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Look at your social media timelines, your news programs, even your school curriculums: the ahistorical agenda is going strong across the United States. With more force than ever before, we’ve watched the conservative right fuel a crusade against truth and facts at every level, specifically as it pertains to the clear role of white supremacy in American history. From Donald Trump to Ron DeSantis to hordes of angry parents at local town halls, conservatives are spearheading a national campaign against the discussion of racism in a historical context. But as much as they rant and rave, the sins of the founding fathers simply can’t be washed away. The truth won’t be whitewashed — not if Nikole Hannah-Jones and The 1619 Project have their say.
The roots of Hannah-Jones’ Pulitzer-winning journalistic initiative The 1619 Project go back to 2019, when the scholar and investigative journalist first published the work in the New York Times for a special edition of the publication commemorating the 400th anniversary of the date that the first enslaved Africans arrived in the colonies. Mainstream history accounts tend to downplay the level of violence that Black people have been systematically subjected to for centuries, but they also discount the intrinsic role of Blackness in the development of this country. The intention of The 1619 Project was crystal clear: highlighting the ways in which Black people have been part of the very fiber of American culture since the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade.
As expected, the backlash against Hannah-Jones’ work was swift, with naysayers from both sides of the aisle taking issue with the objective of The 1619 Project. Some critics asserted that the project wasn’t completely accurate, citing minor mistakes (ex: asserting that the legal protection of slavery in the 13 colonies was a major motivator of the American Revolution) throughout the work, but other stances were less founded on facts. Claiming that the project was yet another example of Black Americans peddling “lies” about the United States in order to make today’s generation of white people feel bad and take responsibility for something that happened years ago — despite the repercussions of slavery and racism still being felt to this day — many conservatives have rallied against the different manifestations of The 1619 Project and have called for all of them to be banned from libraries and schools across the country. These consequences were personal for Hannah-Jones, too; the scandal surrounding the project nearly cost her a tenured position as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (UNC would later offer her the position after public outcry, but Hannah-Jones declined it in favor of joining the faculty at the illustrious Howard University.)
Controversy and all, The 1619 Project couldn’t be contained. In a major breakthrough for Hannah-Jones and the New York Times amidst continuing protests against their work, they were able to sign a deal with Disney and Hulu that would turn the historical undertaking into a six-part docuseries that premiered on January 26. The new Hulu offering puts visual context to the controversial historical project, documenting Hannah-Jones’ journey to uncover the unspoken reverberations of slavery on almost every corner of American culture. That path starts on a personal note, with Hannah-Jones herself giving audiences a glimpse into the ways that systemic racism and anti-Blackness shaped her own family trajectory; she talks about how her father, a blue collar worker who labored for most of his life, chased the American dream even when the system made it impossible.
In later episodes, Hannah-Jones connects with other Black history scholars and activists to discuss ideas like democracy, fear, justice, music, and capitalism through a Black lens. In one chapter of this story, Hannah-Jones sits with civil rights activist MacArthur Cotton and learns about the lengths that he and the rest of the Mississippi grassroots organization Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) resorted to in order to help expand voting rights for Black people during the civil rights movement — a disheartening parallel to the voter registration endeavors we’ve seen in response to the not-so-subtle top-down suppression efforts still happening to this day. In another, the confusing origins of the concept of race are broken down to the basics, exposing the classification’s intrinsic tie to misogynoir and how that discrimination continues to be observable in modern-day reproductive justice discourse. Each enlightening conversation in The 1619 Project is aimed at filling in those gaps of American history where Blackness was consciously omitted, and they show exactly how racism is threaded into the very fiber of our society.
In a culture where misinformation is fueled by a collective spirit of anti-Blackness, where politicians are rewriting history to look favorably upon slave owners and Klansmen while downplaying the brutality of white supremacy, historical accounts of Blackness are more crucial than ever.
“I became a journalist because I wanted to do important work,” Hannah-Jones told Variety of her hopes for The 1619 Project. “I wanted to do work that told our stories and took our stories from the margins and put them in the center of the American story, as they should be. I know that there will be people who will never watch a single minute of The 1619 Project, just like they’ll never read a single word. And I’m, frankly, not spending any time worrying about them.”
“I think most Americans even realize how poorly we’ve been taught this history and want to know more; they just don’t know that there’s more to know, they just don’t know there’s a different way to understand our story,” she continued. “That’s what I’m focusing on — all those people who might scroll through Hulu and come across this and say, ‘Hmm, I never heard of this before,’ or ‘Hmm, I’ve heard the year 1619 on Fox News, but what is it actually about?’”
The 1619 Project is a tough watch. Between the many stories of widespread voter disenfranchisement, rampant social and state-sanctioned racial abuse, and the horrific efforts from those in power to continue that mistreatment over the years, the docuseries is a tough pill to swallow, even for those of us who have always known the level of violence that Black people have faced in this country — and that’s just what we’ve seen in the three episodes that have aired so far. It feels especially devastating to know that centuries years after the first enslaved Africans arrived on these shores, true freedom for all has yet to be achieved.
Nonetheless, these hard truths are also timely, essential truths that are particularly important for the generations of Black Americans still trying to press on towards that ideal. In fact, the wave of hostility towards The 1619 Project actually helps its cause because it underscores why its existence is necessary. In a culture where misinformation is fueled by a collective spirit of anti-Blackness, where politicians are rewriting history to look favorably upon slave owners and Klansmen while downplaying the brutality of white supremacy, historical accounts of Blackness are more crucial than ever. We need these stories to combat the revisionist lies about this country that are spreading like wildfire. We need these narratives to remember that, Black Americans have a seat at the table. Matter of fact, they built the seats and the table.
No matter what the snowflakes say, Black history is American history, and no amount of erasure can take that away. If we face our past unflinchingly, we can look to our future — a better future.
New episodes of The 1619 Project are now streaming, only on Hulu.