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Nikole Hannah-Jones is right and wrong. Although the first slaves arrived in Jamestown in 1619, the year and the event carry less significance than she imagines. Although neither deceptive nor careless, she is uninterested in facts in a conventional sense. Her principal objective is not to understand the past but to rebuke the present and, if possible, to change the future.

Nikole Hannah-Jones

Americans are not innocent of their history. Of all the moral ambiguities to emerge from the American past, none have revealed themselves to be more stubborn, divisive, and bedeviling than slavery and race. The concept of race especially is among the most inscrutable aspects of human nature. Perhaps we shall never understand why people attached significance to skin color and other so-called racial characteristics. In truth, Americans have yet to determine the meaning of race. For many the confrontation with supposed racial differences remains primitive and fearful. But a more detached, circumspect, and thoughtful approach also often leaves us with little more than the residue of anger, shame, and bewilderment. As revolutionary as it was in charting a new direction for human relations, even Christianity did not surmount racial antagonisms. The opposite was true. Hated of Muslims and Jews in Spain, for example, involved more than an effort to eliminate Islam and Judaism. An obsessive preoccupation with the evils of alien blood as much as with the quest for a purity of faith underlay the Inquisition.

When Europeans found their way to other continents inhabited by non-whites, their discoveries transformed worldwide racial geography. During the four hundred years between the end of the fifteenth and the end of the nineteenth century, Europeans migrated across the oceans of the world and conquered lands previously unknown to them. They subdued hundreds of millions of persons in the Americas, Asia, and Africa, bringing them to a greater or lesser degree under European governance. Doubts about the moral validity of imperialism and the economic benefits of colonialism notwithstanding, the prestige of Empire endured. Peoples who pretended to the contrary secretly envied Europeans, and emulated them when they could.

But after the Second World War fewer Europeans extolled the natural and cultural superiority of whites or believed that whites ought to rule the world. Despite earlier expressions of concern, Europeans recognized somewhat belatedly that administering, policing, and defending their overseas possessions had often cost them more than the colonies were worth. With a few exceptions, such as South Africa, European governments thus began to dissolve their empires; the worldwide political supremacy of whites came to an end. At the same time, the international decline of white power brought to the forefront the dilemma of racial coexistence. Nowhere has this condition been more acute and painful than in the United States.

After Americans freed the slaves as the result of a vicious civil war, it quickly became apparent that legal emancipation was insufficient. The former slaves continued to face discrimination and violence. In the more than 150 years since the abolition of slavery, racial tension has alternately receded and intensified, but it has never disappeared. Although Congress and the courts removed legal barriers to racial justice, white hostility to blacks persisted. When blacks migrated to the North during the early years of the twentieth century, they exchanged prejudice tempered by familiarity and a degree of forbearance for legal equality poisoned by intolerance and spite. For blacks, egalitarianism was no more than a legal fiction that left attitudes unchanged. Whites continued to regard blacks as their inferiors even as law and policy declared such judgments illegitimate.

Meanwhile, the liberal consensus following the Second World War suggested that greater access to the marketplace, which was sure to accompany economic development, would in time curtail and finally eliminate both white bigotry and black discontent. The democratization of wealth, in other words, became the solvent of racial animosity. To forestall social disintegration required appeasing blacks, who had to be convinced that they, too, could realize the American Dream. This aspiration, at once naïve and cynical, rested on sustained economic growth and the willingness and ability of government restrain corporate power. In the thirty years between 1945 and 1975 economic growth thus substituted for thoroughgoing reforms undertaken to address entrenched and systemic racial inequality. Continuous expansion of the economy had made it possible for Americans to avoid confronting the failure to achieve more than a modest and rather pointless redistribution of wealth and power and to alleviate the endemic racism that continues to disgrace the United States. The intention of The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story is to address these deficiencies and the grievances that have followed from them by exposing the history and consequences of enduring racial injustice.

II.

The 1619 Project begins with an epiphany. When she was a teenager, Nikole Hannah-Jones discovered that Africans had arrived in British North America in 1619, before the Mayflower made landfall in Massachusetts a year later. She describes this moment of insight, which for her was anguished and exhilarating:

African people had lived here, on the land that in 1776 would form the United States, since the White Lion dropped anchor in the year 1619. They’d arrived one year before the iconic ship carrying the English people who got the credit for building it all. Why hadn’t any teacher or textbook, in telling the story of Jamestown, taught us the story of 1619? No history can ever be complete. . . . But I knew immediately, viscerally, that this was not an innocuous omission. The year white Virginians first purchased enslaved Africans, the start of American slavery, an institution so influential and corrosive that it both helped create the nation and nearly led to its demise, is indisputably a foundational historical date. And yet I’d never heard of it. (xix)

Ms. Hannah-Jones is right and wrong. The importance of slavery is beyond dispute. Slavery was an essential component in shaping the history of the United States, and the legacy of racism continues to disfigure American politics, law, public policy, and social relations. Her mistake is not factual, but reveals the epistemological and political limits of the book. Although the first slaves arrived in Jamestown in 1619, the year and the event carry less significance than Ms. Hannah-Jones imagines. Although neither deceptive nor careless, she is uninterested in facts in a conventional sense. Her principal objective is not to understand the past but to rebuke the present and, if possible, to change the future, although, as I will argue, the latter purpose is questionable given the ideological foundations from which she proceeds.

Discontented with the world as it is, Ms. Hannah-Jones and her collaborators have turned to the study of history to learn how and why the world went wrong and how the wrong persisted for centuries. The utility of history lies not in elucidating the past itself in all its complexity, but in exposing and perhaps destroying the racism that has betrayed and oppressed peoples of color. Ms. Hannah-Jones has little regard for facts in themselves. They are illustrative. Truth does not reside in them, but in their associations and implications. In her mind, 1619 “conjures an image of glowing three-dimensional numbers rising from the page.” The date is talismanic. It adumbrates the suffering and sorrow of generations, and projects a new version of the American story.

In the tradition of Howard Zinn, Nikole  Hannah-Jones has challenged the strict division among journalist, historian, and activist. She did not intend to produce a conventional or an objective history (even if the latter were possible), but to tell the story of the oppressed and downtrodden, to illuminate the plight of the marginalized and the powerless, to show, as Zinn declared, “how bad things are for the victims of the world.” Her intention has been to fashion a critical perspective on the history of the United States, first to rectify Americans’ ignorance and, more important, to motivate them to create a more just and equitable future. She echoes Zinn’s concern that “the really critical way in which people are deceived by history is not that lies are told, but that things are omitted.” But for Ms. Hannah-Jones, the study of history ought to do more than educate. It must also to appeal to the conscience to incite social and political reform, or at least to induce feelings of guilt and remorse. She explains that:

We cannot change the hypocrisy upon which were founded. We cannot change all the times in the past when this nation had the opportunity to do the right things and chose to return to its basest inclinations. We cannot make up for all the loves lost and dreams snatched, for all the suffering endured. But we can atone for it. We can acknowledge the crime. And we can do something to try to set things right, to ease the hardship and hurt of so many of our fellow Americans. . . . Nationalized amnesia can no longer provide the excuse. None of us can be held responsible for the wrongs of our ancestors. But if today we choose not to do the right and necessary thing, that burden we own. (475; emphasis in the original)

Her focus on the present and the future as much as on the past, Ms. Hannah-Jones sees blacks, along with Indigenous Peoples, as the principal victims of America. Yet, although blacks have been systematically denied the benefits of American life, “they have also played an unparalleled and uncompensated role in building our democracy.” (475; italics in the original) They fight still to preserve and extend democracy, she avows, and the “unacknowledged debt” owed to them continues to accrue.

Critics may question Ms. Hannah-Jones’s personal motives and political agenda. In the fog of the culture wars, which does not lend itself to meticulous deliberation, she is too prone to regard blacks only as heroic victims—to produce a sort of American hagiography in reverse. Former heroes, such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln, become villains. The new heroes are heroic precisely because they are victims. In her efforts to assail complacency about, and to defeat complicity with, racism, she sometimes does more to provoke than to enlighten. Such a critique notwithstanding, it is hard to ignore or dismiss Ms. Hannah-Jones’s anxieties about ongoing discrimination against blacks and relentless ignorance of the American past.

There is a vast divide between the academic and the popular understanding of slavery and race. Teaching these subjects in elementary and secondary schools is often cursory, inadequate, and now, in part as a response to the 1619 Project, increasingly proscribed. Ms. Hannah-Jones makes clear that she thinks these blunders and omissions intentional, even conspiratorial. She may be right, but it is more prudent not to attribute to malice what may be accounted for by stupidity, especially when stupidity explains so much. Malice there has surely been. But for all the mistreatment that blacks have endured—discrimination in education, health care, and housing, in economic opportunities, in political influence, in civil rights—a worse grievance may be the unending insult to their pride. The myriad humiliations that blacks suffer everyday remind them that they are “inferior.” This thoughtless assumption has permitted white Americans to disregard black people and black history with impunity because, unless blacks compelled them to pay attention, they had no reason to do so. Whites did not have to notice black people, to hear black voices, or to respond to black complaints. Such thoughtless indifference must be maddening even when it does not arise from vicious intent.

Ms. Hannah-Jones hoped that The 1619 Project would at least remedy such ignorance and apathy, even if it did nothing to end racism. But that recognition brings us back to the problem of 1619 and Ms. Hannah-Jones’s approach to the history of American slavery and race. Although true, her interpretation is not true enough. Her outlook is too parochial. She advances her own version of American exceptionalism. For racism was not exclusively an American attitude or slavery a uniquely American practice.

It is, in fact, not surprising that the English who settled in North America turned to slavery; more surprising is how long they waited to do so. By the time a Dutch man-of-war, The White Lion, brought the first slaves to Jamestown in 1619, slavery was ubiquitous throughout the Western Hemisphere. Slaves had arrived in Hispaniola (modern Haiti and the Dominican Republic), the first permanent European colony in the New World, in 1502. Within twenty years, by 1522, the Spanish were exporting sugar cultivated by slave labor. Far from a “peculiar institution,” slavery, as David Brion Davis showed in The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770-1823 (1975), extended from the St. Lawrence River basin in Canada to the Rio de la Plata in Brazil. It was the chief system of labor in the most prosperous European colonies.

The English colonists who established Jamestown in 1607 did not have it in mind to create a slave society. They initially favored white indentured servitude and did not formulate a legal definition of slavery until the early eighteenth century. In its origins, America was not the slavocracy that Ms. Hannah-Jones imagines. The enormous transfer of people that took place as a result of the Atlantic slave trade brought a comparatively small number of Africans to the mainland colonies of British North America. Of all those who crossed the sea, less than five percent came to the mainland colonies. This figure represents fewer slaves than entered Cuba. The most extensive importation of slaves to North America occurred between 1680 and 1808. It accounted for seven percent of the slave traffic crossing the Atlantic during those years and twenty percent of the total English commerce in slaves.

Yet, North America became an integral part of an Atlantic colonial system that relied on slave labor to produce staple crops for European markets. In the Atlantic world of the seventeenth century, chattel slavery was a legally recognized and increasingly preferred form of labor. Slavery was spreading throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. The English colonists in the Chesapeake were thus not experimenting with some radical innovation when, after 1680, they began to purchase Africans in large numbers. They were instead following what by then had become a conventional pattern in the Atlantic world.

Within a decade of settlement, English colonists in Virginia were exporting tobacco. To make the cultivation of tobacco profitable, planters extracted from both indentured servants and slaves as much labor as they could. If the slaves in the Chesapeake were better off than their counterparts on the sugar plantations of the Caribbean, they were not appreciably so. At the same time, the unsettled frontier conditions that prevailed throughout much of the Chesapeake enabled many blacks to set the terms of their own labor, to establish a relatively stable family life, and on occasion to barter for their freedom. During the seventeenth century, black freedmen owned land and slaves, voted, and even occupied minor political offices. They could sue and be sued and testify in court. If they did acquire property they could sell it or pass it on to their descendants. Until outlawed by statute in 1691, interracial marriages between blacks and whites—even marriages between black men and white women—were accepted, if rare.

Blacks in the Chesapeake initially enjoyed many of the same rights as other subjects of the English Crown, or at least were not systematically denied them. But as in the Caribbean, Latin America, New England, and the Middle Colonies, there was a direct and unambiguous correlation between growing numbers of blacks in the Chesapeake and the enactment laws to restrict their freedom. By the middle of the seventeenth century the trend was clear: as the black population rose, the rights of black men and women, slave and free, diminished. As Donald R. Wright indicated in African Americans in the Colonial Era (1990), the dike holding back the deluge of legislation that condemned blacks to slavery broke when the importation of Africans increased after 1680. Blacks in the Chesapeake quickly lost the rights and freedoms that remained to them and found themselves legally, socially, and culturally isolated from whites. By the 1720s the English colonies in the Chesapeake were well on their way to becoming slave societies. During the next century the evolution of slavery altered every facet of black life. Gone were the days when the status of blacks approximated that of whites. Of the considerable population of blacks living in the Chesapeake by the1820s, nearly all were slaves.

For blacks, life in Virginia was undone by success. In “To the Virginian Voyage,” composed in 1606 to promote colonization and settlement, Michael Drayton had envisioned Virginia as “Earth’s only paradise;”

Where nature hath in store

Fowl, venison, and fish,

And the fruitful’st soil

Without your toil

Three harvests more,

All greater than your wish.

As the high mortality rate in Virginia began to decline in the 1630s, many indentured servants stood on the threshold of fulfilling their dream to become independent proprietors. They settled along the great rivers of Virginia, planted corn, raised livestock, and cultivated tobacco. But from prosperity new difficulties arose. After 1640, as longevity improved and population increased, former indentured servants found it harder, if not impossible, to acquire land. According to Edmund Morgan in American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (1975), as life expectancy in Virginia advanced, there emerged a growing number of freed servants who could not afford to purchase land except on the frontier, which was unprotected from Indian attack, or in the unfertile interior. By 1676, Morgan estimates that twenty-five percent of Virginians were without land and worse without the prospect of obtaining any.

The presence of a class of impoverished former servants terrified the planter elite. Young, single, and propertyless, these men had nothing invested in the community and nothing to lose by attacking it. More ominously, they were armed. Sir William Berkeley, the royal governor of Virginia, feared that these dispossessed former servants would rise in revolt. His fears were justified for in 1676 Bacon’s Rebellion, the largest civil disturbance in the colonies before the War for Independence, swept Virginia. Although the rebellion subsided quickly, the causes did not disappear. An excess of indentured servants continued to arrive in Virginia every year to man the tobacco plantations. When they at last attained their freedom, most could not afford to buy even marginal land. It was under these circumstances that Virginia planters turned to slavery.

Costing approximately £20 in 1700, about twice as much as it cost to engage an indentured servant, slaves were the more profitable investment since they were bound to the master for life. The unexpected social and political benefits of slavery matched the economic advantages. Slaves were far less dangerous than the former servants had become. No slave uprising in the history of the North American colonies or the United States approached the magnitude of Bacon’s Rebellion. In addition, slaves fell permanently under the control of their masters and could be denied rights that Englishmen, bound or free, traditionally demanded. There was a limit beyond which the abridgement of English liberties could not go. Masters, by comparison, subjected slaves to harsh punishments without the slaves having recourse to the law. They kept the slaves unarmed, unorganized, and ignorant. Increasingly, the color of the slaves’ skin indicated their probable status, making escape more difficult. In addition, by enslaving Africans, Virginians stopped adding to the band of indigent white freed servants who threatened to disrupt the fragile order of the colony.

If Africans had not been available in sufficient numbers to meet the demand for labor Morgan surmises that colonial planters would likely have found it impossible to keep the former servants in their place. The continued abuse of English subjects might have resulted in the outbreak of another mass insurrection. Even more probable was a parliamentary ban on the importation of servants to Virginia, which would have devalued the land and impeded, if not destroyed, the tobacco economy. The attempted enslavement of free-born Englishmen would have caused more problems than it solved. English colonists thus thought the enslavement of Africans an expedient way to organize a disciplined labor force and to maintain social and political order. Englishmen in Virginia enslaved Africans because they could not enslave other Englishmen. This solution, Morgan concluded:

allowed Virginia’s magnates to keep their lands, yet arrested the discontent and repression of other Englishmen, a solution which strengthened the rights of Englishmen and nourished their attachment to liberty which came to fruition in the Revolutionary generation of Virginia statesmen. But the solution put an end to the process of turning Africans into Englishmen. The rights of Englishmen were preserved by destroying the rights of Africans.

In the search for a date on which to inscribe a “new origin story,” one that places slavery and race at the center of American history and life, 1676 is of a far greater import than 1619. But origins do not matter as much as events and conditions. The events and conditions that led to the expansion of slavery reveal that its significance was historical. The racism that contributed to and resulted from slavery was not, as Ms. Hannah-Jones would have it, encoded into the DNA of whites from the beginning of American history. Racism is no more the product of biological determinism than is the concept of race itself. Like race, racism is an ideological construct, the consequence of historical decisions, accidents, contingencies, expedience, and struggle. It is not the product of genetics. Our origin is not our destiny.

III.

In Virginia and eventually in the other southern colonies, slavery resolved the problem of what to do with and about the poor. The growth of slavery limited the demand for indentured servants. Those who remained and fulfilled their contracts had better prospects for acquiring land, thereby eliminating most of the “idle poor” whose presence was the scourge of order and peace. Transformed from destitute rabble into sturdy yeoman, the once landless poor became trustworthy citizens. No demagogue could manipulate them; no tyrant could starve them into submission. Secure, virtuous, and armed, they were at liberty to enjoy the fruits of their labor and were prepared to defend their property and their independence against any who imperiled them.

When, during the seventeenth century, the impoverished masses had endangered the stability of the colony and the welfare of the elite, they met with prompt and savage vengeance. Although Nathaniel Bacon had died of fever, placing himself beyond mortal reach, the Royal Governor, William Berkeley, hanged the other leaders of the rebellion despite Charles II having issued a general pardon. Charles lamented “that old fool has hanged more men in that naked country than I have done for the murder of my father.” No longer harassed by a class of unruly poor whites, Virginians of the eighteenth century, by contrast, could afford to entertain radical ideas about taxation, political representation, equality before the law, and the rights of freemen. Slavery had inadvertently relived the social and economic pressure on landless whites that, in the seventeenth century, had reduced them to servitude and poverty and had subjected them to violent reprisals. As slavery became more prominent after 1680, Virginians, like other southerners, moved toward a form of government in which small farmers had a more prominent role. As slaves replaced poor whites at the bottom of the colonial social order, the fears and prejudices long directed toward the poor could be restricted to blacks, whose rights and freedoms were forever suppressed. It is no exaggeration to say that the freedom of Englishmen came to rest on the enslavement of Africans.

Given the complex and intricate relation of slavery and freedom in early American history, Ms. Hannah-Jones may perhaps be forgiven her most audacious but mistaken judgment that the colonists struck for independence in a determined and conscious effort to preserve slavery. “Our founding mythology,” she insists:

conveniently omits the fact that one of the primary reasons some of the colonists decided to declare independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery. They feared that liberation would enable an abused people to seek vengeance on their oppressors. . . . The wealth and prominence that allowed Jefferson . . . and the other founding fathers to believe that they could successfully break off from one of the mightiest empires in the world came in part from the dizzying profits generated by chattel slavery. So they understood that abolition would have upended the economies of both the North and the South. (16)

More nuanced in the book than in the original version of the 1619 Project that appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Ms. Hannah-Jones’s statement nevertheless remains one-dimensional and inaccurate. She underestimates the acrimony that disagreements over slavery injected into American politics.

Those who contemplated independence from Great Britain found that the contradiction between the quest for liberty and the defense of slavery was becoming an embarrassment. Slavery had always been something of a problem for Englishmen. The enslavement of Africans violated English judicial traditions, for English Common Law did not recognize the legitimacy of slavery. The introduction of slavery into the English colonies was a radical departure from the norm, an innovation of the sort that prudent Englishmen usually avoided. For generations, the English colonists had made their peace with or ignored the inconsistency, even as they benefitted from the labor of their slaves. When the call went up in the 1760s to throw off the yoke of British oppression and to reassert their traditional rights as Englishmen, American colonists could disregard it no longer. To do so would have marked them as hypocrites alike to their enemies and their allies.

The welcome that arguments against slavery began to receive emerged in part because new ideas about humanity and society had gained popularity and influence among the educated classes of Western Europe and North America. Writers and thinkers of the eighteenth-century believed in nothing more than the happiness, dignity, and freedom of the individual. From their perspective, slavery represented the antithesis of these principles and was an unmitigated evil that debased the human spirit and threatened human progress. The philosophes on both sides of the Atlantic agreed that they had emancipated the mind from authority, tradition, and superstition, had unveiled the truths of nature, had vindicated the rights of man, and had pointed the way not only toward human improvement but also human perfectibility. To these apostles of liberty, slavery was a criminal violation of the rights of man and citizen. Its continued existence rendered impossible peace, social order, and morality, and confounded the very essence of enlightened civilization.

Many of the men who advocated a war of independence against Great Britain thought themselves products of the Enlightenment. Faith in human intelligence, reason, and benevolence encouraged them to believe that they could establish a more perfect union, a new order for the ages in which justice reigned and men embraced their natural right to freedom. During the struggle that ensued, many American leaders, even in the South, admitted that slavery was contrary to the principles for which they fought. A number of reformers warned that American independence could be justified only by a decision to rid the land of slavery. They asserted that Americans could not secure their own freedom until they had first emancipated the slaves.

Independence, of course, did not end slavery. No body of slaveholding planters anywhere ever acquiesced in emancipation save when coerced, whether by a national government or by the slaves themselves. Their celebration of liberty notwithstanding, American slaveholders proved just as resistant. Slavery was integral to the national economy. Americans could not have sustained their economic viability or their political independence without it. Liberty required independence and independence rested on property. Eighteenth-century Americans were not so morally callous to value property rights over human rights. In their view, human rights were intimately connected to, and sustained by, property rights. One could not survive without the other. Any scheme of emancipation would destroy a legal form of property and would in the process endanger the foundations of republican liberty. Slavery, it seemed, was interwoven into the fabric of the Republic, and could not be eradicated without unraveling it. Slaveholders may have been willing to concede that slavery was an evil—but if that was so it an evil about which nothing could be done.

Even the concession that slavery was a necessary evil rendered its proponents vulnerable. The argument was politically inadequate and morally treacherous. Slaveholders had to insulate themselves from the conviction that slavery, however necessary, was an evil that honest men must try to remove from the body politic whatever the costs. Herein resides the deeper significance of independence to which neither Ms. Hannah-Jones nor her critics have devoted enough attention. In response to fears that the rhetoric of independence might excite a general opposition to slavery, southerners fashioned the first truly racist vision of American society. The rudiments of the argument are familiar. Slavery was justified because blacks and whites could not live together in peace as free and equal citizens. By nature blacks were inferior and uncivilized. They were cunning but stupid, idle, promiscuous, dishonest, and savage.

Slavery may have come to America without much deliberation. Racism certainly did not. Its genesis was calculated and purposeful. To deflect the assault on slavery, southern whites invented a thoroughgoing racist image of blacks. Even the enlightened philosophe Thomas Jefferson was not immune. Writing in the 1780s, Jefferson noted that in any comparison of whites and blacks, skin color immediately obtrudes to render whites the more attractive. Whiteness is far “preferable to that eternal monotony . . . that immoveable veil of darkness” which envelops black faces and black bodies. In addition to lacking physical beauty, blacks were deficient in the capacity to reason. Their emotions were ardent but frivolous and superficial. In imagination, Jefferson expounded, they were “dull, tasteless, and anomalous.” Approaching the subject with diffidence and caution, Jefferson advanced it “as a suspicion only that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind. . . . This unfortunate difference of colour, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people.” Merely to profess self-interest in maintaining slavery would have seemed grotesque in the face of a principled vindication of the freedom that Nature and Nature’s God had promised to all men. Instead proslavery thinkers elaborated the grave risks that premature emancipation would bring in its wake, accentuating both the inferiority and the wickedness of blacks.

The creation of a new government reinforced the slaveholders’ apprehensions. Under imperial rule, southerners had never exercised absolute control over their colonial institutions. Although independence had freed them from British interference, it also gave rise to a potentially more harmful situation. The new southern states found themselves in a political union with other states that had eliminated slavery within their own borders and whose citizens viewed with deepening skepticism all attempts to justify the continued existence of slavery elsewhere. As a consequence, slavery disturbed relations between the North and the South from the beginning of American national history. The presence of slavery nearly ruined the prospects for establishing a union at all, first in the debates over the Articles of Confederation and then more acutely at the Constitutional Convention. As early as 1790, during the second session of the first Congress of the United States, Thomas Tudor Tucker of South Carolina already recognized the extent of the problem. Tucker asked: “Do these men [of the North] expect a general emancipation of the slaves by law? He answered his own question: “This would never be submitted to by the Southern states without a civil war.”

For more than seventy years the American political system averted such a conflict. Between 1789 and 1861, Congress, the president, and the courts as well as the major political parties and their leaders prevented the issue from being joined. But whenever the subject of slavery intruded into politics, from the Missouri Compromise of 1820 to the Nullification Crisis of 1832-1833 to the Compromise of 1850 and the turbulent decade that followed, the rancorous disagreements invariably spawned threats to the Union. Each compromise proved more fragile than the last, as two societies, one slave and one free, expanded within a single nation that could not ultimately reconcile their political aims and economic interests, their social philosophies, their religion and morality, or their world views. The dispute over slavery was at the heart of the most grievous tragedy ever yet to befall the United States.

IV.

All people carry with them the burden of their past. Although they may cry out in protest, Americans are no exception. Every people longs to find comfort and reassurance in their history. They wish to see in the past an image of themselves as generous and benevolent, guilty perhaps of no more than misjudgments and errors but of no terrible crimes or unforgiveable sins. Ms. Hannah-Jones and her colleagues have done their utmost to disturb the easy conscience of white Americans about the past. They have been determined to show that those historical figures whom many Americans venerate were responsible for the most heinous offenses, which, because they remain unacknowledged, continue to disrupt and pervert American national life.

At least after a fashion, Ms. Hannah-Jones and her colleagues take history seriously, which is more than may be said for those Republicans who are contemptuously indifferent to facts, logic, truth, or even ideological consistency. Alternating between incoherence and nihilism, they have nothing of substance to contribute to American politics or thought. Those conservative who have retained their devotion to a traditional patriotic narrative of the American past are in retreat. Even when their efforts to defend the pieties of yesterday merit sympathy, they neither persuade nor inspire. In the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the liberal commitment to progress, although equally touching, is just as quaint, superficial, and irrelevant. The relentless optimism that liberals espouse has led them to see in history the fiction of inevitable progress. Every question has an answer, every problem a solution. From adversity comes only triumph. Despotism, imperialism, racism, sexism, the entire panoply of historic crimes, will fall as “the arc of the moral universe” bends incrementally but invariably toward justice.

Ms. Hannah-Jones is less sanguine and more disillusioned. She acknowledges but then quickly abandons any discussion of the “astounding progress” that blacks have made in their quest for freedom and equality. To her credit, she has not merely celebrated the accomplishments of blacks Americans, replacing one weary and threadbare story of progress and triumph with another. But according to her world view grievance and oppression have been more important in the lives of black Americans than a cursory optimism or an ephemeral progress. Anti-black racism is fixed and ineradicable. Ms. Hannah-Jones finds little consolation in promises broken or in self-satisfied fantasies about liberty and justice for all.

Her outlook fits the political moment, emphasizing continuity rather than change, as Americans across the political spectrum become more ideologically resolute and more politically entrenched. Contemporary American politics and society are nothing if not tribal. Blacks and whites in the United States are what they have long been: one people who live separate lives and who now increasingly embrace different versions of the past and different visions of the future. Events and developments always have the capacity to surprise us, but the prospects of a rapprochement seem distant. As a people, as Americans, blacks and whites are divided and paralyzed. They can neither separate nor unite. They do not as much communicate with as they confront one another across a widening chasm, uttering ominous accusations and threats.

The battleground has shifted from the streets to the past—there and to the recesses of the individual conscience. The killing of Travyon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Philandro Castile, Alton Sterling, Stephon Clark, Botham Jean, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and others too numerous to mention; the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia; the massacre of black men and women in Charleston, South Carolina and Buffalo, New York have provoked a militant, uncompromising, and impassioned reevaluation of American history. Rather than seeking a “usable past,” to borrow a venerable phrase from Van Wyck Brooks, thinkers such as Ms. Hannah-Jones have sought the origins of present injustice in past iniquity. The United States, Ms. Hannah-Jones contends, must undergo a profound historical “reckoning” to expose centuries of the racial subjugation that constitute the essence of national identity and the source of all that is exceptional about America.

With her historical world revolving always around slavery and racism the arc of Ms. Hannah-Jones’s moral universe does not bend in any direction. It is motionless. This static vision of the past offers no mechanism to explain, let alone to promote, change. Her interpretation of American history cannot account for the rise of the abolition movement, the end of slavery, or the advance of civil rights. It is one thing to look upon the world with a cold eye and to reject platitudes about the inevitability of progress. It is quite another matter to lose faith in the future, as Ms. Hannah-Jones seems to have done. She is left with nothing but the past, which she deems responsible for all the transgressions and misery of the present. She must ignore significant change and deny genuine progress in race relations. She must emphasize, and even in a sense commemorate, a history of victimization and a politics of grievance that knows no end. There is no alternative. There is no way out. White Americans are slaves to an unalterable genetic racism and black Americans are their perpetual victims.

Ms. Hannah-Jones’s outlook has more in common with resignation to despair than it does with a healthy sense of tragedy, which it superficially resembles. Americans like to think our history impervious to moments of tragedy. But slavery was just such a moment, and it lasted for centuries with incalculable consequences. “Generally speaking,” wrote Alexis de Tocqueville:

it requires great and constant efforts for men to create lasting ills; but there is one evil which has percolated furtively into the world; at first it was hardly noticed among the usual abuses of power; it began with an individual whose name history does not record; it was cast like an accursed seed somewhere on the ground; it then nurtured itself, grew without effort, and spread with the society that accepted it; that evil was slavery.

As in Greek tragedy, the sins of the father have been visited on the sons. These unfortunate progeny are cursed by their inheritance. Their destiny becomes a tragic choice among evils. Psychic wounds deepen, fester, and do not heal. Guilt is irresistible and devastating. They are driven to madness. Behind their suffering lies the past.

As Tocqueville understood, slavery imposed a curse on American life not easily lifted. Our pathetic disavowal of this reality, our continued withdrawal into an unsullied past, our anxious proclamations of innocence have shielded us from the truth. To break the deadlock, to absolve the crime, to end the curse, to redeem our world, we must learn the ruin that inhabits every act of treachery, every appeal to hubris. We must embrace humility and compassion. As Stephen Dedalus remarked in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, “where there is reconciliation there must first have been a sundering.” Making amends must become a rite of passage during which innocence dies and experience is born. Dreadful and terrifying, this national ordeal will bring illumination and renewal, or at least we are entitled to hope.

“We have come to this,” proclaimed the Greek playwright Aeschylus, “the crisis of our lives.” And so in America we have. If it is to take place, the transformation of our society must begin not as Ms. Hannah-Jones implies with recrimination and guilt, but with honest answers to painful questions. It will plunge us into agony just the same. But Ms. Hannah-Jones is right about one thing. If we wish to survive as a nation and a people, white Americans sooner or later must abandon our fatal self-righteousness and confront the vicious aspects of the past, of which slavery is only one. Will we remain defiant and resentful? Will we, alternately, resign ourselves to apathy and despair? Will we nurture our fear, our anger, and our hate? Will we succumb to our own variety of madness? Will we turn America into a charnel house? If, in the end, we do undertake this painful journey will our suffering only add to our trauma and out sickness or will we at last suffer into truth? Even were we straightaway to disavow identity history and tribal politics, we should not delude ourselves. The racial, political, and moral tension between blacks and whites would not soon vanish. Only under these altered conditions that tension would have a chance to hold society together rather than to tear it apart.

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The featured image, uploaded by Nikole Hannah-Jones, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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