Book Review: ‘The 1619 Project’

Time and time again, Project 1619 brings the past to life in new ways. I knew nothing of, say, Callie House, a Tennessee widowed laundromat who was born into slavery and organized in the early 1900s a national movement to demand pensions for formerly enslaved, like the pensions paid to former Union soldiers. When Congress refused, the House of Representatives sued the federal government, arguing that “the U.S. Treasury owes black Americans $68,073,388.99 for taxes it collected between 1862 and 1868 on cotton slaves who grew. The federal government identified cotton and could track it.” Her audacity so enraged Woodrow Wilson’s white Southern cabinet that they made sure House and her lawyers were charged with mail fraud. She spent a year in prison.

Most readers may also not know that a farmer can obtain mortgages on his enslaved workers. Thomas Jefferson did to raise funds to build Monticello. If the debtor defaults, the bank then auctions off these men and women—further further disintegrating slavery for families. The book also reminds us that the stains of slavery in our history were not confined to the South. Nearly 1,000 trips were made to Africa to buy captives from Rhode Island. In the aftermath of the 18th century uprising, 21 enslaved men and women were executed – some burned to the stage and one tied to a large wheel while his bones were broken with a hammer – in New York City.

Several times, the writer of “Project 1619” has made a bold assertion that departs so far from seemingly exaggerated conventional wisdom. Then comes the zinger that proves the author’s point of view. For example, Hannah Jones, who wrote the book’s foreword and the first and last of his 18 articles, declares that the way the Constitution allowed Congress to outlaw the Atlantic slave trade after 20 years (beginning in 1808) is an order that is “often put off as evidence on the anti-slavery sentiment of the drafters “but” it can in some ways be considered self-serving.” Self-serving? She says the Virginians, so prominent among the Founding Fathers, knew that “years of tobacco farming had depleted the soil, and landowners like Jefferson were turning to crops that required less labor, like wheat. This meant they needed fewer slaves to make a profit. and “they stood to make money by cutting off the supply of new people from Africa and . . . selling surplus labor” to the cotton and sugar growers of the south. Then the reader asks. Prove That. And it does: Over the course of 30 years, “Virginia alone has sold between 300,000 and 350,000 slaves south, nearly all of the Africans sold in the United States over the course of the period of slavery.”

Another example comes from Ibram X. Kendi, who writes about “seeing our past as a march of racial progress” from the Emancipation Proclamation to the election of Barack Obama. This has long been a comforting myth, he says, quoting George Washington as saying that slavery was on the way to disappearing. But, as the reader thinks, can the celebration of progress not coexist with the realization that we still have a long way to go? How can Kennedy claim that the narrative of progress “actually undermines efforts to achieve and maintain equality”? Rhetorical exaggeration? Yes, but then comes the zinger: In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down the Voting Rights Act on the grounds that Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in a majority opinion that since its passage in 1965, “things have changed dramatically.”

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