REVIEW: What I Learned Watching 'The 1619 Project' on Hulu (Episodes 3-6)

Nikole Hannah-Jones explains 'Music,' 'Capitalism,' 'Fear,' and 'Justice'

February 25, 2023

Author's note / Disclaimer / Trigger warning: I haven't read The 1619 Project. Not the award-winning essay collection by Nikole Hannah-Jones and the New York Times. Or the best-selling anthology from Random House. Or the award-winning, best-selling children's book for adults. I haven't listened to the podcast, and don't intend to. Not when there are so many better ways to spend one's precious time.

The same is true for the vast majority of Americans, including the vast majority of black Americans. That's obvious, right? Same goes for the vast majority of internet users with strong opinions about whether The 1619 Project should be taught in public schools, and certainly the vast majority of pundits and politicians denouncing or defending it on television. This is often what passes for public discourse in the digital age—a shouting match among the passionately uninformed, while the people who know better (or value their sanity or simply don't care) tune out and say nothing.

What I do know is that America's élite universities are among the most radical purveyors of anti-anti-segregationist racial sensitivity nonsense, and among the quickest to quash even the slightest dissent in the ranks. In this context, the fact that several history professors from Yale, Princeton, Brown, and Northwestern felt strongly enough to criticize The 1619 Project for its historical "errors and distortions" is profoundly damning. I'll take their word for it. 

I also know that anyone—Nikole Hannah-Jones, for example—who charges a public library $900 per minute to tell an audience of bourgeois liberals that the United States is "one of the most unequal societies in the history of the world" might not value historical accuracy as much as other things. Ditto a cultural establishment that promotes her work on numerous platforms and showers her with awards. Perhaps we are meant to take her seriously, but not literally? 

A serious person wouldn't say something so absurd in a public setting and claim it was "a fact." (Or admit to believing in "the zodiac.") But that's just how most Democratic politicians, journalists, and other professional left-wing activists who demand to be taken seriously communicate these days. The world is ending. Democracy is dying. "Jim Crow on steroids." No wonder so many of their kids have turned to domestic terrorism

They teach this bullshit in universities, applaud it at corporate-sponsored diversity summits, and it's available now for streaming on Hulu, a jointly owned subsidiary of NBC Universal and The Walt Disney Company. Because I'm paid to do it, I watched The 1619 Project documentary series.

Here's what I learned from Episodes 3-6 ("Music," "Capitalism," "Fear," and "Justice"):

So it turns out the Nikole Hannah-Jones line about America being "one of the most unequal societies in the history of the world" wasn't some over-the-top Bidenesque ad lib in the heat of the moment. She repeats it verbatim in The 1619 Project Hulu series, several minutes into to the fourth episode about why capitalism is racist and bad.

"Today America stands as one of the most unequal societies in the history of the world."

I'm not an expert, but I don't think that's correct. If I had to guess I would probably say the United States in 2023 is more equal than most of the other societies in world history that did human sacrifice and used slave labor to build exorbitant coffins for dictators and whatnot.

I don't think Hannah-Jones actually believes this; she probably doesn't care either way. When actual historians disputed her claim, in the opening essay of the original "1619 Project" series, that preserving slavery was "one of the primary reasons" for the American Revolution, Hannah-Jones said she was simply "deploying rhetoric" and wished she had been "more careful" because she "didn’t know that that would be such an asset for those who wanted to try to discredit the project."

Indeed. Who knew that making a bunch of sloppy false assertions about history might cause people to question the credibility of your "history" project? Emphasis on project. The 1619 series is a glorified homework assignment: "Pick a subject and explain why it's just like slavery." For example, the original essay on which the "Capitalism" episode is based, written by a Princeton sociology professor, asserts that making an Excel spreadsheet is a business practice "whose roots twist back to slave-labor camps."

In the episode, Hannah-Jones insists that slavery created the "entire financial industry in the nascent United States" and interviews Marxist professors who argue getting paid to work in an Amazon warehouse is the same as being a slave on a plantation. (Jeff Bezos is Gil-Scott Heron's "Whitey on the Moon," obviously.) Capitalism is "complicated," but it's also "that simple" when you consider it "will always be inseparable" from racism and the "exploitation of labor," not to mention the pathology of white workers who choose "racial solidarity over economic interest" because of "white fear," the focal point of Episode 5.

The project is the point

It is often unclear throughout these episodes what Hannah-Jones is trying to accomplish beyond fulfilling the teacher's prompt and getting a gold star for effort. There are only so many ways to describe something—not liking disco music, for example—as "just like slavery" or "inspired by slavery," and Hannah-Jones is eager to exhaust them. This is especially jarring in her interviews with older black people who lived through actual Jim Crow, not the modern-day "steroids" version, nudging them with racial studies buzzwords to agree with her assessment that "the way it is now" is no better than "the way it was back then."

In the "Fear" episode, Hannah-Jones speaks with Elizabeth Hinton, Yale professor of African American Studies, about the "limits" of nonviolent protests, the many ways in which "white supremacy structures American society," and how nothing has changed since the Civil Rights era—as evidenced by the "armored tanks" used to disperse protesters in Ferguson, Mo., following what the Obama Justice Department ultimately found to be the lawful police killing of Michael Brown in 2014. The part about the tanks is not true, obviously. More careless rhetoric. More assets for the discreditors.

The series concludes with the case for reparations, because of course it does. No one knew who Nikole Hannah-Jones was in 2014, when celebrated public intellectual Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote "The Case for Reparations" in the Atlantic and started winning all the awards. Now lots of important people know her name. Now she has all the awards. And yet, nothing has changed. That's the overarching message of the documentary she was paid to make, not to mention all the speaking gigs, which are just like slavery.

There is no hint of self-awareness, no acknowledgment of progress, no sense of hope. Just a call for America to "finally live up to the magnificent ideals upon which we were founded" by paying "the debt it began incurring 400 years ago." Dr. William Darity, a professor at Duke University, tells Hannah-Jones that reparations would cost the federal government at least $14 trillion and could be financed "without raising taxes." It's the "moral" and "logical" thing to do.

The closest the series comes to acknowledging and celebrating progress—without dismissing it as "the exception to the rule"—is in the third episode, "Music," about how the music industry is just like slavery. Hannah-Jones, wearing a velour Nike tracksuit, sits down with her Times colleague Wesley Morris (Yale class of 1997), to discuss white supremacy in music. She interviews a number of successful black musicians and denounces jazz legend Louis Armstrong as a racial sellout. It is by far the most interesting episode in the series.

Morris argues that music is a liberating and unifying force that has managed to achieve "equality and integration" beyond the superficial inclusivity our society tends to encourage and celebrate. When the episode ends, a commercial plays for Xiaflex starring a black couple. A prescription medication for Peyronie's disease, Xiaflex is used to treat men with "a curve in their penis greater than 30 degrees."

That kind of progress is hard to ignore.

REVIEW: What I Learned Watching 'The 1619 Project' on Hulu (Episode 1)

REVIEW: What I Learned Watching 'The 1619 Project' on Hulu (Episode 2)