"I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually."
With those words in Notes of a Native Son, author and essayist James Baldwin captured a core conflict of being an African American in the 1950s: to love a home that very often lets you know it doesn’t love you back. So much has changed and improved since 1955, but the words still have resonance with black writers and commentators today. Criticisms of American institutions by black people are often dismissed as “divisive” or even “anti-American” because the authors want their home—our home—to be more fair and just.
Over the weekend, the New York Times Magazine published The 1619 Project, a collection of essays, stories, poems, and photography marking the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved Africans arriving in the future United States. The project, the brainchild of Nikole Hannah-Jones, is an ambitious collaboration to address the painful but necessary aspects of American history that shape the present. The 1619 Project explores the most profound struggle for freedom in the United States:race-based chattel slavery and its myriad legacies. Anyone committed to liberty should read and engage it.
Unfortunately, The 1619 Project is receiving over-the-top criticisms that accuse the writers of dividing America along racial lines or undermining the very idea of the American project. Perhaps anticipating such reactions, Hannah-Jones echoes Baldwin’s sentiment in the opening essay, writing “Black people have seen the worst of America, yet, somehow, we still believe in its best.”
To be clear, engagement does not mean unquestioning agreement with everything in the 1619 issue. Indeed, libertarians specifically will find certain claims about the relationship between modern American capitalism and slavery to be off-putting, and there are economic and historical claims that are already being contested by scholars. But those issues are not in every piece, and much of the history is solid but not well-known. One need not agree with everything a writer says to benefit from reading it.
The amount of information crammed into this issue is impressive, and many of the contributors are stellar in their given fields, including poet and author Eve L. Ewing, bestselling author and activist Bryan Stevenson, historians Kevin Kruse and Khalil Gibran Muhammad, and Oscar-winning director and writer Barry Jenkins, to name a few. Topics include, inter alia, enduring medical myths, incarceration, lynchings, and even how segregation led to Atlanta’s traffic jams. I especially liked Jenkins' short story about Gabriel's Rebellion.
The 1619 Project is an important endeavor to fill the gaps in Americans’ understanding of the nation’s history. The history of black people in the United States is 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. Wanting to correct those flaws is not anti-American; in fact, it’s quite the opposite.
For Times subscribers, The 1619 Project is online here. Non-subscribers can access the PDF at the Pulitzer Center here.