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The 1619 Project’s Patriotic Work

Jamil Smith

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I don’t need to send droplets of my blood in an envelope to some corporation to know that, for the most part, my forebears were not immigrants to this land. Yet I also know that unlike even our parents, my sister and I were fortunate to be born here with something approximating a complete set of civil rights. We are, in a different way of speaking, first-generation Americans.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, the New York Times Magazine reporter who pitched and then worked to produce the acclaimed 1619 Project over the last several months, can relate. She and I are both 43 years old, part of what she calls in her brilliant opening essay “the first generation of black Americans in the history of the United States to be born into a society in which black people had full rights of citizenship.” Though the 14th Amendment that supposedly ensures all natural-born American citizenship is just more than 150 years old, Jim Crow and other forms of institutional racism ensure that only within the last 50 years or so — since the passage of the last major federal civil-rights legislation in the wake of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination — did black people become legally “free.”

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The 1619 Project seeks to “reframe the country’s history,” understanding that America’s true inception coincides with the beginning of chattel slavery 400 years ago this month. It seeks to place the ramifications of that economic system and the contributions of black Americans “at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.” That last note is important, for it understands how much America lies to itself. The question is, why?

The issue contains a thorough compilation of reports, commentary, poetry, original fiction, and a new podcast that both consciously seeks to re-contextualize our republic’s roots and examine that human bondage’s horrible legacy on American history and present day, all within the context of that solemn 400th anniversary. However, at the heart of its mission are more fundamental questions, including what Hannah-Jones writes about specifically. Why is this nation so invested in its own mythmaking and erasure? How does a black person love America — especially when it doesn’t love us back, or even treat us like we are Americans?

Hannah-Jones first inquires about this through the lens of her veteran father, who would replace the Stars and Stripes outside of the Iowa home at the sign of the first tatter. But it is a good question to consider in light of the bad-faith criticism the issue has faced from right-wing ideologues since its print publication last Sunday. 

The 1619 Project has proven to have a hidden genius, however. Like a peroxide, it has sent some of the most corrosive elements of our politics bubbling to the surface, exposing themselves and their bilious hatred for intellectualism, diversity, and at times, even black people outright. What those ideologues have failed to realize is that their supposed defenses of American virtue have actually been assaults on American history — and have exposed their hatred for actual patriots. 

Many angry white men whose fortunes, literal and figurative, rely upon maintaining a whitewashed memory of America took to their pulpits on Sunday as soon as the Sunday Times hit the newsstands. 

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich erupted both on Twitter and on Fox News, calling the issue “propaganda” and “a total lie,” despite clearly not having read a word of it. Radio host Erick Erickson, noted for his past bigotry, seemed irked that the issue employed opinion writers to engage on the topic of slavery and that it may have had some generational consequences. (For all their talk of political correctness and identity politics, the right sure does practice it to a comical extent.) Since Sunday, he has become rather obsessed with Hannah-Jones, all but stalking her tweets and lamenting that the Pulitzer Center has established reading guides for the essays and creative works contained within the issue. Heaven forbid those perusing the Times continue their learning when they’re done with the issue! 

The National Review’s Jim Geraghty published perhaps the most embarrassing item: a list of what the 1619 Project was supposedly missing, which seemed only to be a superfluous list of every black historical figure that he could name in under an hour. (Ironically, while Geraghty celebrates the brave Buffalo Soldiers, he ignores the more than 40,000 black soldiers who died in the Civil War, all to protect a Union that rejected them in the Dred Scott ruling.)

To his credit, the Washington Examiner’s Philip Klein broke the mold, using the 1619 Project as a chance to examine “how slavery doomed the possibility of achieving limited government in the United States.” I didn’t agree with all of his assertions, certainly, but at least his approach seemed intellectually honest. Klein’s was a rare exhibition of actual conservatism amid other ludicrously alarmist reactions to the 1619 Project that aren’t worth much discussion or engagement. Those were plainly designed to radicalize their side or simply to discourage another journalist or institution like the Times from probing similar issues with this much seriousness, depth, or grace. 

I refuse to call most of those Times’ critics “conservatives” because the essential argument for the issue’s existence should not, inherently, be anathema to a conservative worldview. To the contrary, if conservatism is indeed an unyielding commitment to traditional values and individualism, then someone identifying as conservative shouldn’t disagree with what Hannah-Jones and her colleagues present: the story of black Americans, having endured untold racist hells in North and South, maintaining their faith in American ideals so firmly working not merely to maintain them but in our own vain search for equal treatment as citizens, to proselytize them throughout the world in uniform, often with weapons of war? 

Instead, these mythmakers are behaving more like creationists expecting us to believe humans rode dinosaurs. That is the closest approximation to what it is like as an African American listening to white men speak of the inviolate greatness of other white men of the past who built this country, seemingly alone. Even as a child, I recognized how black narratives were washed away from the American story; how the “civil rights” section of my American History textbook was a paragraph long; and how the depictions of heroism in this nation never included people who looked like me. 

It was always apparent this was intentional. Whether it be in the arenas of religion or history, we often see not just some frantic erasure of truth at work, but the purposeful perpetuation of a false narrative that either ignores white evils or absolves them via the courage of other white people. These deceptions have a purpose, and it is a selfish one. It certainly isn’t patriotic.

This nation has always been an experiment of various sorts, democracy and diversity included, and as such, it will be fraught with imperfections. However, there is something askew with the American identity, which I can imagine having been built on several centuries of slave labor, rape, murder, and abuse. There is no need for our history to perform a superficial paint job, or to throw up some shoddy siding while the house rots underneath. 

Knowing the truth about black history because I read books, I always wondered as a boy: Why, if you love America so dearly, would you not be willing to look at it in the face? There is a James Baldwin quote that I have had tattooed on my consciousness: “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” That is the animating spirit of endeavors like the 1619 Project, which — if people bothered to read it — shows it is possible to depict our ugliness through beauty, to artfully weave a reader’s eyes and mind through a re-examination of the very soil beneath their feet so that they see it anew, and more clearly. It is a vision test for the soul, and it certainly helps us not only view America in greater relief, but those working to inhibit its growth and empowerment.

Accountability through honesty is not merely a journalistic endeavor, but a patriotic one. It is what we saw with athletes taking a knee, with nonviolent protesters in the street after police killings, and it is what we see in voting booths when prosecutors and presidents who work actively to maintain a racist status quo are voted out. It is what Stacey Abrams chose to opt out of a 2020 limelight to work against, choosing instead to fight voter suppression. It is easy to say blithely, even from the Republican side of the aisle, that America isn’t perfect and then do nothing about those imperfections other than pray and put a hand over your chest during the anthem. That isn’t true patriot love, as our Canadian sisters and brothers might call it. The evidence of that love comes in various forms, including the shiny volume included in last Sunday’s Times.

It is easy to see why the 1619 Project would upset white, far-right ideologues who believe themselves and their ancestors to be the celestial dust that both formed and now sustains America. That narrative has long required revision, and 400 years has been long enough to listen to their version. To its credit, in reframing the American narrative, the 1619 Project dares all of us to not only view this country through the eyes of black people, but to understand why on earth we would still love this godforsaken place having seen everything that we have.

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