‘You can no longer say that you don’t know’: 1619 Project creator reframes American history

By Sophia McDermott-Hughes

Hannah-Jones at podium
“We are never taught about the unparalleled role that Black people have played in perfecting our democracy and expanding the common good and actually believing in the ideals of the revolutionary period,” Hannah-Jones said during her Tuesday night talk.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, an award-winning investigative journalist and the founder of the New York Times’ Magazine 1619 Project, spoke to over 700 people in Mead Chapel on Tuesday night. In her talk, titled “1619 and the Legacy that Built a Nation,” she revealed the holes and hypocracies in the popular narrative of American history and the country’s indelible legacy of slavery.

The New York Times Magazine launched the 1619 project in Aug. 2019, the 400-year anniversary of the beginning of slavery in America. The project, initially developed as a magazine issue and podcast, hosted by Hannah-Jones, “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”

The event, featured as part of the Critical Conversations lecture series about race, was sponsored by the Black Studies Program, Middlebury College Activities Board, the Office of the President, and Critical Conversations.

During the talk, Hannah-Jones challenged the conventional view of the U.S. as an uniquely remarkable country founded on the principles of liberty and equality, highlighting the irony of Thomas Jefferson writing in the Declaration of Independence that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” while his enslaved brother-in-law served him and made him comfortable in his temporary Philadelphia residence. She noted that ten out of the first 12 presidents were slave owners.

Hannah-Jones explained that the U.S. was built on the “backs of Black bondage,” Proceeds from the slave trade led to the prosperity of American financial institutions like Wall Street and allowed for the creation of many academic instiutions. Slaves built much of Washington D.C. and constructed the infrastructure and provided that fueled the industrial revolution. Yet much of the basic infrastructure in modern America, such as the highway systems in many major cities, were built to contain and oppress African Americans.

Filled Mead Chapel
Mead Chapel, which has seating for 750 people, had standing room only for Hannah-Jones’ talk titled “1619 and the Legacy that Built a Nation.”

Despite being the targets of oppression and hypocrisy throughout U.S. history, African Americans have constantly toiled to improve the nation. Hannah-Jones described the Black civil rights movement as a catalyst for change and equality across a variety of marginalized groups, pushing the country to live up to the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence.

“Out of the Black resistance struggle is every other resistance struggle and freedom struggle and rights struggle in this country. They all owe their inheritance to their Black rights struggle,” Hannah-Jones said. She cited the use of the 14th amendment’s equal protection clause, which emerged from the abolition movement, in the Supreme Court case that legalized same-sex marriage in 2015.

Critics have called Hannah-Jones unpatriotic, chiding her criticism of the legitimacy of the founding fathers’ ideals. In her talk, she responded by saying that the project is “only unpatriotic to those who believe that Black people are not Americans,” because Black people have always fought for and upheld those ideals, even as their rights were deliberately withheld by the U.S. government.

“We are never taught about the unparalleled role that Black people have played in perfecting our democracy and expanding the common good and actually believing in the ideals of the revolutionary period,” she said.

Hannah-Jones lamented the absence of these narratives in her own childhood, acknowledging the power in celebrating African Americans as “the real founders of this country”. Since the 1619 project launched, it has since expanded into an upcoming book and a history curriculum that has been widely adopted by schools across the country.

“When I think about the project, I hope that we will create a generation of Black children who are freed from that shame that so many of us were raised in and who feel they have a right to claim their own country,” she said.

Beyond empowering African Americans, Hannah-Jones hopes that the project will lead Americans of all races to reflect on the legacies of slavery in America.

“You don’t have to personally have family that owned enslaved people to have profited and benefitted from a system of slavery,” Hannah-Jones said. “[After this talk] you can no longer say that you don’t know that. From here on forward it’s a choice about whether you continue to benefit from it or if you work to deconstruct it and work to create the country of our ideals.”