Last summer, in the swirl of global forest fires and the whistleblower complaint and the Popeye’s chicken sandwich, we stopped to reflect on two major moments in our history—the publication of Nikole Hannah Jones’ The 1619 Project in The New York Times, and the passing of Toni Morrison. We linked these two events because they both remind us of the constant light that Black literary and political traditions are for those of us committed to reckoning with and changing the course of U.S. history, and of the enormous gulf we must bridge and fill to face the rigorous social and political demands of those traditions. As we face this new decade which already promises so many dangers from our failures to reckon with our local and global histories, we share this editorial from our Fall issue to reflect on who we are as a country, and what lessons we might carry into this new era.
This piece originally appear in our Fall 2019 print issue, which came out this past November.
As you read this, I expect the media debates and Twitter wars about The 1619 Project—the New York Times multimedia initiative on the arrival of the first enslaved African peoples to the land that would become the United States—have reduced to a simmer, just shy of boiling public consciousness. Or maybe they’ve gone still and cold already, replaced by some other fight or culture spike. Remember the Popeye’s chicken sandwich? You can probably find one easily now; if you’re Black, it may no longer come with questions about whether you vote.
Let’s revisit that time two months ago when I was writing this, when the forests in the Amazon and Angola and Congo were burning (hopefully the fires are out now), the weather was still stormy hot, and the leaves were still mostly on the trees. As I write this, it’s late August, the school year is just beginning, and the students are readying to pick up books that still tell them Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas, and enslaved Black people were contented servants. Every year August 20th slips by, mostly unremarked upon, except for when it is the first day of school, as it was for several of us here in North Carolina.
This year it was different. It shouldn’t have been the first time in my memory that the landing of the first enslaved Africans on the shores of Virginia was considered a thing worthy of rigorous reflection and engagement, but I cannot remember another time in my 35 years where my attention was so called to the moment that drastically shaped the history of this region and this country. But it’s been 400 years, and Nikole Hannah Jones, the creator of The 1619 Project, rightly thought we ought to take time to say something about that day and what it means. I expected the project, produced as it was by some of the most prominent writers, artists, and thinkers of our time, to be sharp, beautifully written, and well-researched—which it was. And I expected it to go over as well as any fact-based truth-telling about Black people’s history in this country ever goes. And it did.
Every year August 20th slips by, mostly unremarked upon, except for when it is the first day of school, as it was for several of us here in North Carolina.
Many readers purchased the special issue of The New York Times Magazine (it sold out several times) and voiced their support online, because doing so makes them look like good people—progressive, informed, and certainly not racist (!)—even if it makes no difference in their daily political choices about where they live, where their children go to school, or whether they call the cops to intervene when things don’t go their way.
Others decided that a project focused on how Black people shaped the nation displaces the history of every other non-white group to ever live on these shores. Scarcity—the American ethos—defeats us so often that we can’t imagine our abundance, let alone our intersections.
And, of course, there are the ones who spent precious energy, time, and someone’s money denying basic, verifiable facts. Even if, as Newt Gingrich argued, white people were concerned with things other than slavery between 1619 and 1865, they certainly lost thousands of family members and spent billions of dollars trying to preserve it, and their lives could not exist as they currently do without it.
One of the most frustrating things about living and writing and teaching as a Black person in the world is that people who are not Black often do not believe that they can learn anything relevant or useful from you. Because we are supposed to know nothing. The pseudoscientific idea of Black people as unintelligent, and therefore irrelevant to knowledge production, is still treated in many ways as the natural order of society. We know historically, at least in the U.S., those lies began as early as 1619.
I suppose I’m in some other group of mostly Black people who take for granted both the significance of 1619 and the genius of Jones and the gorgeous assembly of contributors to this project. Even as a Black person, it takes awhile to get beyond the gaslighting of most things we ever read about the nation and our place in it. Getting past this point this doesn’t mean that you’re “enlightened.” It simply means that the bar for rejecting Black humanity, much less Black brilliance, is still lower than low. It’s on the ground.
It’s no coincidence that I felt Toni Morrison’s loss more acutely when I started reading the responses to The 1619 Project than I did the day she died a few weeks prior. I knew her voice, her words could knock all nonsense posing as common sense into the ether. She wouldn’t have to say or write anything new for this occasion because, as advanced as the U.S. thinks it is, it is viciously remedial with its own history. Morrison knew that. She also knew clearly what Blackness is and is not, and suffered no fools who refused to know the difference. She took Black life so seriously that it came off casual, as matter-of-fact as the currents on the Hudson River, where she lived and wrote.
Two months later, as you are reading this, I am probably still thinking about what kind of conversations we would be having in the U.S.—which, according to Marcus Hunter and Zandria Robinson, is nothing but a collection of different Souths—if we took Black life as seriously as Toni Morrison took it.
I expected it to go over as well as any fact-based truth-telling about Black people’s history in this country ever goes. And it did.
We would be having so many conversations with and about Black people in the present tense. Trayvon Martin is 25 years old, and he’s on the phone with Rachel Jeantel talking about something mundane that neither of them will remember the next day, but it doesn’t matter, because they know they’ll talk again soon.
Keisha Brown, who is currently in the fight against the ABC Coke industry in Birmingham that you read about in our last issue, would be breathing freely and deeply. There would be no conversations about late night rushes to the emergency room after her sleep was interrupted.
We might be having fun, multilingual conversations about delicious chicken sandwiches, but none of them are coming from a fast food joint because there is no Black or brown labor or land to exploit for the exploitation of chickens or hogs or cows. The animals we eat (if we do eat them at all), live free until they are sacrificed humanely for food.
Our children have no conversations about jails, prisons or confinement because no living being, human or non-human, spends a day of their lives in a cage.
We do not speak of a “developed” or “Third World,” because it is all our world. The lives that do not reside on this land, many of whom are also Black, are just as valuable as those who do. Therefore, when we talk about the Amazon or Angola or Congo, we never ever talk about money. We speak only of how those forests save all of our lives, daily.
The lives that do not reside on this land, many of whom are also Black, are just as valuable as those who do.
No one meets the year 1619 with blank stares or sneers or skepticism, because everyone has been taught since the beginning of their free public education that the land on which we reside was fundamentally shaped by millions of Black people who were once enslaved across the world and whose lives were treated as if they had no worth. Everyone knows and talks openly about what that history will always mean for our present and future, because everyone knows that our futures together depend on it.
Everyone knows and talks and teaches about Toni Morrison. But not like a god, or even a queen. She is spoken of as another human who had many critical and beautiful things to say about being Black, which is all about being human. And we choose to listen.