Hulu’s ‘The 1619 Project’ Is the American History the GOP Wants Us to Forget
In the first episode of Hulu’s new docuseries The 1619 Project, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones strolls in her Air Jordans down a picturesque path in Williamsburg, Virginia. With the help of Woody Holton, a Professor of History at the University of South Carolina, Hannah-Jones explores how slaves in Virginia were a key bargaining tool and the eventual catalyst for the Southern Colonies’ agreement to join the Revolutionary War — something historical sites like Colonial Williamsburg often erase from the story.
“Both economically and politically-enslaved people were at the center of the story,” Holton says. “If slaves had been as passive as I was taught they were in Virginia schools, then the Revolution might not have ever come to the South. And you can’t win the Revolution without the South.”
For those who’ve never visited any of the historical sites in Virginia, the moment serves as an informative history lesson and the start of a narrative line drawn from the first slaves in North America to our current understanding of democracy. But for me, who spent almost 11 years in the Virginia school system, it’s where The 1619 Project proves its worth.
Year after year, for class projects, or field trips, or sometimes just random Fridays, my teachers would take my class to Jamestown or Colonial Williamsburg, where white people in costume would walk us through town and explain the glorious and heroic story of the American Revolution. There was cannon fire, fife troupes populated with high school band students, and long orations about the importance of remembering the past. The same reverence for history can be found throughout my hometown, in plaques and statues and monuments both big and small. But what I remember most about that time was how little the story of slavery was touched upon. When they were mentioned, slaves were “agreeable” or “helpful,” but more often than not, they were simply nonexistent. It was up to my parents to caveat my school lessons with real truths about slavery in the area. And even then, I was surrounded by living, ever-present history, and couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing.
The 1619 Project was first published as a longform collection in the August 2019 edition of The New York Times Magazine. Hannah-Jones wrote the leading essay in the work, which later received the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary, and was eventually adapted into a book and curriculum developed by the Pulitzer Center. Named after the year that the first enslaved Africans landed on the shores of Virginia, the work’s main aim was to “reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”
After publication, the package sparked a political firestorm for saying America’s ideals were built on racism and the history of slavery, and that the echoes of those twin horrors persisted to this day. A movement, championed by former president Donald Trump, used legislation and fear-mongering to push back against the project and other curriculum that might teach critical race theory.
But even as a docuseries, The 1619 Project’s firm grasp on both historical evidence and nuanced cultural commentary cements the work as decade-defining. It succeeds both technically and as a piece of art, skillfully weaving shots of Black Americans with firsthand accounts, explanations, interviews and stories that have been consistently omitted from the historical record. At every turn, whether in policing or capitalism or disco music, Hannah-Jones’ narration deftly excavates the racism and prejudice behind both well-known and rarely-heard events. And there’s often a personal element to each episode, as the series also follows Hannah-Jones’ journey to understanding her place as a Black American.
People might say we don’t need another version of The 1619 Project. With hour-long episodes, watching it can feel more like a history lesson than a thrilling Sunday night on HBO. But the series perfectly melds the original project’s combination of history, reportage, essays and poetry into a new form. It’s easy to imagine how a schoolteacher could air an episode in class and have their students leave knowing plenty they didn’t an hour ago. It’s even easier to imagine what my Virginia education could have looked like and what my experience as a Black American could have been if this docuseries existed earlier. Hulu’s The 1619 Project wants to show generations of Americans a history they may have missed out on. They should allow it.