1619 Project: Desmond’s Essay

Today I continue to read, reflect, and shine a spotlight on the 1619 Project, a series of articles in the New York Times Magazine. Today I read Matthew Desmond’s essay titled “If you want to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation.”

As I have in previous posts, I want to avoid summarizing these articles because I don’t want to step on the work of the contributors (nor to misrepresent it). Instead, I chose a few quotes that particularly resonate for me:

It was not so much the rage of the poor white Southerner but the greed of the rich white planter that drove the lash. The violence was neither arbitrary nor gratuitous. It was rational, capitalistic, all part of the plantation’s design. (Desmond)

So important to ask who truly benefits from systematic injustices, usually those who create an illusion of distance from the evils from which they profit.

Unrestrained capitalism holds no monopoly on violence, but in making possible the pursuit of near limitless personal fortunes, often at someone else’s expense, it does put a cash value on our moral commitments. (Desmond)

 

I wish I could put in words what it means to be moral versus the self-serving faux virtue manufactured in our culture, often by those who claim to be religious, an empty substitute that yields some of the most immoral results.

It is the culture of acquiring wealth without work, growing at all costs and abusing the powerless. It is the culture that brought us the Panic of 1837, the stock-market crash of 1929 and the recession of 2008. It is the culture that has produced staggering inequality and undignified working conditions. (Desmond)

Hmm… yes, you are right. Desmond is succeeding in indicating what it might mean to be moral by revealing the immorality of what we in the U.S. accept as status quo.

One other note that stood out to me was that he said it has been only two lifetimes since slavery ended. That hurt somehow, I suppose because I want as much distance as possible from the horrors of that time period. But I am naive, probably in a self-serving way, to suggest that the passing of time alone might protect us. As Hannah-Jones pointed out in her article (in a line that I’m still processing), the wrongs we inflict now arise from the wrongs of the past as a way to protect ourselves from any kind of reckoning. This most horrific history is being reenacted in altered forms again and again, every day.

And, as Desmond points out, it is how some of us earn money without effort.

His article included some helpful historical highlights by Tiya Miles and Mehrsa Baradaran.

I also wanted to include this quote from a section by Miles:

It is uncanny, but perhaps predictable, that the original wall for which Wall Street is named was built by the enslaved at a site that served as the city’s first organized slave auction. (Miles)

Addendum:

I found time to listen to the first two podcasts of the 1619 series that builds off of these articles, including authors reading parts of their work and interviews with the authors. When Desmond was interviewed, he said the following: “The enslaved workforce is where the country’s wealth resides” (at least for the first hundred years or so of the existence of the United States). So the investment and profit from slavery was shared widespread beyond the regions where slavery was legal, the early foundation of our economic growth. Deeply chilling insight.

The second podcast ends with Jesmyn Ward reading a piece of fiction she wrote for the series that you can find here: african-american-poets.html

I highly recommend listening to the podcasts. Here’s a link as a starting place: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/23/podcasts/1619-slavery-anniversary.html

1619 Project: Hannah-Jones

It is my firm belief that any time Ms. Nikole Hannah-Jones has something to say, I need to listen.

Indeed, she says everything that needs to be said, with both precision and artistry, in the first article in the 1619 series in the New York Times Magazine.

So instead of describing her article at all, especially because I want everyone to read it, I will simply point to the title, which aptly signals the central premise: Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true.

Every line in this article matters, which is a challenge to me since I thought it might make sense to highlight a quote or two per article as a way to pay homage to this series.

Still, this one is worth a look:

And so the inhumanity visited on black people by every generation of white America justified the inhumanity of the past. (Hannah-Jones)

(Chilling. Disturbing. Accurate. Perhaps one reason I relish this series is this hope—that if mainstream culture can acknowledge the inhumanity of the past perhaps we can reduce the inhumanity of the present.)

And…

The truth is that as much democracy as this nation has today, it has been borne on the backs of black resistance. Our founding fathers may not have actually believed in the ideals they espoused, but black people did. (Hannah-Jones)

(Amen.)

Today I also discovered that the New York Times created a podcast based on this series—the first one relates to her article:
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/23/podcasts/1619-slavery-anniversary.html? 

History versus Fairy Tales

So my goal is to explain what resonated with me in the introduction to the Times’ 1619 Project (which I intend to continue to read/reflect upon in a few upcoming blog posts).

Here, again, is what I quoted yesterday:

It aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.

Though some people aim for accuracy when they discuss U.S. historical events, there is nonetheless a sweeping and pervasive fairy tale that is bandied about more casually, one that makes me think of drawings I made in school as a child, usually every November, of Pilgrims standing beside a big rock and a large ship. For the most part, the stories we tell about the history of the United States are incomplete, if not completely fallacious. The term fairy tale comes to mind. Sure, just like in Cinderella, there may be a few pieces that have some historical basis. There were people called Pilgrims. There were ships. (There used to be kings, princes, and daughters who had hard lives after their fathers died.) But the rest? A bit doubtful, with a lot left out.

Mainstream culture produces a story in which slavery, if mentioned, is treated as a minor side note, when it was actually defining. Make that present tense— all of the systems related to it can be traced to fault lines in our society, the heartbreaking loss of potential, the inhumanity that at times is eerily second nature.

Yet this quote also highlights the need to celebrate and acknowledge the contributions of Black Americans— a brave and uncomfortable task in the face of the horrors of American slavery (which, I would argue, should be clearly delineated from any other use of the word slavery because it relied so fully on a deeply dehumanizing construction of racial identity as well as an entrenched economic/political system devoid of morality).

I know I felt that the biographies of Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells gave me a more complete understanding of American history. To learn U.S. history without delving at length into the impact of American slavery or contributions of Black Americans… which happens far too often… is to study fairy tales in lieu of engaging with genuine history.

One word in the quote stands out–“we.” A point of deep contention that has bubbled up repeatedly over the centuries is this: Who is meant by “we” in this country—who gets to be included? Who has been excluded, and who gets to do the excluding?

And then there is the question of cultural identity—if we more fully understand our history, will we gain insight into who we are as a people?

The 1619 Project in the New York Times Magazine

One of my goals has been to return to a special series in the New York Times Magazine called the 1619 Project published in August 2019 and use my blog as a place to reflect more on each piece.

Here is the link to this series:
https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/1619-america-slavery.html  I hope you will consider reading it, too.

I want to celebrate the importance of this undertaking without diverting attention away from the actual work and insightful contributors. How do I do that? I don’t want to talk over anyone: I want these voices heard.

Hmm. Still thinking. Here goes: I will choose one or two lines to highlight from each article. I will talk about what resonated for me… but as briefly as I can. My aim will be not to replace the experience of each piece but rather to nudge anyone who might be nudge-able to read the quote in its full context in each article (or story).

As a starting place, here is a critical line describing the goals of the series as a whole:

It aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.

(No author is named in this intro, fyi.)

I have decided to leave that quote standing by itself for now. Tomorrow (or sometime soon), I may share why this quote stands out to me.