Five Things I Learned from NYT Magazine’s Phenomenal “1619 Project” About the Legacy of Slavery in America

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Five Things I Learned from NYT Magazine’s Phenomenal “1619 Project” About the Legacy of Slavery in America

Article 1 Section 2 Clause 3 of the Constitution—one of the first things the founding fathers established—was that “all other persons” were worth “three fifths” the person whom the Constitution was explicitly written for: white land owners. We know what the Civil War was all about, because we can all read Mississippi’s secession letter that was echoed by all the other seceding states. The first sentence in the letter formally declares secession from the union. The second sentence states why: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world.”

Given that slavery was written into the bedrock of this nation (never explicitly penning the word, but of the 84 clauses in the Constitution, six deal directly with slavery and five others have implications for it), it should come as no surprise that slavery still dramatically affects present-day America. This is what the tour de force known as the 1619 Project from the New York Times Magazine is all about. It is one of the most important pieces of journalism published in a major newspaper this century, and it is very much worth buying a NYT subscription just to read it. I, a digitally cursed millennial, even purchased a physical newspaper for the first time since before the internet just to get my hands on it, and it is everything it was hyped up to be and more. The 1619 project should be required reading for every American, so of course it caused a big stir among a certain stripe of citizen who chooses to look at our bloody legacy through rose-tinted glasses.

Here are five things I learned from the project:

1. Tons of conservatives live in a fairy tale completely unmoored from objective reality

Anyone who has even caught a whiff of conservative media this century already knew this instinctively, but the large-scale meltdown on the right, as exemplified by Sen. Ted Cruz getting extremely not-mad online, proves the fundamental point the 1619 Project painstakingly makes with facts of history: there is a strain of conservative thought, which began with the first slaves brought here in 1619, that leaves no room for equal footing for black Americans, and it manifests itself in myriad tangible ways throughout our entire history. One of its manifestations is President Trump. Merely pointing out known facts like how the largest maximum security prison in America, The Louisiana State Penitentiary, is operated on the same exact grounds as the Angola plantation, sent many on the right into an very revealing tailspin.

2. America’s sugar industry was Hell on Earth

Cotton is the well-known industry that buoyed this country’s insatiable appetite for slavery, but the sugar trade was and is a huge part of the subjugation of black Americans. Here is a sampling of the atrocities highlighted in Khalil Gibran Muhammad’s heart-wrenching piece:

The historian Michael Tadman found that Louisiana sugar parishes had a pattern of “deaths exceeding births.” Backbreaking labor and “inadequate net nutrition meant that slaves working on sugar plantations were, compared with other working-age slaves in the United States, far less able to resist the common and life-threatening diseases of dirt and poverty.”

Of the 11 mills and 391 commercial firms in Louisiana’s sugar cane industry today, the number of black farmers is still in single digits. This is but one of many examples where there is a clear, direct line between 2019 America and our slave economy which defined the 1700s and 1800s.

3. The 2008 speculative crisis was a carbon copy of the 1837 speculative crisis

The 2008 Great Recession was driven by wildly irresponsible Wall Street speculation on byzantine securities, which created an insatiable demand for cheap loans that millions took out in pursuit of what we have all been told is the American Dream. In other words, the basis upon which our society’s wealth creation is (and was) centered around fueled cris(es) of epic proportion(s). The similarities, right down to the very last detail in events spanning 171 years, are exceptionally jarring.

Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs) became boogeymen in the wake of the 2008 crisis, as they were supposedly a new invention that created “tranches” of mortgages of relative risk and reward. The least risky tranche had the lowest payoff, and vice versa to varying degrees going down through the tranches (theoretically—in reality, most of the tranches were filled with trash and regulators were paid off to rate them as AAA). It was a security within a security within a security, etc…but this was not an invention of modernity—it was more of a tweak on an old classic—as Matthew Desmond wrote:

Similarly, what was new about securitizing enslaved people in the first half of the 19th century was not the concept of securitization itself but the crazed level of rash speculation on cotton that selling slave debt promoted.

As America’s cotton sector expanded, the value of enslaved workers soared. Between 1804 and 1860, the average price of men ages 21 to 38 sold in New Orleans grew to $1,200 from roughly $450. Because they couldn’t expand their cotton empires without more enslaved workers, ambitious planters needed to find a way to raise enough capital to purchase more hands. Enter the banks. The Second Bank of the United States, chartered in 1816, began investing heavily in cotton. In the early 1830s, the slaveholding Southwestern states took almost half the bank’s business. Around the same time, state-chartered banks began multiplying to such a degree that one historian called it an “orgy of bank-creation.”

4. The 13th Amendment did not abolish slavery

I’m cheating a bit here since I knew this already, highlighted in stark terms when my home state of Colorado had a ballot measure over whether we should end slavery in 20 FREAKING 18, but it’s such a revealing atrocity that we constantly miss in our politics and it is worth repeating early and often: the 13th Amendment banned slavery*.

*except as punishment for a crime

We all know that black and brown people are jailed at far, far higher rates than white folks, and that’s a central part of what this legacy inextricably linked to slavery looks like in modern-day terms. Slavery never fully went away, it was just hidden in the mundane weeds of bureaucracy, sometimes on the exact same ground upon which slaves roamed just a handful of generations ago. The result is that despite having just 5% of the globe’s population, the United States is home to nearly a quarter of the world’s prisoners. The dramatic rise in incarceration soon after the 1964 Civil Rights Act that nullified the Jim Crow laws was not a coincidence.

5. Patriotism is not dead

It is very easy to feel demoralized and to dislike this country these days—and that’s before we even get to Trump. Three white supremacist mass-shooters have been foiled in the last two weeks, and the true ugliness at the heart of our founding is finding its primal bloodlust once again. White supremacy is indisputably a core part of the American ethos, and it is a kind of evil that Adolf Hitler wrote fondly about in Mein Kampf. We are taught a false history about this country, and we venerate historical figures who helped perpetuate some of the most brutal torture that mankind was experiencing anywhere on Earth at the time (10 of the first 12 presidents owned slaves).

Even if you assert that our founding fathers should be judged by the standards of their time, they still fall short of the morality our collective mythos claims they represent. America was one of the last countries in the transatlantic torture network to “ban” slavery. Hell, England (who is not exactly a moral authority on this subject) abolished slavery 28 years before we fought a civil war to preserve it. Many of our elite institutions tolerate and respect the thinking that flowed from this white supremacist barbarity, and we are gaslit into believing a false, rosy version of a cruel and brutish history. It is incredibly frustrating to walk around with provable knowledge that people say does not exist, and the 1619 Project is a much-needed weapon in this longtime fight.

The real power of this entire feature is the hope projected out of this depiction of uniquely American despair. This is not a venture in misery porn as many right-wing critics (who clearly have not read the project) claim. The magazine concludes with features on new graduates from Howard University’s law school, tracing their roots back as far as the indifference of history allowed them to go. The hopeful sentiment undercutting this entire transcription of state-sanctioned grief is punctuated by this powerfully patriotic story from Nikole Hannah-Jones in the opening essay of this extraordinary piece of journalism:

When I was a child — I must have been in fifth or sixth grade — a teacher gave our class an assignment intended to celebrate the diversity of the great American melting pot. She instructed each of us to write a short report on our ancestral land and then draw that nation’s flag. As she turned to write the assignment on the board, the other black girl in class locked eyes with me. Slavery had erased any connection we had to an African country, and even if we tried to claim the whole continent, there was no “African” flag. It was hard enough being one of two black kids in the class, and this assignment would just be another reminder of the distance between the white kids and us. In the end, I walked over to the globe near my teacher’s desk, picked a random African country and claimed it as my own.

I wish, now, that I could go back to the younger me and tell her that her people’s ancestry started here, on these lands, and to boldly, proudly, draw the stars and those stripes of the American flag.

We were told once, by virtue of our bondage, that we could never be American. But it was by virtue of our bondage that we became the most American of all.

For educators interested in getting this series into their classrooms, the Pulitzer Center has created a curriculum that you can download and use for free.

Jacob Weindling is a writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.

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