The 1619 Project has a special significance for me at Hampton
I led an on-campus conversation with The New York Times’ Nikole Hannah-Jones
Randall Williams is a senior at Hampton University and one of six Rhoden Fellows from historically black colleges and universities participating in a yearlong internship with The Undefeated.
I’ve never had as much pride in myself or Black History Month as I do today. This is in large part due to The 1619 Project by The New York Times Magazine. In the 98 pages bound together by only two staples and glue, I learned more about my people’s history than any textbook I opened up during my K-12 education. I was and I still am astonished.
I received my first copy of The 1619 Project in September and carried it around in my book bag for two months. I’ve probably read it at least seven times. Until recently, I could not figure out why the magazine continually lures me into picking it up time and time again. The reason is self-fulfillment. Don’t get me wrong, The 1619 Project contains no love stories and, more often than not, I had to face hard truths about America.
The pride that I now carry comes from learning that my ancestors survived true American terrorism. Even when their friends and family members were being lynched, burned alive, castrated or dismembered, they persevered. They believed in something that they would never live to see. Simple privileges like being able to travel where I want and being able to vote weren’t always simple. Without their sheer grit and determination for more than 400 years, I would not be here today.
I was the facilitator for a Caldwell Café Lecture Series presentation, leading a discussion with Nikole Hannah-Jones at Hampton University last November. She led the Times’ groundbreaking project. One of the things she says religiously is that she does not bring hope. While I do not agree, I understand. Learning about black history has never been an easy thing to stomach for me. Our past carries so much cruelty, violence and malice that watching incredible documentaries such as 13th or When They See Us can demoralize me for an entire day.
Initially, the same thing happened when I read The 1619 Project. I’ll never forget reading that “the combined value of enslaved people exceeded that of all railroads and factories in the nation.” I remember setting down the magazine, looking up into my white apartment ceiling and trying to suppress the tears that for some reason would not stop. There were more devastating facts that hit me while I read the series, but the more that I read, the more I began to embrace my once unknown history.
The night I sat with Hannah-Jones in the Scripps Auditorium, I had never seen the building so packed. After the auditorium was full, three different rooms were set up so that people could watch. Literally everyone wanted to see her speak about the project. The conversation went great and while I thought I was going to shed tears in front of my peers, I didn’t. The subject was ominous but Jones’ energy didn’t reflect that. She was cool but fierce, calm but confident and most of all, she was a relief.
If Hannah-Jones could be confident about her history and the project she helped create, then I could be, too. After her departure, I reread the magazine. This time, I underlined things that made me proud. My feelings of sadness were washed away with honor I felt after reading this passage:
“For as much as white people tried to pretend, black people were not chattel. And so the process of seasoning, instead of erasing identity, served an opposite purpose: In the void, we forged a new culture all our own.”
The culture that black people forged is one that continues to evolve. It continues to birth my favorite artists and to inspire new ones, to create their own art every day. Black artists never cease to amaze me. Even when their efforts to put together projects go unnoticed by award shows and voting committees, their grind never stops. And whether they mean to or not, they inspire black people worldwide.
Inspiration is something that I search for daily. Now, I’ve found much more than inspiration in The 1619 Project. I’ve found pride, power, passion and knowledge.
It’s something that I can revisit not only to relearn history but also to teach me different ways to improve my writing. Nearly everyone who worked on the magazine project was black.
This final quote will live with me forever:
“What if America understood, finally in this 400th year, that we have never been the problem but the solution?”
So here I am, a living, breathing, African American solution.