“Origin stories function, to a degree, as myths designed to create a shared sense of history and purpose,” writes Nikole Hannah-Jones to open the final chapter of New York Times’ 1619 Project: A New Origin Story, a new book-length version of 2019 series that asserted that the true founding of America was the arrival of African slaves in Virginia the year before the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth.
Certainly, every superhero-loving 6-year-old knows “origin stories” are important. If we didn’t know about the murder of his parents, Bruce Wayne would seem like a rich weirdo in a rubber suit. Sometimes national creation myths work for good: The Arthurian legends helped the ruling class of England be more chivalrous and noble than they otherwise might have been—certainly more than many of their continental counterparts. Sometimes for ill: The myth of Moscow as the “third Rome” and true protector of Christianity to this day helps drive and provide cover for the relentless territorial ambitions of the Kremlin.
Hannah-Jones says that America’s creation story—the one that connects the freedom-loving colonists to the American creed of the Declaration of Independence to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address to Martin Luther King’s speech at the Lincoln Memorial—has harmed her and other black Americans. The “erasure” as she called it in one recent interview, of the start of slavery from our national story has been evidence “of how history is shaped by people who decide what’s important.” In his introduction, the book’s editor, Jake Silverstein, says that the aim of the project, which now also includes this weighty tome, a children’s book, and a podcast, is no less than “to reframe American history, making explicit that slavery is the foundation on which this country is built.” Oh. Is that all?
Perhaps understanding how arrogant such an ambition sounds, and no doubt still smarting from the embarrassment of the gross historical failures of the project at its start, the book is kitted out with the trappings of scholarly work, including a kind of intramural peer review process and piles of footnotes that take the collection past 600 pages. But it is also very clearly built to be a new sacred text for the “elect” that John McWhorter describes in his new book Woke Racism.