‘The 1619 Project’ is Scaring People (Still)

N. Lewis
6 min readOct 14, 2020

“Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality.” — James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

The original intent of the 1619 Project was not to rewrite the historical record of our American mythology, but to provide context. Reading the amount of articles that have steadily come out either defending or, with increasing frequency, decrying it, it seems that original intent is an inconvenient motivation, a pebble in the shoe of the culture war gatekeepers: senators, op-ed columnists, historians, the media, etc.

The original intent supposes a disconcerting thought: the United States was founded on and continued to believe in a fundamental lie, a lie that has subjugated, disenfranchised, terrorized, and constrained the status of U.S. citizens simply because they are not white. The original intent of the 1619 Project was to present a supplemental reading of our history, an annotation that can be used to both challenge and clarify the gaps in the creation myth we tell ourselves, habitually, every time we cite the Constitution or celebrate the Fourth of July.

Instead of engaging with this intent, the criticism is largely, I’ll say overwhelmingly, focused on two issues: the opinion that 1619, not 1776, should be considered the year of the nation’s founding, and an American Revolution mischaracterization in Nikole Hannah-Jones’s introduction to the project.

The issues offended many conservative ideologues and some historians, with arguments sometimes devolving into diatribes on semantics. As the criticism centered on those two issues grew, the purpose of the 1619 Project became more and more blurred until, a year and two months later, we have an opinion writer for The New York Times, the same paper that is both home to the project and employs Hannah-Jones, declaring it a failure.

Now, The Times says it is committed to featuring a diversity of voices. It is an admirable commitment that is necessary in today’s culture of discordant screaming into the void (or, Twitter). And it is refreshing to see the beginnings of an intellectual battle waged in essay form, rather than as an open letter.

However, this salvo, while not the first (and definitely not the last), is the one with the…

N. Lewis

Secular nun, media and participatory culture enthusiast, Bad Democrat, and shambolic mess. Occasional observations and rants guaranteed.