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A Landmark Reckoning With America’s Racial Past and Present

Again and again, “The 1619 Project” brings the past to life in fresh ways. I knew nothing, for instance, of Callie House, a widowed Tennessee laundress born into slavery who in the early 1900s organized a national movement to demand pensions for the formerly enslaved, like the pensions paid to former Union soldiers. When Congress refused, House sued the federal government, arguing “that the U.S. Treasury owed Black Americans $68,073,388.99 for the taxes it had collected between 1862 and 1868 on the cotton enslaved people had grown. The federal government had identified the cotton and could trace it.” Her boldness so infuriated the white Southerners of Woodrow Wilson’s cabinet that they saw to it that House and her attorney were indicted for mail fraud. She served a year in prison.

Most readers also may not know that a planter could take out mortgages on his enslaved workers. Thomas Jefferson did, to raise the money to build Monticello. If the debtor defaulted, the bank then auctioned off these men and women — adding to slavery’s shattering of families. The book also reminds us that slavery’s stains on our history were not restricted to the South. Nearly 1,000 voyages to Africa to procure captives were made from Rhode Island. Following an 18th-century uprising, 21 enslaved men and women were executed, some burned at the stake and one strapped to a large wheel while his bones were broken with a mallet — in New York City.

Several times, a “1619 Project” writer makes a bold assertion that departs so far from conventional wisdom that it sounds exaggerated. And then comes a zinger that proves the author’s point. For example, Hannah-Jones, who wrote the book’s preface and the first and last of its 18 essays, declares that the way the Constitution allowed Congress to ban the Atlantic slave trade after 20 years (beginning in 1808) is something “often held up as proof of the antislavery sentiment of the framers” but “can be seen in some respects as self-serving.” Self-serving? Virginians, she says, so prominent among the founding fathers, knew that “years of tobacco growing had depleted the soil, and landowners like Jefferson were turning to crops that required less labor, such as wheat. That meant they needed fewer enslaved people to turn a profit” and “stood to make money by cutting off the supply of new people from Africa and . . . selling their surplus laborers” to Southern cotton and sugar growers. Hmm, the reader then wonders; prove it. And she does: Over a 30-year period, “Virginia alone sold between 300,000 and 350,000 enslaved people south, nearly as many as all of the Africans sold into the United States over the course of slavery.”

Another example comes from Ibram X. Kendi, who writes about the “vision of our past as a march of racial progress” from the Emancipation Proclamation to the election of Barack Obama. This has long been a comforting myth, he says, quoting even George Washington as suggesting that slavery was on its way out. But, the reader thinks, can’t celebrating progress coexist with recognizing that we’ve still got a long way to go? How can Kendi claim that the progress narrative “actually undermines the effort to achieve and maintain equality”? Rhetorical overkill? Yes, but then comes the zinger: In 2013, the Supreme Court eviscerated the Voting Rights Act on the grounds, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in his majority opinion, that since it was passed in 1965, “things have changed dramatically.”

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