Two Good Looks—in the Washington Post and New York Times—at the Book “The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story”

In the Washington Post, Carlos Lozada reviews the book “The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story,” which was edited by Nikole Hannah-Jones, Caitlin Roper, Ilena Silverman and Jake Silverstein. The opening grafs:

The New York Times’s celebrated 1619 Project is as intriguing for the second half of its title as for the first. What is the project of this sprawling project; what are not just its principal conclusions and messages, but also its underlying methods and objectives? For a work of journalism — or history, or perhaps something in between — grounded in the specificity of a single date, there is also an elusiveness, almost a malleability, pervading the effort. Part of the challenge in assessing it involves the multiple formats in which the project has been showcased: There’s the New York Times Magazine special issue published on Aug. 18, 2019, with print and online versions; a broadsheet edition appearing the same day; a podcast spinoff; a new, lengthy book version; an illustrated children’s book; plus the many responses, updates and essays published by the Times defending, amending or otherwise explaining the project.

Together these elements form a powerful and memorable work, one that launched a seismic national debate over the legacy of slavery and enduring racial injustice in American life. It is also a work with a variety of competing impulses, ones that can at times confuse and conflict. This is evident in “The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story,” a book that softens some of the edges of the prior magazine collection but also transcends its original mission as a historical corrective, informing readers what they now must do or else risk personal complicity in the painful story they have just been told.

he elusiveness begins where the project begins — in 1619, with the first ship carrying enslaved Africans to reach the English American colonies, and that moment’s proper status in the history of the United States. In his note introducing the special issue, New York Times Magazine Editor Jake Silverstein first depicts the project as something of a thought experiment, counterfactual to the common notion of 1776 as the year of the nation’s birth. “What if, however, we were to tell you that this fact, which is taught in our schools and unanimously celebrated every Fourth of July, is wrong, and that the country’s true birth date, the moment that its defining contradictions first came into the world, was in late August of 1619?” Three sentences later, the question mark is gone, the tone more declarative. The barbaric system of slavery introduced that month is not just the United States’ “original sin,” Silverstein asserts; it is “the country’s very origin.” The project’s broadsheet supplement widens that perspective, declaring that “the goal of the 1619 Project is to reframe American history, making explicit that slavery is the foundation on which this country is built.” From what-if to no-matter-what, all on the same day.

This hardly settles matters. More than a year later, in an article titled “On Recent Criticism of The 1619 Project,” Silverstein indicated that the notion of 1619 as the country’s birth year should be regarded as a “metaphor” and not read literally. This is why, he explained, the Times had deleted a description of 1619 as our “true founding” that previously appeared in the project’s online presentation. But then, in an essay this month titled “The 1619 Project and the Long Battle Over U.S. History,” Silverstein wrote that the date indeed “could be considered” the moment of the United States’ “inception.”

In the new book version, Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Times journalist who conceived of the overall effort and wrote its lead magazine essay, offers a few interpretations. In the preface, she cautions that the project is “not the only origin story of this country — there must be many.” Then, in the opening chapter, Hannah-Jones repeats the text of her original magazine essay and refers to Black Americans as the country’s “true ‘founding fathers,’” as deserving of that designation “as those men cast in alabaster in the nation’s capital.” Some 400-plus pages later, in a concluding chapter, she writes that the origin story in the 1619 Project is “truer” than the one we’ve known….
In today’s New York Times Book Review, Adam Hochschild reviews “The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story.” The opening grafs:

Has a book ever come into the world when at least four other books were already in print attacking it? Admittedly, these broadsides were against earlier incarnations of The New York Times’s 1619 Project, which appeared in this newspaper two years ago, followed by a podcast, public forums, lesson plans for schools and a Pulitzer Prize for the originator, Nikole Hannah-Jones. The project asserted that the full origin story of the United States begins not with the arrival of the Mayflower in 1620, but with that of the White Lion and its cargo of captive Africans in Virginia the year before. This declaration provoked a Twitter firestorm of angry accusations from critics and combative replies from Hannah-Jones. President Trump denounced the project, and lawmakers introduced bills in the U.S. Senate and at least five state legislatures to strip funds from schools that used its curriculum. The appearance now of an expanded version of the project in book form is sure to provoke yet more assaults.

I picked up “The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story” with some apprehension. Not because I disagree with the project’s basic aim, but because I had been troubled by some overstatements and factual errors in the newspaper version, such as the claim that there were “growing calls to abolish the slave trade” in Britain in 1776. (That country’s abolitionist movement didn’t come to life until a decade later.) A group of respected American history scholars later criticized The Times for these. As the controversy continued, a historian who had been consulted by a fact-checker on the project went public to complain that corrections she had urged were ignored. It was disappointing to see work whose intention I admired marred by missteps.

As I read the new book, however, my worries largely melted away. It is not without flaws, which I will come back to, but on the whole it is a wide-ranging, landmark summary of the Black experience in America: searing, rich in unfamiliar detail, exploring every aspect of slavery and its continuing legacy, in which being white or Black affects everything from how you fare in courts and hospitals and schools to the odds that your neighborhood will be bulldozed for a freeway. The book’s editors, knowing that they were heading into a minefield, clearly trod with extraordinary care. They added more than 1,000 endnotes, and in their acknowledgments thank a roster of peer reviewers so long and distinguished as to make any writer of history envious….

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