Behind the Scenes of The 1619 Project

1619 Cover Art

The New York Times Magazine has launched a new initiative that seeks to deepen our understanding of American history. The 1619 Project marks the 400th anniversary of the beginning of slavery in what would later become the United States. The issue shows how this anniversary shaped American history — and contemporary life. To find out more, we chatted with editor-in-chief Jake Silverstein, who gave us the behind the scenes scoop.

This is such a remarkable piece of journalism, from the reporting to the editing to the design. Can you take us behind the scenes on the process — what was the impetus behind launching this project?

Nikole Hannah-Jones, a staff writer at the magazine, brought up the idea in January that this year would be really important — because it would be the 400th anniversary of 1619, the first year that enslaved Africans were brought to the colonies that would become the United States and sold into slavery. We pulled together a pretty amazing roster of people to participate in a brainstorm, and those meetings were really exciting and electrifying. The scholars in the room were some of the most important scholars of African American history in the country, and some of them ended up in the magazine.

From that point, the project grew and then it grew more and more after that. One of the realities that quickly became clear to us, is that it was a rare and important opportunity. The 400th anniversary wasn’t going to come around again, and this was an important moment that we should take advantage of. A lot of the tensions, anxieties, struggles and inequalities covered in the project have come once again to the surface of American life, as they seem to do so over and over again.

This was a really critical opportunity where an anniversary of the past was converging with a moment in the present to try and deepen people’s understanding of this country’s history. We felt that that realization gave us all the more energy to build this project into something bigger and bigger.

As you said, there are so many fantastic contributors to this issue. Can you tell me a little bit about the collaborative process? How were the ideas born and how did they grow?

We quickly came into the notion that the really important work that the issue of the magazine should try to do is to convey to readers that so much of American life that we encounter on a day-to-day basis in 2019 has its roots in the structure of American society during slavery. This wasn’t supposed to only be a historical issue. In fact, I feel like that would’ve been a failure if it was all about the past. We very much wanted it to be a project that tried to help readers understand that certain aspects of this country were built during slavery, and we still live with these structures today.

The goal was then to choose aspects of contemporary American life that we could point to and then trace their history back in time for readers. Ideally, we wanted to choose aspects of contemporary American life that readers might be surprised to learn have their roots in this distant past. Part of the contention of the issue is that the structural legacy of American slavery is all around us, even if we don’t see it — or maybe not all of us see it. Wesley Morris was going to write about popular music. Bryan Stevenson’s piece, instead of being broadly about the criminal justice system and its history, was going to be about mass incarceration. Kevin Kruse, a historian at Princeton, decided to write about traffic. How is it that a rush hour traffic jam can be traced to slavey and the period of time that followed it?

In Nikole’s case, she had an interesting elaboration of this basic conceit of searching for contemporary phenomenon and then finding their historical roots. Her contention, and it’s brilliantly argued in her essay, is that the ideals of American democracy as described in our founding documents were false, and they were written and only applied to white men. They now apply to the whole population, or at least, in theory. That is because of the rights struggles of black Americans from the time of slavery to the present. Her basic idea was to say, because of the hard work of many generations of black Americans, we actually have a real democracy in this country. It’s a compelling and really important argument that she’s making, and one that I hope everybody listens to.

Only a few of the stories from the project have been published so far. What can we expect in the days and weeks to come?

The magazine issue follows this conceit of taking something from the present and showing its historical roots. But we also felt like we did need to do some work to teach people about the history of slavery, because that’s not a topic that’s taught very extensively in our public schools. If we don’t know this history, we’re destined to misunderstand it or not understand how truly horrific it was. So we partnered with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African History & Culture to create a broadsheet section of the newspaper that is kind of like a museum exhibit on paper. That section will arrive in print this weekend and will go online next week.

Part of what we’re trying to do with The 1619 Project is to have work we will continue to publish not only this week, but also next week, the week beyond, the week after that. So this big special collection of stories about the history of slavery will arrive next week. Around the same time, the team behind “The Daily” will launch a multi-episode audio series that will last over the next three to five weeks or so. We have stories coming from the sports desk in the next few days. The travel section of the paper has a story coming probably in September. At this point in time, we have three other stories for the magazine assigned that will probably publish sometime in September or October.

One more thing worth noting: We partnered with the Pulitzer Center, which both funds journalism and also turns journalism into free curricula that can be taught in schools. So they’ve turned everything I’ve just described into free curricula on their website.They have a network of schools all around the country that they work with to get this stuff taught in schools. We will be sending some of our writers on multi-city tours to talk to students, and we will be sending copies of the magazine to high schools and colleges. Because to us, this project really takes wing when young people are able to read this and understand the way that slavery has shaped their country’s history.

This interview was edited and condensed.

This originally appeared on Katie Couric’s Wake-Up Call newsletter.