Imagine. The middle of the ocean. No land in sight. An endless seascape. Look up to an almost cloudless gray sky. Strain to hear the plaintive cry of a seagull. Squint hard enough and maybe there’s a sign of land. Of home.
One, two, three weeks pass. No more wishing for the lost family. You will never see them again. The sounds of their voices already fading. Hopeless.
The feel of the bodies crammed in with you is crushing. The stink unimaginable. No words to describe the squalor, the desolation.
Welcome to the 1619 Project, The New York Times’ major initiative to observe the 400th anniversary of the beginning of slavery in America. Its aim is “to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black American at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.”
The Times series begins like this: “In August of 1619, a ship carrying more than 20 enslaved Africans arrived in the English colony of Virginia. America was not yet America, but this was the moment it began. No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the 250 years of slavery that followed.”
Thinking of the stories we tell ourselves brings me back seven years, to “Journey Stories,” a traveling exhibition from the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum on Main Street program that toured to the Wrather Museum on the Murray State University campus. Scores of school groups visited the exhibit, which touched upon a variety of journeys that define America. One of them, the Middle Passage, referred to the voyages of enslaved people across the Atlantic from Africa to the Americas.
Among those images was a sketch of young black men barely clothed, shackled together at the ankles and the neck. The reaction of one little boy shocked me. He pointed to the picture and announced, “They didn’t put chains around their necks like that, just the ankles.”
He was so matter-of-fact, so sure he was right, and his tone of voice suggested that ankle chains weren’t so bad anyway.
The 1619 Project challenges readers to take a closer look at our history, to examine the notions we hold about slavery and its impact. Sixteen writers bring consequential moments in African-American history to life with essays, stories, poems, and pictures. It is a mix of primary documents and contemporary reflection.
Clint Smith, author of the poetry collection “Counting Descent,” speaks of the 36,000 slave ships that crossed the Atlantic over a 350-year period. He describes moving his finger back and forth on a globe, following the route of the thousands of passages. Trying to keep count is impossible. “Chasing a history that swallowed me” is his metaphor.
An essay by Jamelle Bouie delves into something he calls an undemocratic assumption that goes back to the roots of our country: “that some people deserve more power than others.”
Wesley Morris explores black music, describing it as “the sound of artistic freedom.” He goes on declare, “No wonder everybody’s always stealing it.”
“What does a traffic jam in Atlanta have to do with segregation?” asks writer Kevin Kruse. “Quite a lot,” is the cryptic answer that launches the essay.
Most fascinating to me is Matthew Desmond’s treatise on economics that begins with this statement: “In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation.”
He begins by drawing attention to slavery as the basis for extraordinary wealth. “By the eve of the Civil War, the Mississippi Valley was home to more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the United States,” he writes.
Ironically, it was not really cotton that was king in this booming economy; it was enslaved workers who made it the country’s most valuable export.
The 1619 series questions assumptions about the past that divide us, while also filling in gaps in the understanding of our own history. It is a history, according to the editors, “filled with suffering, oppression, injustice, and crippling defeats; but it is also filled with joy, inspiration, and triumphs.”
“The United States can be loved in spite of its flaws, and there are many,” the argument goes. “Wanting to correct those flaws is not anti-American; in fact, it’s quite the opposite.”
More information about the 1619 Project is available online at https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/1619-america-slavery.html