In the book’s preface, Hannah-Jones doesn’t dwell, as she well could have, on the truly deranged ire the Project has triggered on the right over the past few years. (Donald Trump’s ignorant bluster is mercifully confined to a single paragraph.) But neither is she entirely honest about the scope of fair criticism that the work has received. She files both academic disagreement (from “a few scholars”) and fury from the likes of Tom Cotton under the convenient label “backlash,” and suggests that any readers with qualms resent the Project for focussing “too much on the brutality of slavery and our nation’s legacy of anti-Blackness.” (Meanwhile, even the five historians behind the letter wrote that they “applaud all efforts to address the enduring centrality of slavery and racism to our history.”) The editors of the book, who include Hannah-Jones and the Times Magazine’s editor, Jake Silverstein, want to “address the criticisms historians offered in good faith”; accordingly, they’ve updated other passages, including ones on Lincoln and on constitutional property rights. But even the use of the term “good faith” suggests a hawkish mentality regarding the revisions process: you’re either against the Project or you’re with it, all in. There is little room in a venue as public as the 1619 Project’s for the learning opportunities that arise when research sets its ego aside and evolves in plain sight.
As Hannah-Jones notes, the disagreements needn’t undermine the 1619 Project as a whole. (After all, one of the letter’s signatories, James M. McPherson, an emeritus professor at Princeton, admitted in an interview that he’d “skimmed” most of the essays.) But the high-profile disputes over Hannah-Jones’s claims have eclipsed some of the quieter scrutiny that the Project has received, and which in the book goes unmentioned. In an essay published in the peer-reviewed journal American Literary History last winter, Michelle M. Wright, a scholar of Black diaspora at Emory, enumerated other objections, including the series’ near-erasure of Indigenous peoples. Wright sees the 1619 Project as replacing one insufficient creation story with another. “Be wary of asserting origins: they tend to shift as new archival evidence turns up,” she wrote.
The Project’s original hundred pages of magazine material have, in the new volume, swelled to more than five hundred, and certain formatting changes seem designed to serve its “big book” aspirations. Lyrical titles from the magazine issue, such as “Undemocratic Democracy” and “How Slavery Made Its Way West,” have been traded for broadly thematic ones (“Democracy,” “Dispossession”) and now join sixteen other single-word chapter titles, such as “Politics” (by the Times columnist Jamelle Bouie), “Self-Defense” (by the Emory professor Carol Anderson), and “Progress” (by the historian and best-selling anti-racism author Ibram X. Kendi). Along with the preface and an updated version of the original ruckus-raising essay, Hannah-Jones has written a closing piece, cementing her role as the 1619 custodian. In the manner of an academic text, the Project is showier about its scholarship this time around, sometimes cumbersomely so, with in-text citations of monographs with interminable titles. New essays, by scholars including Martha S. Jones and Dorothy Roberts, pointedly bolster the contributions from within the academy. Perhaps also pointedly, endnotes at the back of the book list the source material, which the series in magazine form had been accused of withholding.
At the same time, many of the essays in the book remain shaped according to the conventions of the magazine feature. First, a contemporary scene is set: the day after the 2020 election; the day Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd on a Minneapolis street; Obama’s first campaign for President; Obama’s farewell address. Then there is a section break, followed by a leap way back in time, the sort of move that David Roth, of Defector, has called, not without admiration, “The New Yorker Eurostep,” after a similarly swerving basketball maneuver. For the 1619 Project, though, the “Eurostep” isn’t merely a literary device, used in the service of storytelling; it is also a tool of historical argument, bolstering the Project’s assertion that one long-ago date explicates so much of what has come since. Modern-day policing evolved from white fears of Black freedom. Slave torture pioneered contemporary medical racism. For each of those points a historical narrative is unfolded, dilating here and leapfrogging there until the writer has traversed the promised four hundred years and established a neat causal connection.
For instance, an essay by the lawyer and professor Bryan Stevenson traces the modern plague of mass incarceration back to the Thirteenth Amendment, which ended slavery but made an exception for those convicted of crimes. In his eight pages outlining the “unbroken links” between then and now, Stevenson breezes past the constellation of policies that gave rise to mass incarceration in the span of a single sentence—“Richard Nixon’s war on drugs, mandatory minimum sentences, three-strikes laws, children tried as adults, ‘broken windows’ ”—and explains that those policies have “many of the same features” as the Black Codes that controlled freed Black people a century and a half ago. (The language here has been softened: in his original magazine piece, Stevenson deemed the Black Codes and the latter-day policies “essentially the same.”) It is not an untruthful accounting but it is an unstudious one, devoid of the sort of close reading that enlivens well-told histories. Alighting only so briefly on events of great consequence, many of “The 1619 Project” contributions end up reading like the CliffsNotes to more compelling bodies of work.
At its best, the book’s repetitive structure allows the stand-alone essays to converse fruitfully with one another. Matthew Desmond, explaining the origins of the American economy, describes the lengths the Framers went to secure the country’s chattel, including by adding a provision to the Constitution granting Congress the power to “suppress insurrections.” The implications of that provision and others like it are explored in the essay “Self-Defense,” by Anderson, whose note that “the enslaved were not considered citizens” acquires richer significance if you’ve read Martha S. Jones’s preceding chapter on citizenship. But the formula wears over time. With few exceptions—among them, a piece by Wesley Morris, a masterly stylist—the voices of the individual writers are unrecognizable, hewn to flatness by the primacy of the Project’s thesis. Regretfully, this is true even of the book’s poems and short fiction, which, in a rather utilitarian gesture, are presented between chapters along with a time line that aids the volume’s march toward the present.
For instance, the book’s very first listed event—the arrival of the White Lion in August, 1619— is followed by a poem by Claudia Rankine, which sits on the opposite page and borrows its name from that ship: “The first / vessel to land at Point Comfort / on the James River enters history, / and thus history enters Virginia.” A short piece by Nafissa Thompson-Spires depicts the interior monologue of a campaigner for Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman to run for President, after Chisholm decided to visit George (“segregation forever”) Wallace in the hospital following an assassination attempt in 1972—a visit noted in a time line on the preceding page. As in much of the other fiction in the volume, Thompson-Spires’s prose is left winded by the responsibilities of exposition: “It seemed best not to try to convert the whites but to instead focus on registering voters, especially older ones on our side of town, many of whom, including Gran and PawPaw, couldn’t have passed even a basic literacy test.”
The didacticism does let up on occasion. An ennobling found poem by Tracy K. Smith derives its text from an 1870 speech by the Mississippi Senator Hiram Rhodes Revels, the first Black member of congress, who, a month after his swearing in, had to argue to keep Georgia’s duly elected Black legislators, who’d been denied their seats by the Democrats. (“My term is short, fraught, / and I bear about me daily / the keenest sense of the power / of blacks to shed hallowed light, / to welcome the Good News.”) A poem by Rita Dove channels the antsiness of Addie, Cynthia, Carol, and Carole, the four children who perished in a church bombing in Birmingham on September 15, 1963: “This morning’s already good—summer’s / cooling, Addie chattering like a magpie— / but today we are leading the congregation. / Ain’t that a fine thing!” But, on the whole, the literary creativity fits awkwardly with the task of record-keeping. It is a shame to assemble some of the finest and most daring authors of our time only to hem them in with time stamps.
So what are the facts? There are plenty in the volume that aren’t likely to be disputed. In the late seventeenth century, South Carolina made its whites legally responsible for policing any slave found off of the plantation without permission, with penalties for those who neglected to do so. In 1857, the Supreme Court decided against Dred Scott, ruling that Black people “are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word ‘citizens’ in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides.” In 1919, the U.S. Army strode into Elaine, Arkansas, and gunned down hundreds of Black residents. In 1960, Senator Barry Goldwater mourned the decline of states’ rights heralded by Brown v. Board of Education, contending that protecting racial equality was not federal business. In 1985, six adults and five children in Philadelphia received “the commissioner’s recipe for eviction,” as Gregory Pardlo writes in a poem, including “M16s, Uzi submachine guns, sniper rifles, tear gas . . . and one / state police / helicopter to drop two pounds of mining explosives combined with two / pounds of C-4.” In 2020, Black Americans were reportedly 2.8 times more likely to die after contracting COVID-19. What the 1619 Project accounts for is the brutal racial logic governing the “afterlife of slavery,” as Saidiya V. Hartman has put it in her transformative scholarship (which is referenced only once in this book, in an endnote, but without which a project such as 1619 might very well not exist).