How America’s conversation on race is changing

The 1619 Project from The New York Times, AfricanAncestry.com, and more: Our Sept. 9 cover story tracks the new American conversation on race.

Zohra Bensemra/Reuters
A boy visits the Maison des Esclaves, a collection point for slaves being shipped west, at Gorée Island off the coast of Senegal on July 7. Unprecedented numbers of African Americans are tracing their ancestral roots back through slavery to Africa itself.

The goal is expressly to rewrite United States history. In August, The New York Times began the 1619 Project, a sprawling effort led by a team of black reporters to look at America’s past and present through the lens of slavery. In the modes of modern capitalism, in Atlanta traffic jams, and in Americans’ overconsumption of sugar, for example, the project’s authors find origin stories in slavery. The goal is to show how intimately interwoven the country is with slavery’s legacy.

Whatever one thinks of the series – and there are numerous critics, particularly among conservatives – it points to an extraordinary moment that is beyond partisanship and worth noting. The nation’s dialogue about race is changing dramatically.

Our cover story this week examines a different aspect of that change. Unprecedented numbers of African Americans are tracing their ancestral roots back through slavery to Africa itself. The two are connected – the 1619 Project and our cover story. And not just because they are pegged to the 400th anniversary of the advent of African slavery in the American colonies. They are connected by an attempt to regain what was lost.

In reading Clara Germani’s cover story this week, you can’t help but feel viscerally how thoroughly black history was wiped from the American consciousness. Until new technologies allowed for at-home genetic tests, many black Americans had no way to trace their lineage back before the Civil War. Their histories were literally blank, bound only by the horrors of slavery – forced labor, rape, and the breaking up of families.

Imagine if white Americans only knew they were from “Europe.” What cultural diversity would have been lost in the traditions of Italian Americans, Irish Americans, and German Americans, to name a few? 

Now, for the first time, many black Americans are able to claim their heritage and build from it a richer sense of their identity and past. The 1619 Project, at its core, is about the same thing, really. My point is not to condone or criticize the journalism, but to recognize that black journalists have an unprecedented platform to share how America looks through their eyes. Is it any wonder that it differs from the portrait that white America has painted?

One does not invalidate the other. In truth, America has always been the sum of all its parts, though only one narrative was really heard. There is pain and reckoning in the narrative of black America. But to read Clara’s story is to see indisputably that there is also hope, faith, and grace beyond imagining. There is America, and a more nuanced and real portrait of its never-ending quest to form a more perfect union.

Race is rarely an easy topic. But an America that can find a symphony in all its voices is the greatest possible gift to the world. No nation has yet realized the truth that all men and women are created equal. But the power of the promise remains and will be fulfilled not by the actions of the past but the choices of the present.

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About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

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