Unless you’re living in a cave, you’ve heard the shouting and recriminations accompanying publication by The New York Times of “The 1619 Project” — a series of essays commemorating the legacy of the first enslaved Africans brought to English North America in 1619.
Among historians and recent students of American history, there is little startling here. The essays tell the story of a vicious system of racial slavery that not only violated the humanity of African Americans and sought to break their will, but played a central role in building the nation — from the enslaved who literally built many of our iconic structures (Monticello to Mount Vernon to the White House) to the entire system of capitalized slavery that provided the financial resources that fed an industrial revolution and created an American empire. While the authors often use edgy rhetoric — see Nikole Hannah-Jones’ gripping reference to Southern plantations as “concentration camps” — this is generally well-established history.
Nothing here justifies the squeals of disapproval from politicians and pundits. Yet, all of this noise threatens to hide a fundamental truth made clear in “The 1619 Project”: African Americans played a central role in fighting for and defining American liberties, bringing life to the declarations of 1776, through the era of slavery and Jim Crow and into modern civil rights battles. This truth, alive in our political world, needs to be understood and appreciated.
Oppressed people have always led the struggle for liberty, from African Americans; to women at Seneca Falls; to Irish Catholics; to Italians, Puerto Ricans and Jews; to the LGBTQ community. After all, white, property-owning men led the American Revolution because they saw their rights challenged by forces in Britain beyond their control. Ironically they saw the threat of “slavery” in British actions challenging their rights to set their own taxes, to be tried by a jury and to vote for their own representatives. Whatever the irony, they knew as well as anyone what slavery meant, how rights could be destroyed when others controlled you.
Americans emphatically rejected control by those whom Thomas Jefferson labeled derisively “kings, nobles, and priests” who thought they had a God-given right to command (an early form of “prosperity gospel”).
Yet our founders understood that the threat of a majority controlling a minority was perhaps the central problem in a republic. The nation stood on the “sacred principle that … the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail,” as Jefferson explained. But there was an equally sacred principle: The majority’s “will, to be rightful, must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate would be oppression.”
The risk in such a system, James Madison recognized, was always to the minority. The majority could protect itself through the political process. It was the minority that could easily find its rights trampled upon and that would need the protection of the American system, including courts, to maintain “equal rights.”
This is why people proclaim “Black Lives Matter,” and sometimes bridle when people effectively dilute or obscure that demand for equal rights by insisting loudly that “White Lives Matter” or “Blue Lives Matter.” Of course white lives and blue lives matter, but those are not in serious dispute. Government supports their rights; they have not suffered the attacks and indignities of the minority.
This, though, is not a sad story. Nor, certainly, is it an un-American one.
Hannah-Jones, in “The 1619 Project” lead essay, tells the moving story of how her father, one generation removed from sharecroppers, joined the Army and served a nation that routinely and systematically denied his rights. As an adult, the former serviceman constantly and proudly flew the American flag. As a young woman, his daughter could not understand why he honored the nation that had the audacity to deny him his rights after he risked his life in its service. Only later did she come to realize that her father — an African American man who was intimately familiar with all of the prejudices, discrimination and injustices in American life — understood deeply the transcendent value of American principles, of the promise that “all men are created equal,” of the belief that our nation is made stronger in its diversity, of the hope that those principles would thrive.
This point should not get lost in noise over “The 1619 Project.” It is those who have suffered the failings of American principles who often lead us to a deeper understanding and appreciation of those principles. Those who have been dispossessed help to establish the rights that we all enjoy. It is in recognizing our failings that we progress toward our hopes.
I am not indignant or in any way diminished by their anger at injustices. Rather, I am humbly thankful for all those who struggle for freedom by demanding that America live up to its own ideals. We owe them a great debt.