The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project takes a hard look at the American paradox of freedom and slavery

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The New York Times Magazine’s new 1619 Project is a special edition that reframes American history around one date: August 1619, when the first slave ship arrived on America’s shores.

“The Fourth of July in 1776 is regarded by most Americans as the country’s birthday,” says an introduction on the Times’ website. “But what if we were to tell you that the country’s true birth date, the moment that its defining contradictions first came into the world, was in late August 1619?”

The project, released online Wednesday and in print on Sunday, outlines its thesis: “No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the years of slavery that followed.” Through reported essays, longform articles and works of literature, the Project 1619 aims to deepen readers’ understanding of American history.

“In the days and weeks to come, we will publish essays demonstrating that nearly everything that has made America exceptional grew out of slavery,” the introduction says.

The idea was pitched in January by staff writer Nikole Hannah-Jones, who has a degree in African American studies and has spent her career writing about modern racial inequities and segregation, winning a MacArthur Grant — also known as a “genius grant” — for her work in 2017.

Reshaping how we view America

The United States was founded on ideals of individual rights and freedoms, Hannah-Jones pointed out in an interview with MSNBC. But the paradox of these lofty ideals and the reality of slavery creates a contradiction of American mythology. That’s in part what this special edition aims to confront.

“One of the things I hear all the time is, ‘Well, lots of nations practiced slavery.’ But those nations were not founded on the idea of individual rights and that we would be the most liberatory democracy the world has ever seen,” she said. “So having to deal with those two things, that you are holding people in perpetual bondage while claiming to be a country built on individual rights, was extremely corrosive to our development.

“And that’s really what the magazine tries to grapple with, is that you can look across modern society today and still see the effects of that need to hide that sin. We want to hide this sin, because we’re ashamed of it.”

The project is all-encompassing, with articles tracing black Americans’ impact on issues from democracy and capitalism to music.

“What does a traffic jam in Atlanta have to do with segregation? Quite a lot,” one points out. Another is titled, “The sugar that saturates the American diet has a barbaric history as the ‘white gold’ that fueled slavery.” They explore the details of American society and display the connections to slavery and segregation.

On Friday, the Times’ podcast, The Daily, will begin a limited series called “1619,” an audio accompaniment to the magazine edition. There’s also a lesson plan associated with the project, available online via the Pulitzer Center.

Meanwhile, it hasn’t been easy to find a physical copy of the project. Some people on Twitter have told of how they’ve gone to multiple stores in search of the magazine, and Editor-In-Chief Jake Silverstein tweeted that there may be extra distribution later in the week.

‘We cannot deny our past,’ Hannah-Jones says of critics

Though the project has been in the works for months, its release comes as the Times finds itself fumbling with its coverage of race.

The paper received significant backlash for a headline declaring “Trump Urges Unity Vs. Racism” after this month’s mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton. Many, including politicians like Beto O’Rourke and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, thought the headline was too soft and said it diminished the role of Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, particularly in the El Paso shooting.

The newspaper’s staffers feel that it should be doing more to hold Trump “rigorously accountable,” though others acknowledged the difficulties of calling out racism without editorializing.

Regardless, a project of this scale is not without its critics, with other politicians like Ted Cruz and Newt Gingrich equating it to propaganda.

Hannah-Jones responded in an interview with PBS, reiterating that every part was deeply researched and supported with historical evidence, checked by fact-checkers who interviewed panels of historians and verified every argument.

“We cannot deny our past,” she said. “And if you believe that 1776 matters, if you believe that our Constitution still matters, then you also have to understand that the legacy of slavery still matters, and you can’t pick and choose what parts of history we think are important and which ones aren’t. They all are important. And that narrative that is inclusive and honest — even if it’s painful — is the only way that we can understand our times now and the only way we can move forward.”

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