Recently, Nikole Hannah-Jones, of The New York Times Magazine, visited New Orleans to discuss her newspaper magazine’s 1619 Project, a major journalism effort observing the 400th anniversary of the start of enslaving people in America.
At the Amistad Research Center’s Conversations in Color event at the Ashe’ Cultural Arts Center’s Ashe’ Power House Theater and at a similar event at Xavier University, Hannah-Jones discussed how she became focused on the year 1619 after a high school teacher suggested that she read the critically acclaimed “Before the Mayflower.” While reading that book, she stopped on author Lerone Bennett Jr.’s mention of 1619 as the year when slavery got its big start in this part of the world.
Hannah-Jones’ series has received a lot of attention since it was published in August. It’s already been adapted as a school curriculum.
By coincidence, Hannah-Jones visited Louisiana as scores of African Americans donned 19th century clothing and walked the pathways taken in 1811 in one of the largest revolts as slaves staged a German Coast uprising. These actors, hired by artist Dread Scott, followed a 26-mile route along the Mississippi River from near LaPlace to Congo Square in New Orleans. Like the historical figures they portrayed, the actors carried drums, machetes, muskets and other period-era items. They reminded us that slavery was so bad, people often didn’t take it and chose to fight. The revolt wasn’t successful, but it’s an important moment in history.
As they marched and performed and then celebrated what had been achieved, Hannah-Jones was sharing knowledge about rethinking the early days of American history. There are differences of opinion about when black people first reached the shores of what became the United States. Historian Henry Louis Gate Jr. has suggested that Juan Garrido was the first black person to get here, arriving near St. Augustine, Florida, as a part of Juan Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth search in 1513. That’s a different take, and people can quibble about such things. But it’s important that these kinds of questions are getting fresh attention.
The Times and The Pulitzer Center at Columbia University have made it easier to digest this challenging subject matter. They produced The 1619 Project Curriculum, a comprehensive set of activities, reading guides and more to facilitate a more accurate education and understanding about this part of our history. There’s even an edition for young kids.
What’s clear from the 1619 Project is that our nation’s past is closely tied to slavery. It made the promise of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness a dream unfulfilled for many. Even today, we all have much to do in extending that ideal to every American.