top of page

Book Review: The 1619 Project


His name was Thomas Dartmouth Rice, a New York entertainer who performed under the stage name of T. D. Rice. In 1828, Rice had been a nobody actor in his early twenties, touring with a theater company in Cincinnati, when he saw a decrepit, disfigured old Black man singing while grooming a horse on the property of a white man whose last name was Crow. "On went the light bulb," writes Wesley Morris, one of several authors who composed essays for "The 1619 Project". "Rice took in the tune and the movements but failed, it seems, to take down the old man's name. So in his song, the horse groomer became who Rice needed him to be."

"Weel about and turn about jus so," went his tune, "ebery time I weel about, I jump Jim Crow."

With that, this white man invented the character who would become the mascot for two centuries of legalized racism in America.

Morris continues: "That night, Rice made himself up to look like the old Black Man, or some such thing like him, because for this getup, Rice most likely concocted skin blacker than any actual black person's; he invented a gibberish dialect meant to imply Black speech, and he turned the old man's melody and hobbled movements into a song-and-dance routine that no white audience had ever experienced before. What they saw caused a sensation. The crowd demanded twenty encores.

"Rice had a hit on his hands," continues Morris. "He repeated the act again, night after night, for audiences so profoundly jolted that he was frequently mobbed during performances. Across the Ohio River, a short distance from all that adulation, was Boone County Kentucky, which was largely populated by enslaved Africans. As they were being worked, sometimes to death, white people, desperate with anticipation, were paying to see a terrible distortion of the enslaved depicted at play."

With that, a new form of entertainment was born, involving hundreds of white actors who, like T. D. Rice, night after night, on stages across America, would blacken their faces and perform song-and-dance routines, skits, and gender parodies. Writes Morris; "Its stars were the nineteenth-century versions of Elvis, the Beatles, and 'N Sync."

Film critic Wesley Morris is among the ten writers who wrote an essay for "The 1619 Project". All of these writers are graduates of mostly Ivy League universities; many are professors, and journalists who contribute regularly to a number of big-city newspapers, notably the New York Times. Under the creative leadership of journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, The New York Times helped developed "The 1619 Project", beginning with an article it ran in an August 2019 issue. With help from ten contributors, "The 1619 Project" was compiled into a book. On May 4, 2020, the Pulitzer Prize was awarded to Ms. Hannah-Jones for her introductory essay.

The book is considered by some to be controversial because it challenges conventional U.S. history, beginning with the year 1619 when the first enslaved Africans were brought to America and sold into slavery. Indeed, the book has been banned in some state schools, notably in Florida. According to Florida governor, Ron Desantis, the book was banned because it made students "uncomfortable." Without question, the book will make you uncomfortable, as the slavery story--of African Americans working from sun-up to sun-down in the stifling heat of the southern states, without pay and with no chance of escape--is painful to read. On top of that it doesn't speak well of the Europeans who settled this land, and employed slave labor to work the fields of their southern plantations, which made them rich.

Today, those of European descent are called "whites" and those of African descent are called "blacks". Neither term existed when the first Africans were brought here. The labels were later applied to differentiate between the two races, making the ruling whites out to be good God-fearing Christians, and the blacks as little more than beasts of burden, deserving of their fate. People still use these labels, not realizing they are artificial and have no bases in anthropology.

It should be noted that "white" slavery existed in the American colonies before Africans arrived. For "white" workers, it was enslavement that lasted only for seven years. At the end of seven years, the enslaved worker would be set free. It was how many Europeans got here; they were mostly impoverished people who could not afford to pay for passage to America. To get here they agreed to serve their benefactor for seven years as payment for the ocean journey.

On the other hand, Africans were bound and brought here against their will, were then whipped into submission, and destined for a life-time of slavery. If they managed to escape (as some did), when caught, they would be put to death. For the unfortunate African slave, it was a life without hope.

However uncomfortable this makes readers feel, it's important to learn about this particularly ugly part of American history, rather than to downplay it, as some have, or by deny its veracity.


And there's more. After reading about the inhumane treatment of African-American slaves, you'll learn about things you thought you knew of the inhumane treatment of indigenous Americans, which will make you equally uncomfortable.

As bad as this is, it's how American enslavers, who called themselves Christians, justified their actions based on a few selected passages in the Old Testament. They did this while conveniently ignoring the New Testament, in particular Christ Jesus' precepts in the Sermon on the Mount, the Apostle Paul's "Ode to love", or John's revelation, that "God is Love", not to mention Moses and the Ten Commandments (every commandment of which slave masters repeatedly broke). If nothing else, had enslavers only followed Christ Jesus' Golden Rule, they never could have lived with themselves, nor enjoyed the ill-gotten fruits they were enjoying from the sweat of African-American slaves.

You'll also learn how the Founding Father's justified slavery, while waging a war to free themselves from the perceived tyranny of England's King George III. Several of the more enlightened Southern Founders, relieved their guilt by believing that slavery would eventually die out on its own, as it had in the Northern states. Take for example Thomas Jefferson, who brilliantly crafted The Declaration of Independence.


Like other plantation owners he wasn't prepared to release his slaves from bondage. He was counting on gradual emancipation to somehow solve the problem for him. What no one seemed to have considered at the time, was the vastly greater number of slaves living in the south as opposed to the few slaves who lived in the north, and that the south--particularly the Deep South--was still importing African slaves while the northern workforce was filling its depleted ranks with immigrant European free labor.

Years later, when it was clear that southern slavery was not fading away but spreading into the western territories, Jefferson grew alarmed. In his final years, it awoke him, as he put it, "like a fire bell in the night," filling him with terror. He believed the two races could not live together in harmony. Once freed, Jefferson believed the former slaves would take revenge on their former captors. "We have the wolf by the ears," he lamented, "and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go."

The good news in this book, is that they could free them without fear of reprisal, as witness the horrific violence that struck the A.M.E. Church in South Carolina, in 2015, by a white supremacist named Dylann Roof. Roof entered the Black church and opened fire on a Bible study group. The victims included Clement Pinckney, both pastor of the church and a state legislator.

What was striking to many observers was the speed with which some of the families were willing to forgive Roof. They told him so at his bond hearing just days later. "I forgive you," said Anthony Thompson, whose wife was killed. "My family forgives you." The daughter of Ethel Lance, who was also killed, told Roof, "May God forgive you. And I forgive you." That Sunday, Reverend Norvel Golf, Sr., told the Black congregation, "We still believe that prayer can change things . . . prayer not only changes things, it changes us."


When the slaves were freed after the Civil War, it was not African Americans who attacked their former enslavers (as Jefferson had feared), but the former enslavers who attacked African Americans. Often they would hide their true identity cloaked in white gowns and white hoods (as the Ku Klux Klan) and wait until the cover of night to attack: burning down homes, businesses, and churches, and from their farms stealing livestock, wagons, plows, and other valuables.

These white marauders reserved their worst punishment for any black man suspected of looking on a white woman. The authors point out that this fear was in fact projection on the part of white men, who, as enslavers had a long history of raping back women.

The good news in this book is how African-Americans embraced Christianity, despite having never been taught to read (learning to read and write was outlawed in most southern states). How did this happen? Learning to understand and love the Bible, was a long process that had begun when some unknown enslaver decided his slaves needed to learn Scripture to save their souls, and began reading tracts from the Bible (but not stories from Exodus that told of Moses leading the Hebrews out of slavery and into freedom.) From this meek beginning, African-Americans learned Bible stories by heart, and put the words into songs, which they would sing in the cotton fields all day long, which would give them a certain amount of relief. These songs evolved into what would become known as Gospel Music, and eventually Blues, Jazz, and in our century, Rock 'N' Roll, Soul, Funk, and Hip Hop.


It should be noted, that African-Americans fully embraced the message of the New Testament and practiced it by forgiving their former enslavers.

Also discussed is their influence on American cuisine, cuisine that tended to be bland. They enlivened it with an imaginative use of herbs, spices, and peppers. They did it by making use of pigs feet, knuckles, rib meet, and other cuts of pork and beef that their white enslavers deemed as unfit to eat.

As much as Black Americans strived to be accepted, and to participate in American democracy by simply voting, they struggled to achieve this goal through much of the twentieth century, despite faithfully fighting in two world wars, only to return home to find nothing of substance had changed. It wasn't until the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and '60s, that meaningful change began to take place. It was evident, first by the success of a number of black entertainers, black athletes, black college professors, and black businessmen, and culminated in the election of the first Black man to he elected president in 2008.

Still the struggle is not over, as Obama was succeeded by a white supremacist in 2016. Also Black Americans find themselves still targeted by white police officers, and being stopped for DWB (driving while black), that continues to be a real problem if your skin is black.

Fittingly, Ms Hannah-Jones concludes her book with a chapter entitled "Justice", from which I have excerpted the following paragraph:

"The efforts of Black Americans to seek freedom through resistance and rebellion against violations of their rights have always been one of this nation's defining traditions. But the country had rarely seen it this way, because for Black Americans, the freedom struggle has been a centuries-long fight against their own fellow Americans and against the very government intended to uphold the rights of its citizens. Though we are seldom taught this fact, time and time throughout our history, the most ardent, courageous, and consistent freedom fighters have been Black Americans."

- END -

Recent Posts

See All

The Search for Truth

The most quoted book at the 1789 Constitutional Convention was the King James Bible. Indeed, the very ideals that exalted the Declaration of Independence were Biblical in origin: "All men are created

THE SURVIVORS OF CLOTILDA SLAVE SHIP

The Clotilda was the last known U.S. slave ship to bring captives from Africa to the United States, arriving in Mobile Bay, July 9, 1860 -- more than half a century after the passage of a federal law

Washington in New York -- chs 27, 28 & Epilogue

CHAPTER 27: TRANSITION TO PHILADELPIA The Masters-Penn-Morris House at 190 Market Street in Philadelphia seemed palatial to George Washington when he stayed there in 1787 during the Constitutional Con

Comments


bottom of page