New York Times’ ‘1619 Project’ on the history of slavery comes to Detroit

By: - September 5, 2019 6:02 am

Nikole Hannah-Jones at the 1619 Project discussion in Detroit, Sept. 4, 2019, Ken Coleman

A New York Times reporter who spearheaded a popular magazine project that remembers the 400-year anniversary of American slavery on Wednesday responded to a conservative critic who called the effort “embarrassing” and “factually false.”

1619 Project panel discussion in Detroit | Ken Coleman

In response to former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s Aug. 18 comments on Fox News, journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones told a Detroit audience of several hundred: “I’m very proud that he called it racist propaganda.”

Hannah-Jones received rounding applause, which included enthusiastic shouts of “That’s right,” “Amen” and “You go, girl” from the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History audience. Her retort was delivered during a panel discussion centering on the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project

The effort remembers the moment in 1619 when the first enslaved Africans arrived in what would become the United States. It has achieved massive acclaim and some criticism since it was published on Aug. 18. Appearing on  “Fox & Friends” the following day, Gingrich attacked the project.

Newt Gingrich | Gage Skidmore, Wikimedia Commons

“Yeah, the whole project is a lie,” the conservative Georgia Republican said. “Look, I think slavery is a terrible thing. I think putting slavery in context is important. We still have slavery in places around the world today, so we need to recognize this is an ongoing story. I think, certainly, if you are an African American, slavery is at the center of what you see as the American experience.”

Most of the Detroit audience, however, did not agree with Gingrich. Rochelle Riley, a former Detroit Free Press columnist who’s now city of Detroit director of arts and culture, served as panel moderator.

Rochelle Riley at the 1619 Project event in Detroit | Ken Coleman

“Detroit literally represents America,” she told the Advance. “We’re the birthplace of the middle class, slavery existed here. I think what we’re seeing is this powerful moment where history is about to change. Where else would that be appropriate then right here in Detroit?”

The Times’ monumental effort took eight months to produce, Hannah-Jones said. It examines the many ways the legacy of slavery continues to shape and define life in this country. 

Through 100 pages with 10 essays, a photo essay, and a collection of poems and fiction, it features the work of Hannah-Jones and other Times writers, including Wesley Morris, Jamelle Bouie, Linda Villarosa, Bryan Stevenson, Tiya Miles, Khalil Muhammad. Also included is poetry and fiction penned by Rita Dove, Jesmyn Ward, Yusef Komunyakaa, Tyehimba Jess, Eve Ewing, Jaqueline Woodson among others. 

Morris, a music critic, sat on the Detroit panel along with Hannah-Jones and Kenyatta D. Berry, a Detroit Cass Technical High School, Michigan State University and Thomas M. Cooley Law School graduate. Berry provided genealogy for 1619 Project. 

Georgette Johnson, Garlin Gilchrist, Cassandra Spratling Odetoyinbo and Alicia Nails attended the 1619 Project Detroit event | Ken Coleman photo

“Black Americans can here under unique circumstances,” Hannah-Jones said, reading from her essay, which is part of 1619 Project. “We are the only people who were forced to come here. We are the only people who did not choose to come across the ocean seeking a better life but who were stolen from their native land and forced into the bowels of ships.”

The effort has earned praise from some noted politicos. U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who’s running for president, has called 1619 Project “a masterpiece.” 

Panelists included Kenyatta D. Berry, Wesley Morris and Nikole Hannah-Jones. Rochelle Riley served as moderator | Ken Coleman

“We must speak this truth: the very foundation of our country was built on the backs of enslaved people,” she tweeted on Aug. 18.

The Times says that it will print and distribute hundreds of thousands of extra copies of the magazine issue. It has also developed a curriculum based on the project that will be available to schools.

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist attended Wednesday’s event.

“I think that this is an amazing project that really puts American history into perspective and it’s amazing to have it happening here in Detroit at the Charles H. Wright Museum,” he said.

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman writes about Southeast Michigan, history and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on Black life in Detroit.