This date that set fire to the American powder kegs

Whether we love them or scold them, the project 1619 and its central figure, Nikole Hannah-Jones, leaves no one indifferent. Republished, distributed, and sometimes banned, the series of articles from New York Times Magazine becomes a book on Tuesday. He could have a lasting cultural influence on Americans, beyond inherently political controversies, historians here say. Back on these writings which caused a shock wave.

Originally published in August 2019, the texts and podcast of the original project defend among other things the idea that it is the arrival of the first slave ship in Virginia in 1619 which constitutes the true foundation of the United States, and not the declaration of independence of 1776. The authors also went further : Slavery is not an anecdotal phenomenon in American history, but rather inextricable.

The famous media had to reprint tens of thousands of copies a week later as demand was high.

The book 1619, published by Penguin Random House on Tuesday, seems destined to enjoy similar popularity as even before its release, it rose to the top-selling titles. On sale only in English for the moment, the book edited by Nikole Hannah-Jones takes up the main lines of the project. Works of poetry and fiction, mostly by African-American authors, constitute as many breaths between the dense and meaningful essays in this brick of nearly 600 pages.

Its uniqueness – and the reason why 1619 has become a prime target of the American right – is to make slavery a central focus of American history. If a president like Joe Biden does not hesitate to call it a “moral stain” or “America’s original sin,” the book makes it a “new history of origins,” as its surtitle states.

Little historical controversy

“No aspect of the country that will be formed was left untouched by the years of slavery that followed. [1619] Hannah-Jones announces in the preface. The African American is not a historian. As editor of the book, she therefore submitted the texts to a group of experts, just as she had done for the journalistic series.

His work is therefore above all one of “popularization and writing”, it is a “narrative project” and an “excellent synthesis written from an Afrocentric point of view”, describes the professor of history at the University. by Sherbrooke Jean-Pierre Le Glaunec.

He does not see any misuse of the facts, on the contrary, says this specialist in slavery and black Americas: “There is a consensus in the community of historians that American history is structurally crossed by the idea of race, that it plays a central role. “

Even the most critical historians of these articles admit to applauding “all efforts to take into account the centrality of slavery and racism to our history.” Yes five renowned historians, however, sought a forum, it was to challenge the narrative on a particular element, on which the New York Times Magazine has since made a correction. The original text “went a bit far,” explains Mr. Le Glaunec, stating that the American Revolution had taken place to defend the cause of slavery.

Rather, it should have been explained that it was “one of the reasons among others,” adds Godefroy Desrosiers-Lauzon, historian lecturer at the University of Ottawa. The declaration of independence of 1776 in fact refers, by the term “internal insurrection”, to the fact that the English sought to encourage the rebellion of the slaves.

Rather than a debate of historians, he sees rather “two angles”: “Is it more important to say that“ the substance is good ”, that is to say that the founding ideals are realized over time, or more important to tell the whole horrible truth? »Illustrates Mr. Desrosiers-Lauzon.

By offering multiple perspectives on historical documents, such as the Constitution of the United States, for example, 1619 comes closer to creation than to historical knowledge. “It is more useful than a simply patriotic story to understand the world we live in, including explaining the persistence of racism,” he concludes.

Political backlash

We must therefore look for the controversy elsewhere than in the arena of the construction of history, or rather “in the war of cultures which has raged since the mid-1970s”, explains Jean-Pierre Le Glaunec.

Sometimes the “warriors of social justice” and today the critical theory of race, “the neoconservative struggle needs a culprit who comes from the world of intellectuals”, according to this historian.

And the project 1619 is a “perfect target”, published in a daily already wrongly portrayed as a bastion of the far left. A few months after its launch, it is even directly cited in several bills aimed at banning certain anti-racist teaching in schools, particularly in Arkansas and Texas. In September 2020, former President Donald Trump also created the 1776 Commission, and described the project in question as “toxic propaganda” and “ideological poison”.

However, several of these legislative initiatives have already failed. After falling into the wringer of the less moderate, be it Republicans or small town school boards, Nikole Hannah-Jones has acquired “her own power,” as a journalist from the Los Angeles Times. “I know that I have become a symbol,” says the main interested party, a symbol to be respected or despised.

Anyone trying to land an interview with her in 2021 quickly realizes that she has left the world of rising stars and now belongs to the world of star intellectuals. Pulitzer Prize winner in 2020, she has just been named by the magazine Time among the 100 most influential people in the world in 2021.

It is clear that her virulent opposition, the very one who tried to silence her, especially made the project win. 1619 and this woman in notoriety.

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This date that set fire to the American powder kegs