The Slow-Cooked Sentence

Newspaper report on why slavery seeded U.S. exceptionalism

Rachael Conlin Levy

Upending ideas.

I’m reading The 1619 Project.

The set of essays and literary work explains why the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans are at the heart of our nation’s origin story and are the reasons for its exceptionalism.

The New York Times’ project reframe’s our history to reveal how racial hatred and fear shaped diet, traffic patterns, music, education and public health inequities, economic might, and more. Reading it has pointed out the deficit in my own education as a child, and my continued ignorance as an adult. I’m profoundly challenged by what I’m learning. Here are four things that surprised, sickened, humbled, or offered new perspective:

  1. “The wealth and prominence that allowed … founding fathers to believe they could successfully break off from one of the mightiest empires in the world came from the dizzying profits generated by chattel slavery,” Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote. Slave labor gave the colonies an economic boost and confidence to revolt against the English monarchy. Britain had become deeply conflicted over the issue of slavery, and colonial leaders believed that independence was needed in order to ensure slavery’s continuation. 
  2. President George Washington wore dentures made from the teeth of slaves.
  3. In the years after slavery, black leaders helped establish the first public schools, arguably the most democratic of American institutions, Hannah-Jones wrote. “Public education effectively did not exist in the South before Reconstruction. The white elite sent their children to private schools, while poor white children went without education. But newly freed black people, who had been prohibited from learning to read and write during slavery, were desperate for an education. So black legislators successfully pushed for universal, state-funded system of schools–not just for their own children but for white children, too.”
  4. Hannah-Jones is 43 years old. She is part of the first generation of black Americans to be born with the full rights of citizenship. “For centuries, white Americans have been trying to solve the ‘Negro problem.’ They have dedicated thousands of pages to this endeavor. It is common, still, to point to rates of black poverty, out-of-wedlock births, crime and college attendance, as if these conditions in a country built on a racial caste system are not utterly predictable,” she wrote. “But crucially, you cannot view those statistics while ignoring another: that black people were enslaved here longer than we have been free.”


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