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  • Louis Arata

Book Review: The 1619 Project

In A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn writes that “there is no such thing as a pure fact, innocent of interpretation. Behind every fact presented to the world – by a teacher, a writer, anyone – is a judgment. The judgment that has been made is that this fact is important, and that other facts, omitted, are not important.”

While reading The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story, I kept feeling like I was reading the facts that have been consciously omitted from the historical narrative of the United States. Certainly, many of these issues around enslavement have been explored and presented in books, movies, and documentaries, but what is distinctive about The 1619 Project is that these issues are brought to centerstage. They have been gathered into one text as a means of reporting a history of the U.S. that is often overlooked, marginalized, or simply eliminated.

The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story is an anthology of essays, poetry, and prose by various writers that explores the legacy of enslavement in shaping the United States. It focuses on the pervasive racist attitudes and policies that continue to suppress and harm Black citizens, and it does this by following the narrative thread through politics, citizenship, incarceration, capitalism, and justice. The essays touch on health care, religion, and music, even urban planning as examples of how Black identity and participation in the U.S.’s history have been denied or appropriated or reframed so that their involvement is pushed to the side.

In other words, Blacks have influenced much of U.S. culture but they are not given credit for it because the tendency is that the only true history of our country involves what White people do.

In the essay, “Progress,” Ibram X. Kendi writes:

“Inequality lives, in part, because Americans of every generation have been misled into believing that racial progress is inevitable and ongoing. That racial progress is America’s manifest destiny. That racial progress defines the arc of American history since 1619. That ‘things have changed dramatically.’ In fact, this has more often been rhetoric than reality, more often myth than history. Saying that the nation can progress racially is a necessary statement of hope. Saying that the nation has progressed racially is usually a statement of ideology, one that has been used all too often to obscure the opposite reality of racist progress.”

Kendi describes the constant pendulum swing that occurs anytime there is an effort at “racial progress”; the pendulum always swings back to racist policies. Such as, Black men (not women) gained the right to vote, but then Southern Democrats set into place policies that blocked them from voting (e.g., they had to own property in order to vote).

There has been some backlash to The 1619 Project, most particularly that some historians and journalists take exception to how history is interpreted. Even Donald Trump, as president, commissioned the 1776 Project to promote a “patriotic education.”

What these critiques overlook, in my opinion, is that The 1619 Project is endeavoring to raise awareness of aspects of U.S. history that are often overlooked. The essays reframe the familiar narrative so that questions can be asked, new perspectives can be considered, and a better understanding of racist policies can be addressed and, hopefully, resolved.

Given that we live in a diverse culture – not simply a White one – it would benefit us all to consider a more diverse, critical perspective of how we got here. As a white man, I am still running to catch up on all that I was not taught throughout the course of my life. Fortunately, I have had some effective guides along the way to open my eyes, but even so I appreciate how this book is encouraging me to keep listening for new voices, because the whole story has not yet been told.

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