The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story Summary

The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story is an anthology of essays, poems, and short stories focused on Black American history and compiled by journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones.

  • Each chapter begins with a journalistic essay investigating a significant topic in Black American history, connecting present-day racism to its origins in plantation slavery.
  • Each essay is preceded by an archival photo and followed by works of fiction or poetry that explore topics related to the essay’s subject matter.
  • Hannah-Jones concludes the book with a call for reparations and a reflection on the centrality of Black contributions to American success.

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Last Updated on April 6, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 933

The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story is an anthology compiled by investigative journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. It is an expansion of a special edition of the New York Times Magazine originally published in 2019; the magazine was timed to coincide with the four-hundred-year anniversary of 1619, the year the first...

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The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story is an anthology compiled by investigative journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. It is an expansion of a special edition of the New York Times Magazine originally published in 2019; the magazine was timed to coincide with the four-hundred-year anniversary of 1619, the year the first ship carrying enslaved Africans arrived on United States soil.

The book employs multiple formats and a wide range of Black authors, historians, poets, and other contributors. Each of the eighteen chapters is anchored by an investigative essay on a subject significant to Black history in America, focusing in particular on the way mainstream history has neglected to tell these stories. Each of these essays also traces a different facet of modern racial inequity back to the era of plantation slavery, contextualizing the lasting consequences of America’s failure to reckon with its own history.

Preceding each chapter is an archival photo connected to the broader theme of the work, and after each chapter’s close are one or two shorter creative compositions—some are poems, some are fiction; all are preceded by dated epigraphs anchoring the piece in Black history. Taken together, these interstitial works comprise an aesthetic timeline running from 1619 through to the present day.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, the collection’s editor, pens both the introduction and the first essay. In the introduction, she recalls her experience taking her first elective Black history course as a young teenager. It was enlightening, she remembers: encountering Black history, fiction, and poetry she’d never seen before was validating and exciting. But as she studied, she realized the omission of this content from the broader curriculum was absolutely an intentional choice. This memory, she explains, is what moved Hannah-Jones to pull together the first iteration of the 1619 Project. When the magazine’s success vastly exceeded expectations, sparking considerable public discourse, the contributors decided to expand the magazine into a book.

In the first essay, “Democracy,” Hannah-Jones traces the evolution of American democracy from plantation slavery to the modern day. Initiatives for Black liberation, she notes, have been responsible for progress along many different axes of American society—women’s rights, LQBTQIA+ rights, immigrant rights, and disability rights have all advanced as a result of work by Black activists. The second essay, titled “Race,” dissects the way race, ancestry, and genetic falsehoods have been used as tools of oppression against Black Americans. In particular, author Dorothy Roberts highlights the way Black women’s bodies and reproductive choices have been policed as a lasting result of these constructs.

In “Sugar,” the third essay, Khalil Gibran Muhammad discusses plantation agriculture and the economy, focusing on the outsized impact of Louisiana’s sugar plantations on both the domestic slave trade and the global economy. Leslie and Michelle Alexander pen the fourth essay, “Fear,” which interrogates how white fear and Black oppression intertwine by exploring the racist origins of American policing and the plantation-era “slave patrol.”

Tiya Miles’s “Dispossession” examines the complicated legacy of the Treaty of Hopewell, which pitted Native nations against enslaved Black people at the hands of the colonists, who encouraged Native populations to keep enslaved Black people to better ingratiate themselves to white settlers. This, Miles reminds the reader, is an especially difficult historic dynamic to address, given that Black and Indigenous Americans represent two of the most underserved and oppressed groups in modern American society.

In the sixth chapter, “Capitalism,” Matthew Desmond explores the insidious ways property laws were worked into the nation’s founding documents to classify Black Americans as property instead of people. Jamelle Bouie follows with “Politics,” in which he interrogates the ways those same founding documents and principles have often inhibited Black democratic participation. In chapter 8, “Citizenship,” Martha S. Jones examines the concept of citizenship itself and what identity and belonging mean when one is or isn’t considered a “citizen.”

“Self-Defense,” Carol Anderson’s piece, addresses conflict, self-defense, and the inequitable way the American justice system decides who is at fault for an interracial conflict. Bryan Stevenson’s chapter 10 essay, “Punishment,” follows this inquiry through to the inside of the carceral system, considering the way these same systemic inequities manifest once an individual has been incarcerated.

“Inheritance,” Trymaine Lee’s contribution, explores the many mechanisms by which Black wealth has been inhibited, invalidated, and stolen, even as the white population’s wealth has grown from their labor. Linda Villarosa’s essay, “Medicine,” considers the way the resulting wealth gap impacts the social determinants of health.

Anthea Butler’s piece, “Church,” examines the church’s role as community hub for the Black community’s needs both spiritual and logistical, and its unique role as a safe space for Black Americans in an era when they lacked the right to gather elsewhere. Wesley Morris’s essay, “Music,” considers music, the beating heart of Black expression.

“Healthcare,” by Jeneen Interlandi, outlines the American healthcare system’s abject failure to look after its Black citizens. In “Traffic,” Kevin M. Kruse explains the way civil engineering and redlining have been used to concentrate Black people in under-resourced areas throughout American cities. In the book’s penultimate essay, “Progress,” Ibram X. Kendi highlights the way progress in each of these areas can be used as a tool of propaganda to shroud rising inequities behind the scenes.

Bookending the collection, a conclusion by Nikole Hannah-Jones reflects on the work of her peers by reiterating what each composition has proven: that Black contributions are central to American success, and America’s ongoing failure to recognize and honor its Black population constitutes an egregious human rights violation in desperate need of remedy.

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