Origin Story


“Origin stories function, to a degree, as myths designed to create a shared sense of history and purpose.”

Some books you pick up and read a chapter or two, then put it down, reflect, and pick it up again.  That’s how I’ve been taking in a disruptive origin story presented in The 1619 Project.  (see my earlier post).  The quote above, from the first line of the last chapter on “Justice,” by Nikole Hannah-Jones, suggests several challenges:  what origin stories have we missed?, and, how do we better create a shared understanding of our history?

The historians and other writers in this book present a convincing argument:  that one origin story has not been fully told yet has a major role in the formation of America.

The 1619 Project causes me to re-assess my own origins and my own accountability to know what has been left out, who has been left out.  It makes me ask difficult questions of myself and my country.  Though it may be uncomfortable in some respects, I am constrained to consider:

-What if the privilege I enjoy as a White, middle class male who grew up in White suburbia, has shielded me from the present and historical realities of those who have not had such privilege?

-What if my ancestors, several generations removed, had been the property of the dominant race, then were set free with nothing.

-What if I had to fight for more than a century for the right to vote, to be considered a full citizen, a full human being. . .and the right to live without being lynched?

-What if I had to have special laws, even Constitutional Amendments, passed just to obtain rights I should already have?

-What if I was not fully represented in local or national government?

-What if I felt compelled to gather a group of distinguished historians and other writers just to have my cultural story accurately told, to balance false or incomplete narratives of “our place” in the nation’s story?

These questions, and more, push me to be a more informed critical thinker.  This is why I am convinced The 1619 Project, rather than being attacked and banned by some, should indeed be required reading in public schools.  Every American who accepts the responsibility to learn our history, our origin story, ought to read and reflect on the narratives woven into this necessary book.

Is it open to discussion, debate or disagreement?  Of course, as any framing of history must be.  But ignoring this framing, or dismissing it through arguments from ignorance, doesn’t cut it.

And, I would say, to ignore or deplore this book seems to me yet another way to disrespect the people who have endured 400 years of disrespect, and much worse.

I urge readers to engage and reason with The 1619 Project.  As the book begins with a chapter on “Democracy” and concludes with a chapter on “Justice,” I would hope the links in a long, dehumanizing chain are taken seriously by all of us, for a more just, and knowledgable, democracy.

As Nikole Hannah-Jones writes near the end:

“[The] legacy of 1619 has harmed all Americans.”

and,

“All of this reveals that Black Americans, along with Indigenous people–the two groups forced to be part of this nation–remain the most neglected beneficiaries of the America that would not exist without us.”

and, finally,

“A truly great country does not ignore or excuse its sins.  It confronts them, and then works to make them right.” 

The 1619 Project is an important step in making it right.

Categories: American HistoryTags: , , , ,

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