2019 marked the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. To acknowledge this, the New York Times published “The 1619 Project”: a series of essays, artwork, and photography to explore the legacies of American slavery on all realms of our modern-day society. The goal of the project was to challenge readers “to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.”
Thirteen students gathered with Stephanie Manzella for one seminar-style class per week for two months to celebrate and study the project. They used essays from the project in conjunction with documentaries and poems in order to challenge themselves to acknowledge the reality of America’s history of racism and slavery in the hope to educate themselves and our community on the legacy of this issue.
The United States is characterized as being a land for the free built on individual rights, but our treatment of black people, especially from the higher-ups of society, forces us to consider what our nation is actually built on. One-fifth of our population had no freedom or liberties. Ten of our twelve first presidents were slave owners. Thomas Jefferson was writing the Declaration of Independence while his enslaved brother in law was serving at his feet. Essays in the project range from topics of health care and sugar to music and mass incarceration, and they all exist to highlight our fundamental wrongdoings as a country. The United States would not be where it is today without slavery.
Nikole Hannah-Jones, one of the writers for the project, shared in a PBS interview that “the rum industry, which was really the currency of the slave trade, that rum was being processed and sold in the United States. The banking industry that rises in New York City is rising largely to provide the mortgages and insurance policies and to finance the slave trade.” Not to mention that one of the main resources that drove our economy, cotton, came from the farms that enslaved people worked through forced labor. The effects of slavery are seen all around us and they are not just due to a few corrupt southerners, but rather a large population of Americans. The ships that sailed to Africa to steal and enslave people were built by the supposed innocent and modern Northerners. No one was free from blame.
After weeks of studying this his
tory, members of The 1619 Project seminar class hosted an assembly to present and discuss three vital legacies of slavery: the undemocratic features of the US government, slavery’s influence on medicine and healthcare, and the American criminal justice system. The assembly not only had a focus on delivering important information but also on engaging members of the community in discussing why we are still facing the effects of slavery and how we can create a more equitable nation moving forward. The assembly sessions were a great success and yielded a lot of positive responses from audience members and assembly givers.
One member of the 1619 class, Matty Shields ’21, shared that “learning about slavery’s legacy in America through the 1619 project, but more specifically CA’s 1619 class let me break away from stuffy textbooks and replace them with open discussions about personnel expedited and current-day examples.”
The words of another class member, Ceci Crawford ’20, showed how the class achieved its goal with flying colors: “My experience in the 1619 project class was absolutely incredible. Studying articles that described how our nation relied on slavery so heavily made it much easier to understand how racism translated to the current biases in our prison, medical, and political systems. I think this class provided students with a deep understanding of the many parts of American history that are intentionally left out.”
The words of students show that The 1619 Project and CA’s dedication to exploring it were the beginning of an important and ongoing conversation.