Nikole Hannah-Jones, the driving force behind the development of the project writes, in “America Wasn't a Democracy, Until Black Americans Made It One”:
In August 1619, just 12 years after the English settled Jamestown, Va., one year before the Puritans landed at Plymouth Rock and some 157 years before the English colonists even decided they wanted to form their own country, the Jamestown colonists bought 20 to 30 enslaved Africans from English pirates. The pirates had stolen them from a Portuguese slave ship that had forcibly taken them from what is now the country of Angola. Those men and women who came ashore on that August day were the beginning of American slavery. They were among the 12.5 million Africans who would be kidnapped from their homes and brought in chains across the Atlantic Ocean in the largest forced migration in human history until the Second World War. Almost two million did not survive the grueling journey, known as the Middle Passage.
Before the abolishment of the international slave trade, 400,000 enslaved Africans would be sold into America. Those individuals and their descendants transformed the lands to which they’d been brought into some of the most successful colonies in the British Empire. Through backbreaking labor, they cleared the land across the Southeast. They taught the colonists to grow rice. They grew and picked the cotton that at the height of slavery was the nation’s most valuable commodity, accounting for half of all American exports and 66 percent of the world’s supply. They built the plantations of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, sprawling properties that today attract thousands of visitors from across the globe captivated by the history of the world’s greatest democracy. They laid the foundations of the White House and the Capitol, even placing with their unfree hands the Statue of Freedom atop the Capitol dome. They lugged the heavy wooden tracks of the railroads that crisscrossed the South and that helped take the cotton they picked to the Northern textile mills, fueling the Industrial Revolution. They built vast fortunes for white people North and South — at one time, the second-richest man in the nation was a Rhode Island “slave trader.” Profits from black people’s stolen labor helped the young nation pay off its war debts and financed some of our most prestigious universities. It was the relentless buying, selling, insuring and financing of their bodies and the products of their labor that made Wall Street a thriving banking, insurance and trading sector and New York City the financial capital of the world.
But it would be historically inaccurate to reduce the contributions of black people to the vast material wealth created by our bondage. Black Americans have also been, and continue to be, foundational to the idea of American freedom. More than any other group in this country’s history, we have served, generation after generation, in an overlooked but vital role: It is we who have been the perfecters of this democracy.
You can follow Nikole Hannah-Jones on Twitter, where we know her as Ida Bae Wells.
The project launch was livestreamed last Tuesday evening. Set aside some time to watch the whole program.
I am still thinking about these words from Hannah-Jones: "We have spent 400 years studying the way that black people are the problem. I would like to offer tonight in this 400th year: We need to stop thinking of black people as the problem and start seeing us as the solution."
Four hundred years ago, on August 20, 1619, a ship carrying more than 20 enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia. Tonight, we remember this anniversary with an evening of conversation and performance at featuring Nikole Hannah-Jones, Wesley Morris, Jamelle Bouie, Tyehimba Jess and more. Remember to look out for our “1619 Project” on August 18 which examines how the legacy of slavery continues to shape and define life in the United States.
Here are some of the articles in the magazine.
Linda Villarosa writes about racial myths in medicine:
Over the centuries, the two most persistent physiological myths — that black people were impervious to pain and had weak lungs that could be strengthened through hard work — wormed their way into scientific consensus, and they remain rooted in modern-day medical education and practice. In the 1787 manual “A Treatise on Tropical Diseases; and on The Climate of the West-Indies,” a British doctor, Benjamin Moseley, claimed that black people could bear surgical operations much more than white people, noting that “what would be the cause of insupportable pain to a white man, a Negro would almost disregard.” To drive home his point, he added, “I have amputated the legs of many Negroes who have held the upper part of the limb themselves.”
These misconceptions about pain tolerance, seized upon by pro-slavery advocates, also allowed the physician J. Marion Sims — long celebrated as the father of modern gynecology — to use black women as subjects in experiments that would be unconscionable today, practicing painful operations (at a time before anesthesia was in use) on enslaved women in Montgomery, Ala., between 1845 and 1849. In his autobiography, “The Story of My Life,” Sims described the agony the women suffered as he cut their genitals again and again in an attempt to perfect a surgical technique to repair vesico-vaginal fistula, which can be an extreme complication of childbirth.
Thomas Jefferson, in “Notes on the State of Virginia,” published around the same time as Moseley’s treatise, listed what he proposed were “the real distinctions which nature has made,” including a lack of lung capacity. In the years that followed, physicians and scientists embraced Jefferson’s unproven theories, none more aggressively than Samuel Cartwright, a physician and professor of “diseases of the Negro” at the University of Louisiana, now Tulane University. His widely circulated paper, “Report on the Diseases and Physical Peculiarities of the Negro Race,” published in the May 1851 issue of The New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal, cataloged supposed physical differences between whites and blacks, including the claim that black people had lower lung capacity. Cartwright, conveniently, saw forced labor as a way to “vitalize” the blood and correct the problem. Most outrageous, Cartwright maintained that enslaved people were prone to a “disease of the mind” called drapetomania, which caused them to run away from their enslavers. Willfully ignoring the inhumane conditions that drove desperate men and women to attempt escape, he insisted, without irony, that enslaved people contracted this ailment when their enslavers treated them as equals, and he prescribed “whipping the devil out of them” as a preventive measure.
Jeneen Interlandi examines the connections between health care and race.
In the decades following Reconstruction, the former slave states came to wield enormous congressional power through a voting bloc that was uniformly segregationist and overwhelmingly Democratic. That bloc preserved the nation’s racial stratification by securing local control of federal programs under a mantra of “states’ rights” and, in some cases, by adding qualifications directly to federal laws with discriminatory intent.
As the Columbia University historian Ira Katznelson and others have documented, it was largely at the behest of Southern Democrats that farm and domestic workers — more than half the nation’s black work force at the time — were excluded from New Deal policies, including the Social Security and Wagner Acts of 1935 (the Wagner Act ensured the right of workers to collective bargaining), and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which set a minimum wage and established the eight-hour workday. The same voting bloc ensured states controlled crucial programs like Aid to Dependent Children and the 1944 Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, better known as the G.I. Bill, allowing state leaders to effectively exclude black people.
Jamelle Bouie examines power—who gets it and who doesn’t.
The growth of the free Northwest threatened Southern dominance in Congress. And the slaveholding planter class would witness the rise of an organized movement to stop the expansion of slavery and curb the power enslavers held over key institutions like the Senate and the Supreme Court.
Out of this atmosphere of fear and insecurity came a number of thinkers and politicians who set their minds to protecting South Carolina and the rest of the slaveholding South from a hostile North. Arguably the most prominent and accomplished of these planter-politicians was John C. Calhoun. Vice president under John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, secretary of state under John Tyler and eventually a United States senator representing the state, Calhoun was a deep believer in the system of slavery — which he called a “positive good” that “forms the most solid and durable foundation on which to rear free and stable institutions”— and a committed advocate for the slave-owning planter class. He was an astute politician, but he made his most important mark as a theoretician of reaction: a man who, realizing that democracy could not protect slavery in perpetuity, set out to limit democracy.
Calhoun popularized the concept of “nullification”: the theory that any state subject to federal law was entitled to invalidate it. He first advanced the idea in an anonymous letter, written when he was vice president, protesting the Tariff of 1828, which sought to protect Northern industry and agriculture from foreign competitors. Calhoun condemned it as an unconstitutional piece of regional favoritism.
From Matthew Desmond, we get a look at the roots of American capitalism in slavery.
Those searching for reasons the American economy is uniquely severe and unbridled have found answers in many places (religion, politics, culture). But recently, historians have pointed persuasively to the gnatty fields of Georgia and Alabama, to the cotton houses and slave auction blocks, as the birthplace of America’s low-road approach to capitalism.
Slavery was undeniably a font of phenomenal 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. Cotton grown and picked by enslaved workers was the nation’s most valuable export. The combined value of enslaved people exceeded that of all the railroads and factories in the nation. New Orleans boasted a denser concentration of banking capital than New York City. What made the cotton economy boom in the United States, and not in all the other far-flung parts of the world with climates and soil suitable to the crop, was our nation’s unflinching willingness to use violence on nonwhite people and to exert its will on seemingly endless supplies of land and labor. Given the choice between modernity and barbarism, prosperity and poverty, lawfulness and cruelty, democracy and totalitarianism, America chose all of the above.
Nearly two average American lifetimes (79 years) have passed since the end of slavery, only two. It is not surprising that we can still feel the looming presence of this institution, which helped turn a poor, fledgling nation into a financial colossus. The surprising bit has to do with the many eerily specific ways slavery can still be felt in our economic life. “American slavery is necessarily imprinted on the DNA of American capitalism,” write the historians Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman. The task now, they argue, is “cataloging the dominant and recessive traits” that have been passed down to us, tracing the unsettling and often unrecognized lines of descent by which America’s national sin is now being visited upon the third and fourth generations.
Much of what is being presented in this series is information that is still not being taught in our schools.
Absorb it. Face it. Disseminate it.
As Hannah-Jones said, “It’s time to set the record straight.”
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