For centuries, school children in America have been lied to, taught that July 4, 1776 is the most important day in this country’s history. What the education system in America failed to do was teach students the truth about August 20, 1619 — the day 20-30 enslaved Africans first arrived at a port in the British colony of Virginia.
New York Times writer Nikole Hannah-Jones is the lead author of the 1619 Project, a collection of essays and literary works observing the 400th anniversary of the beginning of the country’s darkest sin — American slavery. The prevailing narrative taught in schools is that Black Americans’ history begins with enslavement and they had contributed little to the founding of this nation, which is far from the truth.
In collaboration with the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, Hannah-Jones, along with NBA player and Benton Harbor native Wilson Chandler, brought the 1619 Project to Detroit to examine the story of slavery and the many ways its legacy continues to define our nation. The panel included Hannah-Jones, New York Times music critic Wesley Morris, genealogist and 1619 Project contributor, Kenyatta D. Berry, who is a native of Detroit, and Rochelle Riley, director of arts and culture for the City of Detroit.
“Black Americans came here under unique circumstances,” Hannah-Jones said to hundreds of people in the Wright, including Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist. “We are the only people who were forced to come here. We are the only people who did not choose to come across the ocean seeking a better life, but who were stolen from their native land and forced into the bowels of ships.”
The 1619 Project took eight months to produce and was published online August 14. A commemorative print edition was included with the August 18 issue of The New York Times Magazine. The 100-page magazine contains more than 80 pages of historical essays. It also includes 17 original literary works by contemporary black writers that bring to life key moments in African-American history, and original artwork by leading black artists.Everyone that attended the event at The Wright went home with a copy.
“This project is, above all, an attempt to set the record straight. To finally, in this 400th year, tell the truth about who we are as a people and who we are as a nation,” added Hannah-Jones. “It is time to stop hiding from our sins and confront them. And then in confronting them, it is time to make them right.”
The project earned praise from academics, journalists, activists, celebrities, and politicians alike, including Presidential hopeful Kamala Harris, who labeled it “powerful and necessary reckoning of our history” and John Legend, who praised the project’s writers and creators.
It also had a few critics, including former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, calling the 1619 Project “a lie” and “propaganda.”
Hannah-Jones addressed Gingrich’s comments at the 1619 Project in Detroit.
“I’m very proud that he called it racist propaganda,” she said.
To bring the groundbreaking 1619 Project into the classroom, the Pulitzer Center created a curriculum for teachers of all grade levels. The curriculum asks students to examine the history and the legacy of slavery in the United States, as well as our national memory.
The Pulitzer Center has put out a call for educators to share their own lessons developed from the 1619 Project and will highlight select lessons and student work in the coming months. It also uploaded the full print edition of the 1619 Project as a PDF. The Wright has physical copies of the project available for free in its bookstore.
“Until teachers do a better job of educating their students about the harsh realities and racial injustice of slavery, as well as the humanity and creativity of those who were enslaved, they will never be able to help students understand today’s disparities in wealth, education and incarceration,” said Brandy Thomas, an educator in Detroit. “It will be impossible for us as a society to eliminate the racial inequities that continue to divide us. The 1619 Project needs to be in our school systems, especially those servicing Black students.”