The New York Times’ recent 1619 Project is as ambitious an undertaking as a modern journalistic outlet has made in recent years. This is not just because of the diversity of content and media contained under its auspices, but because of the subject matter itself: slavery.
Slavery is often described as our country’s original sin; this is inaccurate. Original sin is the story of something gone broadly awry, an act that fouled something untainted. Rather, slavery is our country’s foundational sin. It may have been wrong, yes, but its practice on this continent and the unique and brutal form it took in this country cannot be treated as incidental or accidental.
The United States of America would not have existed without slavery. Further, the concepts that necessarily underpinned the belief that an entire race of people ought to be subservient to another are with us today.
Take, for example, fundamental mistruths about the biology and psychology of people of African descent that doctors still believe today — including the startlingly common belief that we have less sensitive nerve endings or thicker skin, or are more prone to addiction, and so are less likely to have our pain taken seriously or addressed with medication. Take the thorny notions about black criminality and sexuality that inform our criminal justice system and even our everyday interpersonal interactions.
Perhaps more ambitious than attempting to cover the breadth and depth of the subject of slavery is attempting to convince many Americans that it matters. This is difficult. As I said, slavery is foundational to America, and so an indictment of slavery is an indictment of America. The 1619 Project is named for the year the first recorded slave ship landed in Colonial America, delivering 20 or so enslaved Africans to Virginia. That we need to convince Americans that slavery matters on its putative 400-year anniversary in this country is difficult to comprehend.
It lays bare certain hypocrisies about our defining ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. English abolitionist Thomas Day noted one such contradiction in the era of the American Revolution, calling the American patriot “ridiculous” for signing “resolutions of independency with one hand, and with the other brandishing a whip over his affrighted slaves.”
It’s hard, perhaps, to hear our founding patriots called ridiculous. It’s harder perhaps to embrace the truth that they were human traffickers, known to be guilty of participating in what we know now is a crime against humanity.
As an African American, just one, it’s hard to know that many of the same founders who owned slaves felt perhaps that the practice should be eliminated but could not be so moved as to eliminate the practice on their personal estates or in their own lives. It’s difficult to know that I walk on streets or look up at statues named for men who certainly would have considered my liberty subaltern to their own — and that’s the kindest possible way they would have regarded said liberty.
This is not unusual to the American experience, this alacrity to discard or abandon another’s rights for the sake of our own desires; it is endemic. This is not to say that I am an unhappy or unproud American — though I find it frustrating that one must constantly restate that before offering any reasonable critique.
I love my country, the country that was my mother’s, though she could not go to certain schools or drink at certain fountains when she was a child. I love my grandfather’s country, though it sent him off to a war from which he returned disabled and continued to treat him as third-class at best.
These moral discrepancies are difficult to confront. We want to know that our progenitors were good, that we are good, that our country is good, wholly. At least, we believe that their sins should be listed second in their epitaph — though to what human trafficker would we offer this kindness today? So, we deny and equivocate.
We claim that slavery in America was “not so bad,” despite laws that literally forbade offering slaves any form of generosity — e.g., the slave codes of South Carolina — or teaching slaves to read. We argue that slaves should have been grateful for the food and clothing they received, under what I can only guess is collective amnesia about the whippings, sexual assaults and family separation.
We go to plantations built by slaves and are upset because the discussion of slavery disrupts our romantic and idyllic vision of antebellum life (I am sure the slaves who resided on those plantations, too, were quite disappointed).
We repeat the refrain that slavery was too long ago to matter, despite ending after the American Revolution, which was certainly not too long ago to matter. We want to inherit only credit, never debt. This is not unreasonable, but it is unrealistic.
We do not wish to inherit slavery — who would? — but we have. The greatest value of the 1619 Project is that it asks us to consider the many ways in which slavery and the lived experience of the enslaved infiltrates forward into our daily lives, no matter if we are second-generation Americans or sixth.
Segregation, the racial wealth gap, disparities in American health care (consider the disproportionate mortality rates of black women in childbirth), our prison system, the excesses of American capitalism, the relationship between NBA players and team owners, etc. — all of these have whole or partial roots in the economic system of racial enslavement and oppression that prevailed here for over two centuries.
The continual project of forming a country together requires facing hard truths about ourselves, our neighbors and our history. If we can’t do that, then the project — America — is already lost.
Really confronting those truths, on the other hand, often seems like tearing open an old wound, but the truth is that the wound never really healed — it just sort of festered and was bandaged over.
As evidenced by race killings and hate crimes, the prevalence of affection for white nationalism not seen since the 1930s, and slavery revisionism — which portrays that barbaric institution as benevolent — we are in desperate need of surgery.
Ismail Smith-Wade-El is a member of Lancaster City Council.