In the United States: ‘The 1619 Project’ Books Arrive Amid Heated Debate

From Publishing Perspectives:

Some members of Publishing Perspectives‘ international readership may not be familiar with The 1619 Project. It’s an example of long-form journalism that premiered in August 2019 in The New York Times Magazine and was timed to the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in the American colony of Virginia.

Those slaves, reportedly more than 20, were sold to the Virginian English colonists. As The 1619 Project’s opening text puts it, “No aspect of the country that would be formed” as the United States “has been untouched by the years of slavery that followed.” And what follows is an evocation of American history that begins not in 1776 but in 1619 when that ship arrived at Point Comfort, Virginia.

“The goal of The 1619 Project according to its introductory text, “is to reframe American history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year. Doing so requires us to place the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are as a country.”

And the forthcoming publication of an expanded edition of The 1619 Project as a book finds some in the United States publishing market newly evaluating the industry’s potential at a time fraught with political and social division.

In May 2020, Nikole Hannah-Jones was named the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary as the creator of The 1619 Project. The Pulitzer recognition specifically honored Hannah-Jones’ essay Our democracy’s ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true. And the write-up on her work went on to call the project itself “a groundbreaking look at the impact of slavery 400 years after the first slaves arrived in what would become the United States.”

At the heart of the project’s assertion is the self-evident truth that even as Jefferson wrote in the 1776 American Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” there clearly were people who were not considered in any way equal to others in the nascent republic. Myriad inequalities, both real and perceived, are actually integral to the American experiment.

On November 16, a week from today (November 9), Penguin Random House’s One World will release The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story and The 1619 Project: Born on the Water, the latter a middle-grade children’s book by Hannah-Jones, Renée Watson, and illustrator Nikkolas Smith. Penguin Random House has created a site for the project and the release of these books with extensive listings of events planned around the release and a high-school teachers’ guide.

The upcoming publication of The New York Times Magazine’s work is quickly becoming a focus of social and political activity, particularly through programs developed to let consumers donate copies of the work for use in educational and other settings. This is a reflection of what Penguin Random House worldwide CEO Markus Dohle was talking about on October 20 when he gave an exclusive interview to Publishing Perspectives to inaugurate Frankfurter Buchmesse’s production facility, Frankfurt Studio.

“We know from psychology,” Dohle said, “that immersing yourself into complex stories—particularly into complex characters—helps you to put yourself into other people’s shoes. It helps you to actually see the world from other points of view, and we know it creates empathy and human values, especially in young people. That’s what the world needs right now if we want to help defend our democracy, based on human values.

“Let’s get all kids reading in long-form, and I think we can make a good contribution to help our democracy, as we’ve enjoyed it for the last 75 years after World War II, to survive. I truly believe in the value of publishing but also in our responsibility to help our society, to come together and to heal from what has become a really, really polarized world.”

During the pre-order period, The 1619 Project at Amazon.com swiftly has become the No. 1 bestseller in African American Demographic Studies and in Black and African American History and Born on the Water has become the No. 2 bestseller in Children’s American Revolution History and No. 3 in Children’s Multicultural Biographies.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

While PG has friends who think The 1619 Project is an excellent idea, he believes the original 1619 Project book does not present an accurate view of the influences on the founding of the United States and its core governing document, The United States Constitution. One of the most important predecessors and influence on The Constitution was the Declaration of Independence.

If one is looking for an early influence on the future development of the nation, the Mayflower Compact, written and signed in the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts provides a significant intellectual and values-based foundation for the Constitution.

The Pilgrims in Plymouth found themself in an unusual situation. They were originally British, but had been driven by religious persecution to Holland. The ship included both Pilgrims and non-Pilgrims.

Their original destination – the Northern Part of the British Virginia Colony – was a large, unexplored and amorphous area that included present-day Virginia, but also extended up into today’s State of New York. Their specific original destination is believed to be the mouth of the Hudson River. They were definitely not heading to the existing colony in Jamestown, Virginia.

Suffice to say, their ship, The Mayflower, was blown or mis-navigated off-course and they landed on Cape Code in present-day Massachusetts on November 21, 1620. Before they debarked from the ship, they drafted The Mayflower Contract, a document that would govern the new colony.

The Compact was a short document that provided:

It was a short document which established that set forth the following:

  • the colonists would remain loyal subjects to King James, despite their need for self-governance
  • the colonists would create and enact “laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions and offices…” for the good of the colony, and abide by those laws
  • the colonists would create one society and work together to further it
  • the colonists would live in accordance with the Christian faith

The Mayflower Compact was the first document to establish principles of self-governance in the New World. It was an early and successful attempt at democracy, something different than the British had at the time. Some historians trace the American Revolution and its rebellion against British rule 150 years later to the habits and principles of self-government that began in Plymouth and spread through the remainder of the colonies thereafter.

Since 1215, the Magna Carta had established the rule of law, but the law was the King’s law. Under the Mayflower Compact, the colonists pledged to recognize and obey laws they made for themselves.

Both Pilgrims and everyone else on the ship spent the winter on Cape Cod. It was bitterly cold with strong winds off the Atlantic and ample snow. When the ship returned to England the next spring, a few of the crew stayed in Plymouth. The ship also included some indentured servants – twenty – out of a total of 104 passengers.

A British indentured servant at this time agreed to provide 4-7 years of labor in exchange for passage to a colony, food, lodging and what were called “freedom dues” – payment at the end of indenture intended to give the unpaid servant some sort of start in life thereafter.

The first winter was very difficult due to severe weather – a climate much different than anyone on the ship was accustomed to – poor food, very crude quickly-built housing and the lack of proper clothing. About half of the Mayflower’s passengers and 14 of the indentured servants died.

In 1621, the colonists recruited additional indentured servants from England, Scotland and Ireland. Some of the earliest laws of the Plymouth Colony related to the proper treatment of indentured servants both during and after their period of indenture was complete.

The indentured servants became a adjunct to the family they were required to serve. The master was legally obligated to care for the servant until the end of the indenture, even if the servant became sick, disabled or otherwise unable to work. After the indenture was complete, these men and women became fully-participating citizens of the colony and used their freedom dues to start their new lives.

Indenture was not identical to slavery in that the indentured servant entered into the indenture agreement of their own free will, albeit often under severe financial circumstances. Slavery of any sort, including the enslavement of African men and women in the Southern Colonies, later states, was abhorrent to those many other Northern colonies that patterned their constitutions and laws on principles similar to those contained in the Mayflower Compact and the later laws that sprang from it.

To be sure, Thomas Jefferson, the author of The Declaration of Independence, was a slaveholder throughout his life and had a long-term African slave, Sally Hemmings, as his mistress.

That said, Jefferson was a man of the Enlightenment and was well-versed in the writings of the British writer, John Locke. In Locke’s book, Two Treaties of Government, published in 1690, the year after the Glorious Revolution, he championed the idea of Natural Law, extending the work begun by Plato and Aristotle and continued through Thomas Aquinas and his discussions of Natural Law, the first precept of which was, “good is to be done and promoted, and evil is to be avoided.”

Jefferson’s passages in the Declaration of Independence contending that “all men are created equal,” and all men thus possess “inalienable rights,” to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are directly connected to Locke and similar Enlightenment authors back to Aquinas and ultimately to Plato and Aristotle.

In his first draft of The Declaration of Independence, Jefferson included a passionate assault on slavery and the slave trade.

Per Wikipedia, Britain had a long history in the slave trade. Admiral Sir John Hawkins is widely acknowledged to be “the Pioneer of the English Slave Trade”. In 1554–1555, Hawkins formed a slave trading syndicate of wealthy merchants. He sailed with three ships for the Caribbean via Sierra Leone, hijacked a Portuguese slave ship and sold the 300 slaves from it in Santo Domingo. During a second voyage in 1564, his crew captured 400 Africans and sold them at Rio de la Hacha in present-day Colombia, making a 60% profit for his financiers. A third voyage involved both buying slaves directly in Africa and capturing a Portuguese ship with its cargo; upon reaching the Caribbean, Hawkins sold all the slaves.

On his return, he published a book entitled An Alliance to Raid for Slaves. It is estimated that Hawkins transported 1,500 enslaved Africans across the Atlantic during his four voyages of the 1560s. Some entrepreneurs brought slaves to Britain, where they were kept in bondage.

By the mid-18th century, London had the largest African population in Britain, made up of free and enslaved people, as well as many runaways. The total number may have been about 10,000. Owners of African slaves in England would advertise slave-sales and rewards for the recapture of runaways.

The slave trade became a major economic mainstay for such cities as Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow, engaged in the so-called “Triangular trade”. The ships set out from Britain, loaded with trade goods which were exchanged on the West African shores for slaves captured by local rulers from deeper inland; the slaves were transported through the infamous “Middle Passage” across the Atlantic, and were sold at considerable profit for labour in plantations. The ships were loaded with export crops and commodities, the products of slave labour, such as cotton, sugar and rum, and returned to Britain to sell the items.

William Wilberforce’s Slave Trade Act 1807 abolished the slave trade (but not ownership) in the British Empire. It was not until the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 that the institution finally was abolished, but on a gradual basis.

The Church of England was involved in slavery. The Anglican Church’s Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts owned sugar plantations in the West Indies, including slaves who worked on those plantations during this period.

When slaves were emancipated by Act of the British Parliament in 1834 (58 years after Jefferson wrote the original draft of the Declaration of Independence denouncing slavery), the British government paid compensation to slave owners. Among those they paid were the Bishop of Exeter and three business colleagues, who received compensation for 665 slaves. The compensation of British slaveholders was almost £17 billion in current money.

None of this overly-long commentary is meant to excuse slavery in any form at any time.

However, the idea that slavery is or was a uniquely American institution is incorrect. Slavery was practiced, with few exceptions, all over the world and still exists in some nations.

Back to the 1619 Project.

In PG’s opinion, this is an effort to misrepresent the foundation of American society, including the ideas embodied in the Declaration of Independence and made the country’s legal foundational in the United States Constitution.

A great many other countries besides Britain and the United States have periods in their history where slavery of different types was practiced and treated as ordinary or ignored by the majority of its citizens.

PG suggests that the ideas of individual freedom manifested in the Mayflower Compact and many other foundational documents of the nation ultimately lead to the American Civil War, fought to preserve the United States and its ultimate ideals.

That war was fought primarily to abolish slavery and all of its attendant evils and threats to the nation’s fundamental character, welfare and future posed by the Southern States.

The Civil War resulted in the death of more Americans than any other American war and, indeed, the deaths of more American than in all the other American wars the nation ever fought from the War of Independence through the Korean War. That’s how important it was to abolish slavery in this country.

26 thoughts on “In the United States: ‘The 1619 Project’ Books Arrive Amid Heated Debate”

  1. All of the sales in 1619, including those of the Africans, were of the indentures – not of the persons. Africans were in the minority, too; some fifty plus years later (1676), three out of four indentured servants in the colonies were still white European in racial makeup.

    Actual chattel slavery (i.e., lifelong servitude and the same for any progeny) was the initial rule in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies, not the English ones. (Some also in the French areas – although more of local natives, not imported.)

    Widespread slavery, and its close cousins of serfdom and peonage, had largely disappeared from the Western world by the 16th and 17th centuries – that they had a resurgence with the rush to colonization is a blot on Western civilization, but, fortunately, only a temporary one. Although with much blood shed by both abolitionists and slaveholders in the Western Hemisphere. (The Mexican Revolution of a hundred years ago was just as bloody, in relation to the population, as the Civil War in the US.)

    • No. The Spartans made the antebellum South look like rabid humanitarians. (Which is more an indicator of Spartan vice than Southern virtue.)
      The closest equivalent to Sparta at the time would have been the West Indies, in terms of both the free/slave ratio and the conditions under which the slaves lived. (In fact, the West Indies come off worse by comparison. The mortality rate among slaves there was extraordinarily high.)

    • I’m feeling exceptionally polite at the moment, so I’ll just state that this assertion neglects wide swaths of history not ordinarily taught in American schools or even to American undergraduates.

      • This. One place that I agree with modern academia is that schools in this country are absolutely horrible at teaching history from anything but an Anglo-American viewpoint. Whether it emphasizes the good or the bad, the history and cultures of the rest of the world are largely ignored except where they impinge upon the British Isles or the colonies and later nation in the region of the United States.

        • Sure. People are naturally more interested in their own heritage.

          I suspect if we visit those other cultures we will see the same thing.

  2. History is written by the winners…
    …but I think some folks are jumping the gun.
    1619 may go the way of BLACK ATHENA.

    • One probably shouldn’t reply to rhetorical questions, but in case of reader ignorance someone answer: “Africans of course”.

      • Specifically, in this case, to Spanish slavers. The Africans on that Spanish ship in 1619 were bound for a life of slavery, except for the interception and taking of said ship by a Dutch privateer, who then transported them to the English colonies.

        One cannot really blame the Dutch for not “doing the right thing” and returning them to their people. One, that would have been a very difficult and dangerous thing to do, as the Africans who would likely receive them would have been very glad to see them – they could sell the same merchandise twice. Two, the Spanish ship was obviously a very poor prize (it was bound to the Spanish colonies, not from them with a load of gold and silver), and indenturing the rescuees, to sell those indentures to the English, was a reasonable and accepted way in that day to recover some of their expenses.

    • She was, however, three-quarters white – a legal limit at the time. Their children legally qualified as white and were accepted as part of white society.

      • Not sure how that negates the fact that she was considered to be owned by Jefferson and would have had, in the words of the Monticello website, “no legal right to refuse unwanted sexual advances.” She certainly made the best out of the situation, but I think it’s disingenuous to pretend that anyone in her situation was consenting in any meaningful way.

        • No. No person now alive has any idea of the relationship between Jefferson and Heming. Other than the biologically proven physical one, that is.

          Case in point: I am legally obligated (in this State) to share equally the property with my wife, if we were to separate. But, soon after she accepted my proposal (in a non-community property State, mind you), we established joint banking accounts, and (when I actually had any property to speak of), I wrote my will with her as the primary beneficiary. Everything else that I could (legally) do to ensure that she was an equal partner in the relationship was also done.

          Without any legal obligation to do so, until we were legally married some five years plus after becoming affianced.

          “Legal” is not a cut and dried indication of reality on the ground.

          (Not that many masters did not force themselves on their female slaves without their consent. But the collective is not the individual.)

          • Modern societies have no understanding of actual day to day life in a slave society. Or of the adaptability of humans.

            Recently there was this:

            http://www.timefortruth.eu/scholastic-pulls-childrens-book-depicting-george-washingtons-slave-cook/

            The idea that slaves (and children at that) might still find some small joy in daily life is anathema, as if those folks spent every single moment browbeaten, weary, resentful, hating. Which some most certainly did but others just as certainly did not, particularly among those born into slavery. If nothing else there was the house slave/field slave divide and the ones assigned to supervisory positions.

            Likewise, there is no telling just what kind of social pressure individual slave holders might be under. The slave owners freeing slaves in their wills might have done it because they no longer needed them but just as likely because they were safely beyond any consequences.

            A simple thought experiment: what if the relationship were consensual and Jefferson went public? What might have happened? Nothing? Ostrazising? Violence against either or both?

            Or a darker posibility: Hemming as a vamp, using wiles to seduce Jefferson to secure better conditions for herself and hers. Throughout history women have used sex as a tool just as men have used power for sex.

            Humans. Are. Complex.
            And we absoutely never know what truly happens behind closed doors. Especially in alien societies like Rome, or Sparta, or Ur.
            The past is another world.
            We can speculate.
            Try to understand in broad strokes and at a remove but we can never know to a certainty what any individuals said or did in their private day to day lives other than just be humans. Eat, drink, laugh, cry, create, destroy, copulate, fight, die…

            At least until somebody invents a time machine, anyway.

            • The idea that slaves (and children at that) might still find some small joy in daily life is anathema, as if those folks spent every single moment browbeaten, weary, resentful, hating.

              Even worse, Disney depicted Uncle Remus smiling and laughing.

                • Let’s not get into the behavior of torture survivors. Once upon a time, I had professional responsibilities… relating to… that sort of thing.

                  It’s ugly and unpredictable.

                  The potential relationship between “torture survivors” and “former slaves” is left as an exercise for the student. But don’t eat lunch first.

          • Modern societies have no understanding of actual day to day life in a slave society. Or of the adaptability of humans.

            Recently there was this:

            http://www.timefortruth.eu/scholastic-pulls-childrens-book-depicting-george-washingtons-slave-cook/

            The idea that slaves (and children at that) might still find some small joy in daily life is anathema, as if those folks spent every single moment browbeaten, weary, resentful, hating. Which some most certainly did but others just as certainly did not, particularly among those born into slavery. If nothing else there was the house slave/field slave divide and the ones assigned to supervisory positions.

            Likewise, there is no telling just what kind of social pressure individual slave holders might be under. The slave owners freeing slaves in their wills might have done it because they no longer needed them but just as likely because they were safely beyond any consequences.

            A simple thought experiment: what if the relationship were consensual and Jefferson went public? What might have happened? Nothing? Ostrazising? Violence against either or both?

            Or a darker posibility: Hemming as a vamp, using wiles to seduce Jefferson to secure better conditions for herself and hers. Throughout history women have used sex as a tool just as men have used power for sex.

            Humans. Are. Complex.
            And we absoutely never know what truly happens behind closed doors. Especially in alien societies like Rome, or Sparta, or Ur.
            The past is another world.
            We can speculate.
            Try to understand in broad strokes and at a remove but we can never know to a certainty what any individuals said or did in their private day to day lives other than just be humans. Eat, drink, laugh, cry, create, destroy, copulate, fight, die…
            Pretending to actually *know* is just conceit.
            At least until somebody invents a time machine, anyway.

            • What I ask is that people who call Hemings a “mistress” realize that comparing an extramarital affair nowadays — say, the girlfriend/boyfriend of a partnered celebrity — to a situation which Jefferson and society at large had so much ability to make Hemings’s life sheer and absolute misery should she reject his sexual advances — or resist anything (sexual or not) that he told her to do — that going along with it was most likely the better and easier option is reductive. Take a look at cases of adult sexual predators and the underage victims if you need a modern example of how power affects cooperation, which is NOT consent. We can’t know what went on in these folks’ heads, no, but we absolutely can have reasonable doubt that Hemings was enthusiastically participating from the very start.

              • In tbat you are correct.
                In those days the mistress was the wife.
                The proper term for whatever existed bdtween Jefferson and Hemming was concubine.

                As to the other issue, do note the age of consent was much lower in those days and disparity of power was near universal in both marriage and concubinage.

                https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ages_of_consent_in_the_United_States
                ——–
                “While the general ages of consent are now set between 16 and 18 in all U.S. states, the age of consent has widely varied across the country in the past. In 1880, the ages of consent were set at 10 or 12 in most states, with the exception of Delaware where it was 7. The ages of consent were raised across the U.S. during the late 19th century and the early 20th century. ”
                ——
                Did I mention the past is an alien world?

                Lets not pretend to know what cannot be proven, okay?
                Especially when it wasn’t particularly relevant then and much less today.
                We are lucky to live in these days that let us pretend the default state of human societies wasn’t Hobbesian.

                Therd is no value in judging the long dead but if that is you inclination, wait a big. We’ll be judged soon enough.
                And likely cursed for stupidity.

  3. I am from a Texan family who were present when the June 19 jubilee days came when “the papers came .” Why are the black historians incorrect when they say the blacks did not know about Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation until 21/2 years later. Even a study by University of Texas black studies quotes a black historian faculty surmise that a “messengers on a mule” and it took them two years before the slaves knew. Who ever came up with the idea should have known that we had newspapers, railroad and telegraph service that was not interrupted in 1863 and Galveston was a port City that was never occupied by the Union. So the slaves didn’t know about the war? Texas slaves were told that the Lincoln was going to send them back to Africa! Galveston was evacuated in 1863 and mostly slaves were wharfman or service maids not cotton pickers.

Comments are closed.