“Our founding ideals of liberty and equality were false when they were written.”

Micki Luckey
Aug 26, 2019 · 6 min read

By Sandy Bredt

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Photo of unknown slave showing his back with scars from repeated whippings. (from public domain)

“Our founding ideals of liberty and equality were false when they were written.” With that salvo, Nikole Hannah-Jones opens the introduction to her latest gem, the New York Times’ “1619 Project,” a comprehensive exploration of slavery and racism, produced with the Smithsonian and the Pulitzer Center in commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the first African slave ship landing on our shores.

Slated to last a year with additional work being posted over time, the “1619 Project,” is expansive in both the sheer volume of offerings and in its visionary mission: its goal is nothing less than a new understanding of American history. The organizing concept is that our nation’s genesis story is so inextricably bound with slavery that an honest telling would begin in 1619, not in 1776.

“1619” was inaugurated with the August 18 Sunday Magazine, which presents essays, short stories, poetry, photographs, a photo essay, and a video, all created by people of color. Additional copies are available online and will be distributed to libraries, museums and schools, along with multidisciplinary curriculum materials. Portions of “1619” are also being released on a podcast every Saturday.

Each of the eleven prose essays in the magazine develop in detail the story of how a particular aspect of contemporary life is grounded in the history of slavery and the anti-black racism required to “justify” it. Complementing these essays, seventeen original works of fiction and poetry explore moments along the 400-year timeline of our nation, commissioned specifically for this multidisciplinary, multimedia production.

Locating our nation’s genesis story at the year 1619 “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,” editor Jake Silverstein writes. “Out of slavery… grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional.”[1] Indeed, the essays that follow show how our economy, our healthcare system, our criminal justice system, our medical research, our sugar addiction, and even our traffic jams have roots in slavery — you might say almost every dysfunctional aspect of our society.

For example, Mehrsa Baradaran writes in one of the sidebar articles of the inception of “greenbacks.” During the civil war over slavery, Lincoln realized that he did not have enough money to feed the soldiers. So he issued, by fiat, a national currency, backed not by gold, but “by the full faith and credit of the United States Treasury.”[2] She explains, “By issuing fiat currency, Lincoln bet the future on the elasticity of value.” So instead of having a set value relative to gold, the value of the United States’ currency fluctuated, relative to the currencies in use in the South. According to Baradaran, “This was the United States’ first formal experiment with fiat money,[3] and it was a resounding success.” In 1971, President Richard Nixon made the U.S. Currency 100% fiat, with no backing by silver or gold at all; coins are no longer made with any precious metals in them. If Lincoln hadn’t been faced with the prospect of soldiers starving to death, we may still be using “the gold standard.”

That’s just one example of an impact of the history of slavery on our present-day economy. We also read about its effects in labor practices, banking regulation, and global commodity trading. The project gives the same multifaceted treatment to healthcare, criminal justice, sugar in its myriad forms, and another half-dozen topics.

And then there are the poems and the short stories. Powerful, vivid, elegant, unflinching in gaze even as the heart recoils from what is revealed. For example, Clint Smith’s luminous, haunting poem imagines the 36,000 slave ships’ routes as he draws a finger across a globe:

I pull my index finger from Angola
to Brazil & feel the bodies jumping from
the ship.

I drag my thumb from Ghana
to Jamaica & feel the weight of dysentery
make an anvil of my touch.

I slide my ring finger from Senegal
to South Carolina & feel the ocean
separate a million families.

Hannah-Jones admits she has been “obsessed” with 1619 since she learned in high school about the enslaved Africans who were brought here on a pirate ship in late August of that year as “the beginning of American slavery.”⁠1 In her beautifully researched and argued essay, she argues that for whites to reconcile the promise of liberty and justice described in the Constitution with the reality of slavery and government-sponsored racism, the founding fathers decided that enslaved Africans were not people at all, allowing them to claim that the promises of “liberty and equality” were never meant for blacks. And she demonstrates that in order to remedy this lie at the heart of the American credo, black Americans have been struggling for the past 400 years to make that promise come true. Further, the civil rights battles for racial justice were never just for black people — they were for all marginalized people; indeed, they were for “We the people.”

I’m excited that a major media company with a national presence is investing heavily in a black-centric reimagining of the American narrative. However, the Weekend Reading email from the Southern Poverty Law Center pointed out inaccuracies in dating the genesis of slavery in this country from the arrival of the first slave ship. It is important to recognize that the settlers from Europe had earlier enslaved indigenous peoples. Slaves had also reached parts of now-Florida and the Carolinas from Spanish colonies to the south. To be accurate, as stated in the SPLC email, 1619 witnessed the “first documented enslaved Africans brought to the English-controlled territory in North America.” With this caveat we can start the story of the U.S. in 1619, with the first sale of slaves directly from Africa, and move the fact of slavery and anti-black racism to the center of our national narrative.

This criticism should in no way diminish the crucial significance of that pirate ship’s so-called cargo. When the White Lion dropped anchor, it became the first of 36,000 slave ships to bring humans in chains directly to the eastern seaboard of the American (and Spanish and French) colonies on this continent. Take a moment and sit with that number: 36,000. A ship carrying kidnapped, captive people arrived an average every three or four days for 350 years. The sheer scale of the transatlantic slave trade gave it enormous, transformative significance at the time, and over the next 400 years. Its pervasive impact is set to reverberate through our society well into the future.

Hannah-Jones’ additional point is that black Americans have been working to bring truth and integrity to our country’s founding ideals ever since slavery. For example, she argues that Reconstruction was the first civil rights movement, pointing to the creation of public education and the election of blacks to hundreds of local, state and even federal offices, as black civil rights achievements of this era. This is not only well-documented, it is crucial to understanding progress in the U.S. The liberation struggles of women, gays, native peoples, and people with disabilities were made possible by the civil rights movements.

Hannah-Jones’ introductory essay provides the intellectual framework for the 1619 Project, and does so in an engaging, accessible style. An explicit hope of the 1619 initiative is that “by acknowledging this shameful history, by trying hard to understand its powerful influence on the present, perhaps we can prepare ourselves for a more just future.”[4]

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Image of chain breaking (from public domain)

[1] Silverstein, J., Editor’s statement, The 1619 Project, The New York Times Magazine., August 18, 2019, p. 5.

[2] Treasury savings bonds are “backed by the full faith and credit of the United States Treasury.”

[3] Fiat money is government-issued currency that is not backed by a physical commodity, suchas gold or silver. The value of fiat money is derived from the relationship between supply and demand and the stability of the issuing government, rather than the worth of a commodity backing it. June 25, 2019 entry on https://www.investopedia.com › … › Forex Trading Strategy & Education

[4] Hannah-Jones, N. “Introduction,” The 1619 Project, The New York Times Magazine., August 18, 2019, p. 16.

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