Among the most contentious statements in the 1619 Project is in Nikole Hannah-Jones’s opening essay: “that the year 1619 is as important to the American story as 1776. That black Americans, as much as those men cast in alabaster in the nation’s capital, are this nation’s true ‘founding fathers.’” Critics commonly paraphrase this as claiming the American story really starts in 1619.
Stories begin where the storyteller begins them. Novelists may open with a dramatic incident, backstory, or a portrayal of ordinary life. Narrative historians, too, must choose where to start. It’s a question of focus and perspective, not fact. As the late Professor Geoff Blodgett taught us at Oberlin long ago, facts never speak for themselves. Even the most objective chronicler must decide which events to record and in what order.
I have yet to see a United States history that begins on July 4, 1776, unless as a hook. In the “western civilization” approach of my school years, our national story started with the Enlightenment, or the Magna Carta, or even democracy in ancient Athens. More traditional accounts might begin with Columbus in 1492; more recent ones, with indigenous life before colonists came from Europe. The arrival of captive Africans in Jamestown in 1619 is as legitimate a starting point as any other. To argue whether it’s true or false is meaningless.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.