Editor’s Note: Peniel E. Joseph is Barbara Jordan chair in ethics and political values and founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is a professor of history. He is the author of “The Third Reconstruction: America’s Struggle for Racial Justice in the Twenty-First Century.” The views expressed here are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
The first two episodes of “The 1619 Project,” a documentary series which premiered on Hulu on Thursday, brings to life the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times multimedia project created by Nikole Hannah-Jones.
As the first two episodes of “The 1619 Project” make dramatically clear, “the relentless buying, selling, insuring, and financing” of Black people “would help make Wall Street and New York City the financial capital of the world.”
At the same time, these episodes also reveal how Black folks represent American democracy’s beating heart; that heart has helped fuel the imagination and social transformation that has helped uplift not only African Americans, but also women, other people of color, LGBTQ+, immigrants and the disabled.
The documentary series provides additional flesh and texture to the original New York Times Sunday Magazine special issue, the multimedia educational social media supporting materials and bestselling anthology subsequently published.
By weaving interviews, graphics detailing data connected to race, slavery and history and incorporating recordings of voices of Americans with personal recollections of slavery, Jim Crow, civil rights and voting rights activism, the series offers an experience that is both intimate and expansive. It demonstrates how individual biographies of Black Americans tell a collective narrative of a struggle for Black citizenship and dignity that remains this nation’s defining story.
“It is Black people who have been the perfectors of our democracy,” argues Hannah-Jones in the series’ first installment, aptly titled “Democracy.” The story that follows in this episode centers Black people – usually relegated to the margins as slaves or peaceful demonstrators during the civil rights movement’s heroic period – in the larger narrative of American history.
Speaking autobiographically, Hannah-Jones argues, “no people had a greater claim to the American flag” which her military veteran father proudly hung outside her childhood home in Waterloo, Iowa, than Black people. She recounts how her childhood alienation from American history was interrupted by a Black high school history teacher who explained the meaning of 1619 for Black American and American history –the year the first enslaved Africans were brought to the shores of Virginia aboard the English White Lion ship.
The episode than pivots to the present, mapping out how Hannah-Jones and “The 1619 Project” became conservative scapegoats for White backlash, with 36 states passing or debating legislation designed to ban or restrict how teachers can talk about systemic racism, critical race theory, and yes, “The 1619 Project” – in short, to disrupt the teaching of Black history in the United States. America’s inability to confront its racial history is not really about the past, as the series brilliantly reveals, but always about the present and future of this democracy.
“The 1619 Project” was introduced in 2019, and has been the basis for books, a podcast and school curricula. What this series’ newest interpretation of the work offers is a timely reminder and illustration that the fight to erase Black history from the public-school curriculum mirrors historic efforts to exclude Black people from American democratic institutions.
Focusing on democracy here is pivotal. For perhaps the most important revelation of “The 1619 Project” and the ensuing praise and controversy surrounding it is the relationship between race and democracy.
Black people have been unheralded architects of the nation’s democratic experiment, something which Hannah-Jones takes special care to call attention to through her personal biography and the ways in which her familial history dovetails into a larger American story that sees, time and time again, hopes for multiracial democracy falter in the face of violent racial backlash.
Nowhere are these juxtapositions more present than during the Reconstruction period and the decades following. Between 1865 and 1898 Black Americans created new schools, churches, universities and civic, political, and business groups and organizations. Those same years saw the rise of unprecedented racial terror, the passage of Black Codes that suppressed voting rights, the use of convict-lease systems that racially profiled African Americans and the establishment of sharecropping and peonage systems.
This violence paralleled Reconstruction’s bright spots for decades, reaching a fever pitch in 1898 the Wilmington Massacre, the first successful political coup in American history – organized by vengeful White racists against Black political leaders who were slaughtered, humiliated and forced to flee the city.
As “The 1619 Project” observes, the civil rights movement of the 1960s became a Second Reconstruction, where states like Mississippi (the birthplace of Hannah-Jones’ father) became battlegrounds for the nation’s democratic future. Scenes of bombed out Black churches, White youth brandishing confederate flags, and interviews with civil rights activists such as Greenwood, Mississippi’s MacArthur Cotton of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) cast into sharp relief the historic and contemporary stakes of voting for the health of our nation’s democracy.
As Hannah-Jones characterizes it in this first episode, “the challenges for democracy ahead” require telling a fuller story of American history, one “The 1619 Project” does with passionate erudition. Her framing puts modern-day voter suppression tactics, ranging from disallowing voters from receiving food and water on long lines to allowing anyone to object or challenge a voter’s ballot in states like Georgia in crucial historical context that links past and present.
The focus on democracy offers important historical and contextual evidence for understanding the ways that race shapes American society—from the education that our children receive in public schools to what parts of our collective history is celebrated, erased or ignored.
The evolution of American democracy is impossible to explore, let alone comprehend, without analyzing how Blackness marked the boundaries of citizenship, dignity, wealth, poverty and punishment. In this way, the first two episodes form a couplet that work more powerfully in tandem.
The series’ second episode, “Race,” explores the racial and gender hierarchies against the backdrop of the contrast between the lives of Hannah-Jones’ White maternal grandfather and her Black paternal grandmother.
We learn that after her White mother and Black father met and fell in love in 1972, Hannah-Jones’ paternal grandparents initially disowned their daughter, before reuniting after the birth of their first grandchild. “In the United States,” Hannah-Jones observes, “race defines our lives from beginning to end.”
Our racial identities being listed on certificates of birth and death are more than bureaucratic signposts. They serve as markers of destiny and signifiers of future wealth and prosperity for some and punishment and premature death for others.
The episode’s focus on both enslaved Black women and their modern contemporaries allows us an intimate glimpse into the racial and sexual reproductive realities Black women have confronted throughout American history. During racial slavery, as recounted during a detailed examination of a Georgia plantation, Black women were raped by White owners who then enslaved their own children, whose existence added more economic values to their fortunes.
As viewers we eavesdrop on recordings from the formerly enslaved conducted by the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression. Laura Smalley, a formerly enslaved Black woman, recalls that plantation owners would “breed them like they was hogs or horses, something like that, I say.”
Forced reproduction laboring in unspeakable work conditions resulted in precarious Black pregnancies, where Black women were forced to give numerous births against the backdrop of high rates of infant mortality and generational trauma. As historian Daina Ramey Berry observes in the episode, “There’s a direct link and contemporary connection to maternal mortality today and infant mortality and the challenges that women had giving birth during slavery.”
This is an incredibly painful history to confront – and one that is more necessary in our own time than ever. It also may help to explain how a Black woman as rich and famous as Serena Williams almost died from complications after giving birth to her daughter Olympia.
2023 marks the 160th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, yet America remains collectively trapped in historical amber – enmeshed in cruel myths and violent falsehoods that perpetuate racial division, economic inequality, segregation and violence.
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Our only way forward is by looking back at not so much what we sometimes refer to as “legacies” but through confronting a history that actively marginalizes Black life and in so doing represents an existential threat to America’s democratic future.
“I think about what it will take to make this country finally respect Black women,” Hannah-Jones observes near the end of “Race,” talking about a liberated future that her own extraordinary work has helped to move America—despite racial backlash—closer to embracing.
The stories “The 1619 Project” shares with viewers are fundamentally American ones, where Blacks take center stage as among the most fervent, patriotic and resilient stewards of democracy in the nation’s history.