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The New York Times Launches the 1619 Project: raceAhead

Nikole Hannah-JonesNikole Hannah-Jones
Nikole Hannah-Jones attends the 75th Annual Peabody Awards Ceremony on May 21, 2016, in New York City.Evan Agostini—Invision/AP

The New York Times Magazine has launched an extraordinary editorial project to mark the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in the British colony of Virginia. This project is wide-reaching and collaborative, unflinching, and insightful. Best of all, 1619-related coverage is planned throughout the entire New York Times platform.

The 1619 Project serves as a dramatic and necessary corrective to the fundamental lie of the American origin story. It begins with an essay by Nikole Hannah-Jones, the driving force behind the project, and one of the most extraordinary writers this country has produced.

What she has come to do is twofold. First, establish that the principles of liberty the founding fathers are famous for were false when written. And next, that the very people upon whose backs this country’s wealth was created have spent centuries working to make the country live up to them.

"The United States is a nation founded on both an ideal and a lie. Our Declaration of Independence, signed on July 4, 1776, proclaims that 'all men are created equal' and 'endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.' But the white men who drafted those words did not believe them to be true for the hundreds of thousands of black people in their midst. 'Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness' did not apply to fully one-fifth of the country. Yet despite being violently denied the freedom and justice promised to all, black Americans believed fervently in the American creed. Through centuries of black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals. And not only for ourselves—black rights struggles paved the way for every other rights struggle, including women’s and gay rights, immigrant and disability rights.

Without the idealistic, strenuous and patriotic efforts of black Americans, our democracy today would most likely look very different—it might not be a democracy at all."

The scope of the project is astonishing. There are original literary works that help to illuminate the past from 16 writers including Eve Ewing, Clint Smith, Yusef Komunyakaa, Reginald Dwayne Betts, and Barry Jenkins. Through deft reporting and smart framing, contributing writers also make plain how the racist violence that informed slavery lives on today, in the way Americans live and die, teach and heal, lead, govern, eat, and even drive: How Segregation Caused Your Traffic Jam; How False Beliefs in Physical Racial Difference Still Live in Medicine Today; The Barbaric History of Sugar in America; Why American Prisons Owe Their Cruelty to Slavery, are just some of the headlines that await you. 

If you have some time, I strongly recommend watching the video of the kick-off conference—even the first 20 minutes will be enough to set you right. It begins, as I now realize all things should, with poetry. But it also reveals the deep connection between the magazine’s staffers and contributors, at a poignant and celebratory moment. Think what you will about the media, this kind of project changes anyone who takes it on.

And this was a particularly particular group effort.

Two journalists were moved to tears during their remarks, tears that I understood to be an emotional acknowledgment of the enormous responsibility they took on by attempting to set a 400-year record straight; to connect dots that others have sought to erase, and to honor the legacies of elders some of whose names we may never know, in their own attempts to make the lies of America true.

They got the job done.

On Point

Congress to Wall Street: Do better The House Financial Services Committee released an analysis of the demographics and diversity policies of mega-banks yesterday—think Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, Bank of America, Citigroup, and Wells Fargo— a follow up to hearings with their CEOs earlier this spring. The industry remains overwhelmingly white and male, and no major bank has a chief diversity officer that reports directly to the CEO. Click through for a rundown of the Committee’s recommendations, all of which will be familiar to you and celebrate this one: Close the pay gap between white men and underrepresented groups, pronto. (You can find a writeup of my interview with Michael Corbat, the CEO of Citi on this very topic here.) Fortune

The Trump Administration’s new immigration rule puts the ‘social safety net’ at risk “Conflating economic hardship with moral failure is an old tactic that has long been used to target immigrants,” writes Salonee Bhaman, a PhD candidate in history at Yale University. From the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1882 to the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, Trump’s rule really just builds on long-held racist perceptions of immigrants. But, as Bhaman points out, this limit creates a basis to question the use—or even potential use—of critical benefits and services, potentially discouraging people from seeking necessary support, and putting “human dignity on the line.” Surprised by this history? Read on to learn the ugly truth. Washington Post

The NFL turns to Jay Z’s Roc Nation to help ‘woke up’ its halftime show That’s one interpretation of this new partnership with Jay Z and his Roc Nation agency, who have been retained to co-produce (though not necessarily perform in) the Super Bowl halftime show. Expect content that supports the NFL’s “Inspire Change” community activism initiative, I suppose. But it also sounds like Jay Z is bringing a good dose of realism to the new relationship. “I think we have autonomy,” he said. “I anticipate that there will be a lot of—with any big organization, in this building right here [Roc Nation headquarters] we have internal problems. Anything that’s new is going to go through its growing pains. We put what we want to do on the table. The NFL agreed to it. So we’re going to proceed with that as if we have a partnership.” Colin Kaepernick was not available for comment. Washington Post

The stories in your family albums Thomas Allen Harris is an artist, filmmaker, and lecturer at Yale. And now, thanks to his new show on PBS, he’s about to become America’s most unlikely archivist. Family Pictures USA, which premiered on Monday, feels like a family reunion-themed mashup of The Moth and Antiques Roadshow, where people bring family photos to community events, and through conversation and investigation, find that they are connected to the history of the region and each other. The first episode, in Durham, N.C., reveals the history lurking in family photo albums of how 19th century tobacco money played out in the lives of black, white, and immigrant families, and even a drag community. Harris himself is a surprise and delight, identifying as “American, raised by a South African stepfather,” “same gender loving,” and “very invested in ideas of families of choice.” Click through for an extraordinary Q&A, including his surprising take on the true value of the family photo album. New York Times

 

On Background

Ads for runaway slaves offer an extraordinary glimpse into the complexity of history Former U.S. president Andrew Jackson has been invoked as a reasonable Southerner lately, a person who would have ended slavery if he’d lived long enough. While we may never know the answer (that’s a lie, we absolutely know), we do know that Jackson sounded pretty peeved when he placed an ad for a runaway slave in the Tennessee Gazette in October 1804. A “Mulatto Man Slave, about thirty years old, six feet and an inch high, stout made and active, talks sensible, stoops in his walk,” he wrote, noting that he “will pass for a free man… ” The reward was $50 plus expenses, with a cruel twist: “ten dollars extra, for every hundred lashes any person will give him, to the amount of three hundred.” This ad is one of thousands being preserved by the history department at Cornell University; the digitized collection are stunning windows into history. Jackson owned about 150 enslaved persons when he died in 1845. Washington Post

On being the great-granddaughter of an Igbo slave-trader This surprising and important piece from Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, explores the slave trade from the Nigerian side of the equation. Some of this we already knew: Long before the Europeans took trafficking in human beings to scale, the Igbo people enslaved other Igbo people as punishment for crimes, indebtedness, or as spoils of war. But what is extraordinary to learn is the degree to which the amplification of demand impacted the community, and how the descendants of formerly enslaved Igbo people are still stigmatized to this day. For the Nigerian people who are lucky enough to know their own history, it can get complicated. “African intellectuals tend to blame the West for the slave trade, but I knew that white traders couldn’t have loaded their ships without help from Africans like my great-grandfather,” she writes. New Yorker

The Underground Railroad’s complex history After Colson Whitehead’s magnificent novel The Underground Railroad debuted, there was renewed interest in the history of the abolitionist network that helped slaves journey North to freedom. (We’re still waiting to spend our Tubmans, sadly.) Thankfully, historians were prepared to mind the knowledge gap and help point out where our collective memory is flawed. In fact, the stories we think we know about the Railroad, “like so many that we tell about our nation’s past, a tricky relationship to the truth: not quite wrong, but simplified; not quite a myth, but mythologized.” At the heart of the stories we do manage to tell? White heroes. New Yorker

Tamara El-Waylly helps write and produce raceAhead.

Quote

“ON BEING BROUGHT FROM AFRICA TO AMERICA

’Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land, / Taught my benighted soul to understand / That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too: / Once I redemption neither fought nor knew, / Some view our sable race with scornful eye, / ‘Their colour is a diabolic die.’ / Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain, / May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.”

Phillis Wheatley, from the first book of poetry published by an African American, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, 1773. She was only seven or eight when she was kidnapped and taken to Boston in 1761.