“The 1619 Project” and Black Resistance in a Time of #BlackLivesMatter
If you ask any American when slavery began in what became the United States, they will tell you 1619. This is thanks to the Pulitzer-prize winning 1619 Project directed by the journalist, Nicole Hannah-Jones. Filled with testimonies of Blacks who endured slavery as well as the work of many collaborators illuminating white supremacy across US institutions, it makes the argument that US history did not begin in 1776, but that the arrival of enslaved Africans in 1619 marks the true beginning of our origins as a nation.
This project has been highly influential, albeit with controversy. It has come from noted Black historian Nell Irvin Painter, who has both argued that Africans who arrived in 1619 were not slaves, but indentured servants. Like other indentured servants in Jamestown), they gained freedom and were even able to own land. Carole Swain has made a similar argument and is connected to a group of Black intellectuals across the political spectrum who commemorate 1776 as the founding of the United States as well as a symbol of independence both achieved and to come. (I don’t care about critiques from white historians who have no investment in Black liberation. Sorry, not sorry.)
Unfortunately, I have found both these 1619 arguments and counternarratives glaringly incomplete. I am concerned that the oppression of Blacks in America has been underestimated and that an exclusive focus on it may inadvertently serve the purposes of white supremacy. I have been frustrated with the idea that Blacks and what became the United States have been, as Ibram Kendi argues, “stamped from the beginning” with anti-black racism. I often think, “What beginning?” The Black presence in the continental United States? The start of our nation? Independence? These are not the same and should not be confused. With the flourishing of the #BlackLivesMatter as a social movement against police brutality specifically and Black subjugation more generally, it is important to tell a different truth.
The first enslaved Africans arrived in what would become the United States in 1526, not 1619. Led by the colonizer Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón, the Spanish moved these enslaved Africans from the Caribbean to establish a colony in today’s Georgia or South Carolina. The colony was called San Miguel de Gualdape and it occurred almost 100 years before the Jamestown settlement we are more familiar with. However, it was a failure less than six months into its founding.
These enslaved Africans revolted against their masters, burned down their homes, and ran away to live with American Indians. Along with Spanish mutineers, this is likely the first cross-racial alliance for freedom in what became the United States. As a consequence, the Spanish starved and the colony failed. It took more than another ten years before Hernando de Soto, enslaver and colonizer, brought more enslaved Africans to Florida in 1539, eighty years before the Jamestown settlement.
We usually do not learn about this first, failed attempt to enslave Africans in what became the United States in our history books. Doing so would challenge the assumed white superiority and success that permeates the dogma of a racist society. However, it is far from the only one in US history. According to Joel A. Rogers, the renowned Chicago Defender journalist and author of Amazing Facts About the Negro, there were 33 slave rebellions in the United States between 1526 and 1859. Henry Louis Gates, who was inspired by Rogers in creating his book of the same name, points to seven major rebellions that occurred in US history. As the historian Robin DG Kelley showed in Race Rebels, enslaved Blacks would engage in work stoppages, breaking tools and of course, running away as ways to challenge their enslavement. Albeit uncommon, suicide and infanticide were other ways that the enslaved challenged their subjugation. As a Nigerian-Igbo-American, the story of Ibo’s Landing, where enslaved Igbos committed mass suicide rather than remain enslaved has personal resonance. These forms of resistance are in relation to hundreds of rebellions of enslaved Blacks across the Western hemisphere, including in Brazil, which received thirteen times the number of slaves as the United States. Certainly, indigenous peoples across the Americas, fighting the same colonizers and enslavers, were involved in many of these efforts. Sometimes these forms of resistance involved cross-racial alliances with whites; often they did not.
Living in a racist society means that the history of Black America can become twisted to fit white supremacist agendas, whether or not its intentional. Mainly, these omissions in Black public history are largely due to a bias favoring the Northeast, where our centers of financial and political power are located. Although the United States was birthed in the 13 colonies, exclusively linking it to Black American history is pernicious, risks allowing the seeds of Afro-pessimism to blossom, and makes anti-blackness appear inevitable and ineffaceable. Along with Kanye West’s claims about US Blacks “choosing slavery” or some Black immigrants’ stereotypes that there was a lack of Black slave uprisings, the exclusive focus on 1619 takes Black subordination for granted in ways that are ahistorical at best and white supremacist at worst.
As a research scientist who values empirical evidence, I think it’s important to recognize that #BlackLivesMatter is the most recent iteration of Black resistance. Enslaved Black Americans fought off their oppressors from the very beginning of their presence here. It is also important to set the record straight: 1619 is not the beginning of US slavery. It is 1526. Rather than recognizing 400 years of Black oppression, shifting our perspective to 1526 enables us to celebrate reclaiming Black humanity for almost half a millennium. In a post-pandemic 2026, I expect all of us to give a toast to 500 years of Black freedom fighters throughout our history.