The 1619 Project and American Myth

They say our people were born on the water; the tealed eternity of the Atlantic had separated them so completely from their home it was like nothing had ever existed before. These African men and women, from different nations, all shackled together in the hull of a ship, they were one people now, and although they tried to break our ancestors, to erase our identities, we forged a new culture of our own, giving birth to ourselves. It didn’t matter we were told by virtue of our bondage that we would never be American because it was by virtue of our bondage that we became the most American of all. (Quote from beginning of The 1619 Project, Hulu)

The title of the book version of the 1619 Project is The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story. For a large, complex, and established nation, the United States does not have nearly enough origin stories–not enough origin stories for the hundreds of Native peoples, Mexican settlements in the Southwest, the Spanish founding of Florida, or Black Americans and the Middle Passage. For most of my nearly 69 years, the dominant origin story of the United States involves the Puritan/Pilgrim founding of Massachusetts, the Revolutionary Era (Declaration of Independence, Constitution), and immigrant assimilation from the 1840’s-1920’s. In this story, the U.S. had representative government from the beginning and gradually assimilated more populations into civil/political rights. In other words, America had noble origins and became more noble over time.

But that story is not longer credible even as an origin story for white Americans. Deeper attention to relations between the expanding American nation and Native, Hispanic, Black, LGBT, and dissident whites revealed patterns of exploitation, bigotry, and cruelty that could not be reconciled to the foundational myth of American progress. Whether it was colonization, the Revolutionary era, Jacksonian America, Reconstruction, the roaring 20’s, or the Civil Rights Era, the conduct of the dominant white leadership, settlers, and mobs strongly opposed to “universal” ideas of freedom and rights or any kind of progressive assimilation. There’s also a sense in which the foundational myth became irrelevant. The U.S. began a transition from a white dominated republic to more of a multicultural society and politics that can be seen from the Obama years and the anti-Trump politics of subsequent years. Given the extremely new coalescing of a multicultural, liberal mainstream, it’s perhaps not surprising that there is no multicultural mythology on the scale of “American Progress.”

The 1619 Project is many things and the Nicole Hannah-Jones introduction reads partly as a love letter to black people. In relation to American mythology, Hannah-Jones seeks to give black people and black history a much more prominent place in the American narrative. If a democratic Republic was established formally by the authors of the Declaration and Constitution, Hannah-Jones argues that black people have served as “perfecters” of democracy through a long history of slave rebellions, the abolition movement, Civil War military service, Reconstruction, resistance to segregation, and the Civil Rights Movement. Likewise, in the course of pushing for their own rights to be recognized, black people also developed a civil rights language through other marginalized American populations could seek recognition as full citizens. From The 1619 Project:

Through centuries of Black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals. And not only for ourselves–Black rights struggles paved the way for every other rights struggle, including women’s and gay rights, immigrant and disability rights.

But the connection between Black civil rights and other rights struggles raises the possibility that America has been founded less on the extension of 18th century ideas of freedom for property owning white men and more on the striving of diverse populations for full recognition as citizens in opposition to the values and interests of most whites. Contrary to the conservative idea of a broad black, LGBT, and immigrant assimilation to Americanism, diverse groups may have adapted, assimilated, or re-articulated the ideals of American freedom to their own distinct (and changing) cultures. For Hannah-Jones, Africans from many nations, kingdoms, and peoples made themselves into a Black people “on the water” during the Middle Passage and the moral and political language developed by Black Americans (especially during the Civil Rights Era) became a language that could be re-articulated by a variety of other groups striving to be recognized as full citizens. In this sense, Black American culture and history is not only an important part of the American mythos but also has to be considered as one of the most important elements of the story of the United States as a multi-cultural and socially liberal society.