August of 2022 marked the three year anniversary of the Pulitzer Center’s education partnership with The 1619 Project. Our work, which began with the distribution of the original New York Times Magazine issue and publication of some aligned lesson plans and activities, has blossomed into a series of programs and initiatives that help educate and resource a broad and intersecting public and educational audience. Since publication we and our teacher partners have reflected on The 1619 Project as a useful tool for teaching and engaging students at all levels. We've also considered our individual connections to the questions the project raises: Why should we reframe our understanding of U.S. history? How can we better identify and acknowledge the continuing legacies of slavery in our country?
This personal work of learning, unlearning, and engaging in constructive conversations around what The 1619 Project calls us to see and do has been some of the most grounding and transformative work I’ve done in my career. It is encouraging to see others taking up One World Books’ call to engage in this work together as a part of The 1619 Project Read Along. I am excited to see more people read and engage with The 1619 Project and know that I will learn as much from their reflections as I have from the thousands of educators the Pulitzer Center has supported in our 1619 programs and initiatives. I hope my reflections on the first Read Along chapter, "Democracy," by Nikole Hannah-Jones, can be a part of this rich ongoing conversation in the open classroom we’re building together.
The essay calls each of us to consider the term “democracy” and the idea that the United States of America has been a democracy since the nation’s founding. Are we able to accept a narrative that America is and has always been aligned to the democratic ideal of a government by the people, representative of a majority?
One of the Read Along question prompts for this chapter asks whether or not readers agree with Hannah-Jones’ assertion that, “some might argue that this nation was founded not as a democracy but as a slavocracy,” given that the primary authors of the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution were enslavers, and 10 out of our first 12 presidents enslaved other humans. It is a bold question that can only be engaged with in good faith when we are able to hold certain historical truths at the center: No matter what terminology we ultimately decide to use, we must acknowledge that from founding to present day, people who should have been free to participate in the democratic republic based on the unalienable rights defined by the founders themselves have had to fight systems of enslavement, oppression, marginalization, and disenfranchisement for that eligibility. We must also acknowledge the Black people who have led these fights, holding on to a clear vision of true democracy, while also providing the labor, often forced, that built the country’s wealth and power.
Far from leading to a singular narrative of U.S. history and a vision for progress in the future, acknowledgement of these historical truths opens up the opportunity for honest conversations that incorporate a diversity of experiences, ideals, and visions of freedom. One of the main critical conversations I have with educators utilizing The 1619 Project in their classrooms is about how their students may come to different conclusions than those of the project contributors even when presented with the same facts—that there needs to be space, especially for the Black students in the room, to learn this history, to define their own ideals, and to feel empowered to make sense of self and place in a way that is authentic to them. Those Black students may choose to fly a flag, or work to reclaim genres of art and music that have removed Black influence, or simply to take up space without feeling a need to distance from or apologize for their Blackness.
This invitation to know ourselves and to freedom dream is what equips all Americans to continue making space for others to do the same, to redefine when necessary what “government for the people” means in a growing and diversifying nation, and to evaluate the effectiveness of our democracy overall.
“Democracy” by Nikole Hannah-Jones is an essay that resonates with many teachers and students working together to define democracy and consider the history of civic engagement in the United States. Three units created by members of The 1619 Project Education Network offer a look into how teachers have utilized the essay in the classroom:
- American Institutions: A high school social studies unit re-centering debates about American democracy by analyzing the perspectives of marginalized communities and the legacy of slavery.
- Defenders of Democracy: A middle school social studies unit about the pivotal role Black Americans continue to play as defenders of democracy.
- Art Attacks: A unit designed for 7-12th grade incarcerated youth using arts-based exercises and techniques to explore civic history and engagement.
These units, and others in our 1619 Project Education Materials Collection, offer tools for everyone to better understand the themes in The 1619 Project and expand their learning by engaging with supplemental materials that further explore the questions the project poses.