The 1619 Project has been turned into an impressive children’s book, Born on the Water, but is no less factual than the original 1619 Project. While it is important to recognize this history, it’s more important to recognize it accurately. Released just days before Thanksgiving, Nikole Hannah-Jones and her co-author Renée Watson have taken advantage of the timely opportunity to disparage America, but the numerous contradictions weaken their arguments overall. This book is flooding classrooms and stores across America, and with a usable K-12 curriculum that meets current standards, many teachers will undoubtedly incorporate this literature into their units.
Any child who reads this book will be captivated by its moving words and fascinating illustrations, but they will be tragically misinformed, which is not surprising since Hannah-Jones has stated that the 1619 Project is “not a history,” but a way to undermine the idea of American exceptionalism. When reading this book, one would think Americans invented slavery and that all the people of Africa lived in freedom up until 1619. In the section titled, They Had a Language, the authors focus on the Kingdom of Ndongo, and without any mention of slavery existing elsewhere, a child will automatically generalize this joy and happiness to all of Africa. As suggested by this book, the African slave trade began in the year 1619 at the hands of white American colonists. Sadly, Nikole Hannah-Jones and Renée Watson have ignored the thousands of Africans who were sold into slavery over 100 years before 1619. Even in America, 1619 is not the year that enslaved persons first came ashore. By misinforming the reader, the entire book (which has some valid points) becomes a piece of thoughtless self-contradicting propaganda.
In reality, European countries began enslaving Africans in 1441. By the year 1500, around 15,000 Africans were enslaved in Europe. By the year 1619, tens to hundreds of thousands of Africans had been kidnapped, stolen, and ripped from their families and sold into slavery in both Europe and the Americas. With Nikole Hannah-Jones’s suggestion that slavery began in 1619, she is erasing, or refusing to accept, the tragic history of these individuals. Oddly enough, outside of this children’s book, Nikole Hannah-Jones praises Cuba (which did not abolish slavery until 1880 and continued to participate in that slave trade until 1873) for their “equality.” According to The Heritage Foundation, in a 2019 Vox interview she stated, “If you want to see the most equal, multiracial, it’s not a democracy, but the most equal multiracial country in our hemisphere, it would be Cuba. . . . Cuba has the least inequality between black and white people of any place in the hemisphere.” For someone so concerned with history, it is interesting that Cuba’s history of slavery does not bother her.
Another major issue with this book is its contradicting messages. The most glaring examples of this are located in the last three pages of the book. Again, as this is a children’s book, the imagery is extremely important. In the section titled, Legacy, towards the end of the book, is a double page spread of iconic black Americans who all helped make our country live up to the ideals of our Founders, with the exception of one. Alongside Frederick Douglass, a Tuskegee airman, and who some would consider controversial, Tommie Smith, they have a depiction of a Black Lives Matter (BLM) activist. Putting a BLM activist and aligning BLM with all of these other leaders is misleading and sullies what they stood for and their hard work. Everything that these other individuals were protesting and fighting for is not what BLM is fighting for today. Even Tommie Smith, who famously raised a fist at the 1968 Olympics, and who later said the fist was not meant to be a salute to “black power,” was protesting in a peaceful manner for black Americans, and others, to be treated equally. Black Lives Matter, as the founders have stated, was started as a Marxist-Maoist activist organization, and many members have condoned the use of violence. Nikole Hannah-Jones even contradicts some of the main points BLM argues by stating in this children’s book that “because the people survived, and because the people fought, they finally got freedom.” And, “because the people survived, and because the people fought, America has equality in the law.”
Finally, on the last page, the book depicts the main character drawing the American flag and being proud of the country that Nikole Hannah-Jones deems as one of the great evils. Nikole Hannah-Jones said herself that she felt “deeply embarrassed” that her father flew the American flag in her family’s yard, and that she “didn’t understand his patriotism.” She then wrote the 1619 Project to make the argument that America has never lived up to its promises, and that its founding ideals are largely based on lies. Yet, at the end of the children’s book, the little girl says, “The next day I go to school, pull out my red crayon, my blue, and my white. I draw the stars and I draw the stripes of the flag of the country that my ancestors built, that my grandma and grandpa built, that I will help build, too. And I am not ashamed.” While this closing sends a positive and powerful message to children, it ultimately contradicts the 1619 Project.
One of the goals of this book, which is to help young black children find pride in their history, is respectable. In the Authors’ and Illustrator’s Notes, Nikole Hannah-Jones and Renée Watson write, “We especially hope Black American children who may be longing to feel connected to their roots come away empowered by the knowledge that there is no shame in descending from American slavery, and with the understanding that they come from a resilient people who loved, resisted, and persevered.” The little girl whom this book begins and ends with, reveals what many young children may struggle with as teachers ask them to dive into their ancestry. This struggle to make a connection to their history sadly affects many different people whose ancestors experienced tragedy, including those who died in the Holocaust or suffered under persecution. Some may argue one tragedy is worse than another, but arguing over whose experience was worse is not appropriate when all of those discussed included the separation of families and the death of loved ones.
Nikole Hannah-Jones and her team working on the 1619 Project are moving at an incredible pace to reach their goals. They know what they need to do: get into the schools and the minds of teachers and children across America. Even with so many scholars debunking the 1619 Project, it has only grown in use and popularity across America. New curriculums are being created, new texts are making their way into classrooms, a docuseries is in the works, and they are even starting their own after-school literacy program which launched this year in Iowa. Money is flowing to the 1619 Project, and they are smart in the way they use it. With the 1619 Project’s growing influence amid fact-checkers’ cries, it is not likely that its presence in classrooms across America will diminish anytime soon.