as “a glimpse of what might have been…” Unlike Karl Marx, who observed that “Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the Black it is branded,”[2] Desmond does not recognize this coalescence as historical high points of labor’s advancement.

“Dispossession” by Tia Miles chronicles how American Indian removal of the southeastern Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole nations was connected to the developing laws of racial caste, with Indigenous placed slightly above Black people. The enforced change from their forest lifestyle to farming in Oklahoma created Native American slaveholders—those who survived the Trail of Tears in 1838. Earlier, “thrown together by European invasion…Indigenous and African people came into intimate contact and forged relationships…”  Miles concludes with optimism, noting the mutual support between Black Lives Matter and the warriors against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Lead author Nikole Hannah-Jones final essay, “Justice,” outlines laws and policies denying wealth to Black people, despite their vanguard role in seeking freedom. Despite massive protests in 2020, Hannah-Jones cites the “grim reality:” protests and reforms change little.  She argues that “Wealth…is the means to security in America,” and Black Americans’ lack of it maintains racial caste. She concludes, “America must undergo a vast social transformation”…at the center of [which] must be reparations….”

The 1619 Project has been called “an eye-opener” by white and Black readers. It generates theorizing and questions including: Can justice be realized by achieving equity in a capitalist society? The 1619 Project can provoke discussions and action so that at long last “we…live up to the ideals on which we were founded.”

—Susan Van Gelder

[1] Leslie Alexander and Michelle Alexander’s essay “Fear” describes fear instilled in Black people, but also how fear of the Haitian Revolution (1791-1802) sparked panicked repression in the U.S. as it gave a powerful vision of freedom to the enslaved workers.

[2] American Civilization on Trial: Black Masses as Vanguard, News & Letters, 1983, p. 115.

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