• Beth Pandolpho

Relearning with the 1619 Project

At just a little more than 100 pages into The 1619 project, I need to take a pause.

I'm going to use this time to reckon with all I did not know, and process what I've learned. Right now, I can organize my ignorance into three categories:

  • The resistance efforts of the enslaved

  • The economic reasons that motivated whites to maintain the institution of slavery

  • The laws and assumptions that governed black women and their bodies

A part of me feels ashamed for all of this not knowing; yet, since shame is not a catalyst for progress, I’m choosing to be grateful for learning it now, and the ability to share what I’ve learned:

The Resistance Efforts of the Enslaved

Astoundingly, nowhere in my education did I learn about the widespread, collective resistance of the enslaved and the swift and gruesome retaliation by white people. I am at the same time awestruck by the enslaved’s resolve and bold action within the confines of their dehumanizing conditions, and horrified by the brutality of the response to their efforts. In the chapter, “Fear” by Leslie Alexander and Michelle Alexander, they write:

Everywhere the pattern was the same: white people enslaved, raped, terrorized, and murdered Black people, mostly for profit and also to enforce a rigid racial hierarchy in which they maintained both status and power. Black people resisted and rebelled, often violently. White fear of Black rebellions soared after each rumored or attempted revolt, leading to heightened surveillance, brutal patrolling, and new waves of laws or policies that aimed to permanently subdue the enslaved population (p. 105).

Sadly, there are a myriad of anecdotes I could cite to illustrate this brutality, but I will just offer this one: When Black people rebelled by killing enslavers and burning and raiding their properties, white people responded not only by murdering them, but displaying their heads on successive wooden poles to deter future resistance.

Although whites repeatedly asserted their dominance, they could not stave off the imagination and freedom fighting of Black people.

Economic Reasons

I learned in the chapter entitled, “Sugar” that sugar plantations were extremely labor intensive, and that the production process was incredibly dangerous. At the height of their success, sugar plantations made white people richer while the production process tortured, maimed, and killed Black people. Khalil Gibran Muhammad writes, “Louisiana led the nation in destroying the lives of Black people in the name of economic efficiency” (p. 83).

For this reason, Nikole Hannah-Jones maintains that we must cease to idealize plantations as lush, wealthy estates, and instead call them “labor camps” which is a more accurate description. She also insists, and rightly so, that since we wouldn’t have a wedding at a concentration camp, we shouldn’t have celebrations at plantations.

Black Women’s Bodies

The reality of the rules that governed Black women's bodies is something they definitely did not teach us in school. In The 1619 Project, I learned the stunning truth that the law essentially encouraged white men to rape black women because the resulting offspring became their property. Dorothy Roberts writes, “The law allowed white men to profit from their sexual assaults on Black women” (p. 50). Roberts also writes about the beliefs that were rampant about Black women’s sexuality, “Whether free or enslaved, Black women were portrayed as sexually licentious, always consenting, and therefore unrapeable” (p. 54).

Roberts also shares modern, heartbreaking accounts that clearly demonstrate how this perception is still pervasive today. This fact, in particular, is at the same time both defies reason and yet is undeniable.

I understand that it is my privilege to take a breath to process these understandings before I continue reading, so as a mother, educator, and a citizen, I plan to spend that privilege by building awareness toward future liberation.

As Nikole Hannah-Jones reminds us in the Preface to The 1619 Project, “facing the truth liberates us to build the society we wish to be” (xxxiii).

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