"The very first enslaved Africans were brought here over 400 years ago. Since then no part of America's story has been untouched by the legacy of slavery," says journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones in the intro to the documentary series, "The 1619 Project."
The screen adaptation of the essays banded under the same title that first appeared in The New York Times Magazine in 2019 — and won Hannah-Jones a Pulitzer Prize — was produced by Oprah Winfrey and released on Thursday on streaming platform Hulu. The docuseries complements the long-form journalism project with contemporary vignettes of African American life, from the place of Black workers in the struggle to unionize Amazon warehouses in cities from Alabama to New York, to the inability of Black mothers to access adequate health care due to racism.
Like the original essay series, the documentary also focuses on Hannah-Jones' own African American heritage. Her father, who is descended from slaves and was raised in the "apartheid state" of Mississippi, served in the US army in the 1960s hoping "his country might finally treat him as an American."
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That didn't happen, and he continued to work service jobs all his life. Yet he remained a proud patriot who always flew the US flag in his front yard. Meanwhile, a young Hannah-Jones rejected this identity.
"I didn't understand how he could so proudly display his patriotism for a country that had treated him so poorly," she says in the Hulu series. She later decided that her father was the true embodiment of the American dream. "Our blood, sweat and tears are in this soil," she continued. "My dad knew that no one has a greater claim to this flag than we do because we fought for it the hardest."
Donald Trump leads conservative backlash
While Hannah-Jones has been widely lauded for her thesis on the 400-year history of American slavery and its socio-economic consequences, claims of a slavery's foundational role in US nation-building has been questioned both on the right and left. For the left, the general thesis is correct but some conclusions, especially around the role of slavery in the American Revolution, is given too much weight, a criticism Hannah-Jones has conceded.
Meanwhile, the far right, including then-President Donald Trump, went to war over this retelling of American history, aligning "The 1619 Project" with the rise of its latest culture war target: critical race theory. "'The 1619 Project' and the crusade against American history is toxic propaganda," said Trump during a political rally in 2019.
He then threatened to cut funding for schools in California that dared to include the project in the curriculum after the New York Times announced plans to make "1619" materials available to educational institutions. In response to Hannah-Jones' claim that Independence was fought for in 1776 to largely protect slavery — as opposed to the traditional telling of a pursuit of liberty and freedom — Trump established the now defunct 1776 Project to reassert historical orthodoxy through "patriotic education."
Questioning the pivotal role of slavery
But mainstream and left-wing historians have also challenged the view that the American Revolution was largely fought to maintain slavery since the English colonialists wanted to abolish the practice. Pascal Roberts, a California-based political commentator on Black politics, said on the "This is Revolution" podcast he co-hosts that the "1619 Project" is a "polemic" and not based on "actual history."
He referred to the genocide of the Indigenous population, the paucity of women's rights and limited white male suffrage after the 1776 Revolution, believing the project lacked a class analysis of wider oppression under American capitalism.
Five historians had earlier written an open letter to The New York Times in 2019 that both applauded "all efforts to address the enduring centrality of slavery and racism to our history," but also called out "factual errors in the project and the closed process behind it." Most glaringly, they said the project's claim that the 13 colonies under British rule fought a War of Independence in order to continue slavery is simply "not true" and requested that a correction be issued.
The New York Times Magazine editor, Jake Silverstein, refused, writing in response that "historical understanding is not fixed." Soon after, the African American historian Leslie M. Harris revealed she worked as a consultant on "1619" and had "vigorously argued against" the idea that the Revolution was largely a battle to preserve slavery.
Writing in Politico, she said while Hannah-Jones has continued to repeat the claim, the "1619 Project" remains a "much needed corrective" that importantly refocuses America's dark origins. She feared, however, that by ignoring her advice, the editors opened the door for critics to "use the overstated claims to discredit the entire undertaking."
Hulu series amid bans on African American studies
As radical Republican politicians double down on their war against critical race theory, and the idea that systematic racism has helped shaped society in the US, Florida governor Ron DeSantis last week banned the teaching of an African American course in schools. This follows attempts to outlaw books from school curricula like Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "Beloved," which explores the impact of slavery on an African American family following the American Civil War.
In the face of such far right censorship, and ongoing critiques of her historical method from across the political spectrum, Nikole Hannah-Jones is determined to continue her work. "You can ban what someone can learn in a classroom but you can't stop them from watching this documentary series and getting that information, so it's really coming at a critical time," she said this week.
Edited by: Elizabeth Grenier
Author Stuart Braun
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