“The goal of The 1619 Project, a major initiative from The New York Times that this issue of the magazine inaugurates, is to reframe American history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year,” The New York Times Magazine editors declare. “Doing so requires us to place the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are as a country.”
The scale of the opening offering is massive by the standards of modern journalism: 100 pages (with a few ads), ten essays, a photo essay, and a collection of original poems and stories from 16 additional writers.
But the 1619 Project’s effort to “reframe American history” requires cropping out some significant figures in African-American history. Perhaps no near-100-page collection of essays, poems and photos could cover every significant figure in African-American history, but the number of prominent figures who never even get mentioned or who get only the most cursory treatment is pretty surprising.
Early in Nikole Hannah-Jones’s essay, she reiterates the important point, “in every war this nation has waged since that first one, black Americans have fought — today we are the most likely of all racial groups to serve in the United States military.” The name Crispus Attucks is mentioned three times, but he is, as far as I can tell, the lone black Revolutionary War combatant mentioned. James Armistead was a spy for Lafayette who had access to General Cornwallis’s headquarters. Back in 1996, the New York Times wrote about the First Rhode Island Regiment, who fought at Newport and Pine’s Bridge, and in a regrouped form, Yorktown. By one account, one-quarter of the American forces at the battle of Yorktown were black. The 1619 Project does not mention the Battle of Yorktown.
One might argue that the essay authors preferred to focus on lesser-known African-American historical figures . . . but you really have to strain to contend James Armistead is sufficiently widely known already. Could anyone seriously argue that African-American contributions to the Revolutionary War are too well-known?
Martin Delany was an abolitionist, the first African American accepted to Harvard Medical School (white students quickly forced him out), and the first African-American field grade officer in the U.S. Army in 1865. He’s quoted once in passing.
In the early 1860s, about 179,000 black men enlisted in the U.S. Colored Troops, almost 10 percent of the entire Union army. The U.S. Colored Troops are not mentioned in the 1619 Project. The Buffalo Soldiers are not mentioned in the 1619 Project. There is a brief mention of African-American soldiers heading west after the Civil War: “Even while bearing slavery’s scars, black men found themselves carrying out orders to secure white residents of Western towns, track down ‘‘outlaws’’ (many of whom were people of color), police the federally imposed boundaries of Indian reservations and quell labor strikes.”
In the seven times African-American soldiers mentioned, they are generally described as victims who have merely shifted from one system of subjugation and exploitation to another.
There’s no mention of the Harlem Hellfighters fighting in World War One, and no mention of Dorie Miller’s heroism at Pearl Harbor. The horrors of the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male are discussed, but the Tuskegee Airmen are never mentioned.
African-American heroism on the battlefield doesn’t really fit the narrative that the 1619 Project is trying to tell. In fact, you could argue that the essays are so wedded to a narrative of white brutality and black victimhood that they seem to fear that spotlighting any example of a successful African-American defiance of oppression would undermine their argument. In the reframing of the 1619 Project, African-American success stories disappear. There’s no mention of Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympic Games. There’s no mention of Jackie Robinson. There’s no mention of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, the African-American mathematicians who worked for NASA as depicted in the film Hidden Figures. Wilberforce University in Ohio, the first college owned and operated by African Americans, is not mentioned.
The attack on Negro Fort in Florida is mentioned, but not the existence of its nearby predecessor Fort Mose, the first free African-American community in North America, founded in the 1730s.
Frederick Douglass is mentioned twice. W.E.B. du Bois is quoted once. Thurgood Marshall is mentioned once.
Harriet Tubman is never mentioned. Nor is Booker T. Washington nor is Bishop Richard Allen, who founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), the first independent black denomination in the United States. Abolitionist Sojourner Truth, Shirley Chisom (the first black woman elected to the U.S. Congress), Benjamin Oliver Davis Sr. (the first African-American general for the U.S. Army), Ida Wells (a journalist who documented lynchings and co-founded the NAACP), Duke Ellington, and Rosa Parks are never mentioned.
Would the country as a whole be better off with a greater understanding of slavery and its legacy in American history? Absolutely. (The country would be better off with more understanding of just about any chapter of American history.) The 1619 Project argues, with considerable justification, that most of us been seeing only one part of the portrait of the founding, formation, and growth of our country . . . and then “reframes” the portrait to leave out some of the most consequential and under-discussed African Americans in our history.