Connecting history to racism today: Teaching the 1619 Project

Sugary diets. Traffic patterns. Capitalism. Democracy. So much of our culture has deep ties to the history of enslavement, yet these connections are rarely taught in public school systems.

Nikole Hannah-Jones
“Slavery touches almost every aspect of modern American life, yet it’s been an asterisk to the American story,” says Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer Prize-winning creator of the 1619 Project, a collection of essays, fiction, poetry, podcasts, visual art and other resources grounding the American experience in the history of enslavement and Black culture.

At a panel discussion with AFT President Randi Weingarten, Harvard scholar Khalil Gibran Muhammad and the Pulitzer Center’s Fareed Mostoufi, Hannah-Jones recalled that even her own experience illustrates the ignorance so many endure growing up: She didn’t learn about the rich contributions of her people until a high school Black studies course. “I remember being shocked that we had actually contributed a lot to the world and to America, because we had never been taught that,” she says.

The 1619 Project, and its extension of educational resources, is one way to address that gap and help students connect their lived experience to the history of the nation.

Hannah-Jones describes the many ways educators have adapted the project to the classroom: Music students listen to Wesley Morris’ podcast on how Black music has influenced all American music; literature students read Reginald Dwayne Betts’ poetry and create their own redaction poems. Muhammad’s essay on the role of sugar, from plantation to modern diet, launched classroom discussions on how low-wage workers produce the food we put on our tables today.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad
Overall, says Muhammad, the project works to “reveal surprising connections to the world of race and racism.” In his own essay, he explores the huge labor force required to grow, harvest and process sugar cane to produce a highly valued commodity—sugar—at the expense of enslaved people who essentially “underwrote European colonization” with their lives. “People’s lives were cut short dramatically as a result of sugar cultivation,” says Muhammad, who found that once people  in Louisiana started working in the cane fields, their lives could end within just seven years, worn down by unforgiving physical labor.

The Pulitzer Center hosts an entire curriculum and a detailed reading guide around the 1619 essays, which also describe how Black people suffer from systemically inferior healthcare, how Black wealth has been plundered and how our legal system has punished Black people more frequently and more severely. The AFT’s Share My Lesson has numerous lesson plans and resources drawing from the project as well.

“We are trying to get these invaluable and nuanced lesson plans about the 1619 Project directly to educators when they need it most, to help them tackle these conversations,” says Weingarten. “Our hope is that through this partnership with the Pulitzer Center, we can help further honest conversations around our country’s history and inform our present and hopefully our future in our classrooms, in our communities and in our organizations.”

Weingarten acknowledged that this work is not without its detractors, and some districts have fought to exclude the 1619 curriculum from their schools, but she insists that it is crucial. “There’s nothing unpatriotic about a cleareyed view of our nation’s past,” she says. “The country has to see its history in all of its manifestations and that history cannot be whitewashed. … The 1619 Project forces those who do not want to see, to see.”

And for those still experiencing the aftermath of this particular history, the project feels especially powerful. As Hannah-Jones traveled across the country pre-pandemic to see how it was being utilized in classrooms, students told her they could “see themselves in the story.” They would say, “This project explained why my neighborhood looks how it does, it explains why my family struggles even though they work really hard.”

“That’s how I hope that educators will continue to use the project,” says Hannah-Jones. “To actually help students to question all the narratives that we learn, and to learn to write their own.”

[Virginia Myers]