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Constance Alexander: New York Times’ 1619 initiative takes in-depth look at beginning of slavery in America

Imagine. The middle of the ocean. No land in sight. An endless seascape. The sky a cloudless wash of gray. Strain to hear the plaintive cry of a seagull. Squint hard enough and maybe there’s a sign of land. Of home.

One, two, three weeks pass. No more wishing for the lost family. You will never see them again. The sounds of their voices already faded. Hopeless.

The feel of the bodies crammed in with you is crushing. The stink unimaginable. No words to describe the squalor, the desolation.

Welcome to the 1619 Project, The New York Times’ major initiative to observe the 400th anniversary of the beginning of slavery in America. The series begins like this: “In August of 1619, a ship carrying more than 20 enslaved Africans arrived in the English colony of Virginia. America was not yet America, but this was the moment it began. No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the 250 years of slavery that followed.”

According to its editors, 1619’s purpose is, “to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black America at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.”

Thinking of the stories we tell ourselves brings me back seven years, to “Journey Stories,” a traveling exhibition from the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum on Main Street program that toured to the Wrather Museum on the Murray State University campus. Scores of school groups visited the exhibit, which touched upon a variety of journeys that define America. One of them, the Middle Passage, referred to the voyage of enslaved people across the Atlantic from Africa to the Americas.

Among the images was a sketch of young black men barely clothed, shackled together at the ankles and the neck. The reaction of one little boy shocked me. He pointed to the picture and announced, “They didn’t put chains around their necks like that, just the ankles.”

He was so matter-of-fact, so sure he was right, and his tone of voice suggested that ankle chains weren’t so bad anyway.

The 1619 Project challenges readers to take a closer look at our history, to examine the notions we hold about slavery and its impact. Sixteen writers bring consequential moments of history to life in essays, stories, poems, and pictures. It is a mix of primary documents and contemporary reflections.

Clint Smith, author of the poetry collection “Counting Descent,” speaks of the 36,000 slave ships that crossed the Atlantic over a 350-year period. He describes moving his finger back and forth on the globe, following the route of the thousands of passages. Trying to keep count is impossible. He finds it exhausting, “chasing a history that swallowed me.”

An essay by Jamelle Bouie delves into something he calls an undemocratic assumption that goes back to the roots of our country: “that some people deserve more power than others.”

Wesley Morris explores black music, describing it as “the sound of artistic freedom.” He goes on remark, “No wonder everybody’s always stealing it.”

“What does a traffic jam in Atlanta have to do with segregation?” writer Kevin Kruse asks. “Quite a lot,” is the cryptic answer that headlines the essay.

Most fascinating to me is Matthew Desmond’s treatise on economics that begins with this statement: “In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation.”
He begins by drawing attention to slavery as the basis for extraordinary wealth. “By the eve of the Civil War,” he writes, “the Mississippi Valley was home to more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the United States.”

Cotton was not king in this booming economy. Ironically, it was enslaved workers who made it the country’s most valuable export.

The series questions assumptions about the past that divide us, while also filling in gaps in the understanding of our own history. It is a history, according to the editors, “filled with suffering, oppression, injustice, and crippling defeats; but it is also filled with joy, inspiration, and triumphs.”
“The United States can be loved in spite of its flaws, and there are many,” the argument goes. “Wanting to correct those flaws is not anti-American; in fact, it’s quite the opposite.”

More information about the 1619 Project is available online at www.nytimes.com.

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Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at calexander9@murraystate.edu. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

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