Changing your mind is hard. Changing your worldview is almost impossible. The 1619 Project, created by the Pulitzer Center and the New York Times, aims to change our worldview about the United States of America by identifying our founding date as 1619, the year the first enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia. We are used to thinking of our founding as necessarily involving documents signed by wealthy white men, asserting our right to independence and then framing our government. The 1619 Project challenges us to look at the organic birth of our nation as the moment when a group of European men decided that they could treat a group of African people as property, not human beings. And thus was the United States of America birthed as a nation that permanently consigned people from Africa to immutable slave status, based on their skin pigmentation and geographic origin. Historically slaves have always had a way out of slavery through serving a designated number of years, purchasing their freedom or being freed by their owners for any number of reasons. Enslaved people from Africa in the United States had no way out. They still do not and they are still reaping the whirlwind that those European men started in 1619.
So where does this previously unacknowledged information about the birth of the American idea leave white Americans and their view of our country’s beginnings? As we struggle with our country’s racial history, we are trapped in a state of cognitive dissonance. What began in 1776 and what began in 1619? The official declaration of independence from England occurred in 1776 and all of the iconic celebrations of July 4th emerged from that declaration. The foundation of social and economic relations between two groups of people, the owners/founders and the owned/enslaved, began in 1619. The United States would not have happened without the labor of people who were kidnapped from Africa and transported under brutal conditions to the Western hemisphere. “Out of slavery — and the anti-Black racism it required — grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional: its economic might, its industrial power, its electoral system, diet and popular music, the inequities of its public health and education, its astonishing penchant for violence, the example it sets for the world as a land of freedom and equality, its slang, its legal system and the endemic racial fears and hatred that continue to plague it to this day (Silverstein, NYT, 8/18/2019, p. 4).”
Racism began to be constructed by the original slaveholders to justify enslavement. By 1776 slavery was well established. When the authors of the Declaration wrote that all men were created equal, they did not include men from Africa. When the Constitution was ratified, persons of African origin were consigned to property status. An entire population of Africans and their descendants have been fighting ever since to regain their legal status as human beings, citizens and equal persons under the law.
Reframing the world view of many white Americans in the light of this information requires enormous courage. If we retain the perspective that this reframing is a zero-sum game, our habitual violence and interracial hostility will continue unabated. We cannot allow ourselves to think about the information presented in The 1619 Project as anything other than a serious effort to correct historical inaccuracies, confusions and deliberate attempts to mislead all of us. If we do that, and this document receives the widest possible consideration, we may be able to transform the worldview of Americans to a broader, more just and inclusive notion of who we are.