Jake Silverstein

Origin Story

November 9, 2021

[Books published on 11.16.]

“Perhaps, as Jones suggests, we are a nation of argument that has been fooled all these years, through the exclusionary mythmaking of an elite few, into thinking we were a nation of consensus. Our present turmoil suggests as much.”

New York Times Magazine

“The book [11.16] will kick up a new round of debates. Years of careful consensus-building around national history standards did nothing to forestall the eruption. But in a sense, these arguments themselves may represent the apotheosis of our historiography. -Jake Silverstein

“Is history a science or a patriotic art?” -Nikole Hannah-Jones

Fights over how we tell our national story go back more than a century — and have a great deal to teach us about our current divisions.

This book, which is called “The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story,” arrives amid a prolonged debate over the version of the project we published two years ago. That project made a bold claim, which remains the central idea of the book: that the moment in August 1619 when the first enslaved Africans arrived in the English colonies that would become the United States could, in a sense, be considered the country’s origin.

The reasoning behind this is simple: Enslavement is not marginal to the history of the United States; it is inextricable. So many of our traditions and institutions were shaped by slavery, and so many of our persistent racial inequalities stem from its enduring legacy. Identifying the start of such a vast and complex system is a somewhat symbolic act. It was not until the late 1600s that slavery became codified with new laws in various colonies that firmly established the institution’s racial basis and dehumanizing structure. But 1619 marks the earliest beginnings of what would become this system. (It also could be said to mark the earliest beginnings of what would become American democracy: In July of that year, just weeks before the White Lion arrived in Point Comfort with its human cargo, the Virginia General Assembly was called to order, the first elected legislative body in English America.)

“History is a science, a social science, but it’s also politics,” the historian Martha S. Jones, who contributed a chapter in the new 1619 book, told me. “And Black historians have always known that. They always know the stakes. In a world that would brand Africans as people without a history, Williams understood the political consequence of the assertion that Black people have history and might even be driving it.”

Democracy, we are often told, requires a free press, one that will hold power to account. Does it also require a robust historical profession, free to ramify in a hundred directions at once, not all of them inspiring? Or in this regard do journalism and history differ, with journalism providing democracy its greatest service when most unshackled and critical, while history operates best with the sense of decorum and tradition that foments civic pride?

The answer may lie in another of history’s purposes, one that draws it closer to a core mission of journalism: to explain how we have arrived at the world we inhabit. “History is worth writing and studying primarily because of its power to shape our thinking about our present and future,” Gary Nash wrote. With this purpose in mind, the upheaval in American history seems less like a destabilizing force and more like a movement toward transparency, a clearing away of spin.

With any luck, our descendants will see the past from a more propitious perspective than our own. But we can perceive it only from our present reality: a nation plagued by rampant inequality and racial injustice, bitterly divided in its politics and incapable of achieving unity on public-health goals or the existential demands of climate change.

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