Jason D. Hill, What The 1619 Project gets wrong.
The 1619 Project on slavery is a program organized by The New York Times in 2019 under the auspices of one of its chief staff writers, Nikole Hanna-Jones, with the goal of re-examining the legacy of slavery in the United States — and timed for the 400th anniversary of the arrival in America of the first enslaved people from West Africa. The goal of the project is to reframe the country’s history, and to establish 1619 as true a founding of America as was the formal 1776 creation of the United States of America. The essays range in scope from attempting to prove how modern American capitalism is indelibly tied to slavery, to the alleged massive contributions the backward agrarian Southern institution of slavery actually made to the financial magnificence of the United States.
What I hope to establish in this article is not an attack against the 1619 Project — which has many well-documented nefarious components. I’d like to offer something different: a philosophical-anthropological account of why I believe chattel slavery was the inevitable outcome of a clash between the presence of a manifest destiny of European man, and the absence of one in African and, generally speaking—Indigenous Man.
When European Man and African Man first encountered each other it must have been a shock to the sensibilities of both. Having established a particular relationship to the earth that differed greatly from that of African man, European man saw himself as more than custodian of the earth—he was its earthly owner who exercised Divine dominion over it. He had done this by creating an abstract personality that had devised a method of exploiting and conquering nature to adapt it to suit his needs. He had, in effect, divorced himself from his animality, transcended it, and placed nature in a subordinate position which he dominated and controlled with weapons, tools and reason. Objects he encountered, including soil, trees, animals, minerals and figures resembling human-beings outside the historical process who presented themselves as part of nature—were treated as nature; that is, they were simply appropriated, controlled, taken out of the state of nature and commodified into socially useful artifacts for human consumption.
When European Man encountered African Man or Indigenous Man, he did not discover one that was his military or technological equal. What he found was one that presented himself as irrevocably tied to his animal nature. Indigenous Man presented himself as a natural creature having not yet transformed himself out of biological time into historical time, from a conception of himself as cyclical biological creature into an epoch-making world historical man. Indigenous Man did not have these attributes and he was, literally, there for the taking — like the water buffalo and minerals and other resources around him. Had he transformed himself out of biological time into historical time, he would have devised the proper self-defense against conquest. European domination was made possible by the arrested epistemological development and faulty metaphysics of Indigenous Man that allowed for his rapacious conquest. He was seen as existing in a fallowed state of nature.
Man becomes historical by creating new worlds; new worlds that are symbolic and cultural in form which have no formal spiritual animal equivalent. Man as an evolved being severs his spiritual ties with his animal past and in the process engages in massive repression. Once man co-extends his animality into space and promotes and lives in biological time, his self-domestication and, therefore, self-maturation, is retarded and the reigning in of his animal self is a process that is fetishized. The animal within one needed no special encouragement. Rather, it is the birth of a self divorced from nature that will enter the historical process. A self that does not make this achievement will lose the battle to historical man.
The problem with Indigenous Man was that he could not extend his imagination into a world that stretched far beyond his immediate sight. Unable to construct powerful naval configurations that could dominate the high seas and reach into territories beyond, Indigenous Man’s physical, existential groping consisted in nearby raids and attacks close to the womb-like hearth where protective retreat into the zones of the primal tribe was always possible. He never learned to turn away from the ever-cyclical and adaptive behavior of animal species and create colossal conquests of his own. Formal detachment and projection into an infinite future were absent from the range of his possibilities. Mimicry and imitation — whether of the ancestral world or the animal word — is the ruling principle of Indigenous Man. Radical innovation would upset an unknowable order ruled by implacable and ineffable deities whose irreversible punishments would bring catastrophic designs on a people. Indigenous Man’s entire use of whatever semblance of reason he utilized was to divine the minds of the gods in order to placate them and to preempt them.
European Man, by contrast, used his reason to justify and align his will with God’s will. If he willed to conquer the majority of so-called uncivilized lands, then that was God’s will all along. European Man has never truly feared God in the way Indigenous Man has feared his gods. European man was not a renter, a mere custodian and grateful equal opportunity dweller on the face of the earth: this earth belonged to him and he was God’s earthly representative on it — period. European Man saw himself as God made visible on earth.
European Man felt his loneliness because of a detachment from his animality and his unsentimental domestication of nature. He placed himself above nature, and did not worship, extol or venerate the creatures he willingly slaughtered as do many New World indigenous peoples. He did not pray to their spirits for guidance, or take on their likeness for deeper insight into an alternate reality. He therefore alienated himself from his primeval roots. To recover the roots he had betrayed and can never recover, he set out on a path of territorial conquests which were symbolic homes from the hearths that he had abandoned, the roots he had severed, the primal scene he had fled. The conquests were not just a substitute for a discarded home within — they were a sign of physical and spiritual potency and omnipotence writ large: the world was his home and belonged to him. Was this not the audacious belief of tiny England when it dared and did conquer and occupy at one time one-third of the earth?
European Man has always labored under the conception of himself as a post-human figure. Modern civilization was made by mandates handed down by God, or by the rational construct of man’s mind. European Man, even when mired in tribal configurations, was always in flight from his roots to a large extent and, therefore, has always sought to forget from whence he came through explorative conquests. Explorative European Man, unlike Indigenous Man, declared himself eternally independent from and, in some degree, in contempt of primordial nature. For European Man it is not only that nature cannot be sentimentalized. It must be commanded, subdued and conquered.
To begin a historical process, one must often leave origins behind and possess the absolute hubris to act as one’s own causa sui and begin a journey with one’s people out of which one creates a comprehensive mythology. One and one’s cultural milieu become the standpoint and the backdrop against which knowledge begins, and against which justification for moral action occurs.
Indigenous Man was not written out of history by European Man. His own cosmogonies canceled him out of the realm of high artifice. The subordination of nature and radical adaption of nature to man’s needs is the juncture where history begins. Indigenous Man’s cosmogonies never emancipated him from the reality of flux and chaos that he needed in order to be catapulted into the epochal realm of mastery, domination and conquest. It is not accidental that African Man’s dugout canoes and larger ships were never equipped to cross the high seas into Europe and conquer the British Isles. The cognitive feats of abstractions and mathematical computations required were absent. Perhaps they were missing because lacking in his thinking was a conception of a God who existed outside his creation that gave him cosmic significance and, more importantly, “cosmic specialness.”
Although Indigenous Man had local rites of passage that turned on heroic tropes within his small local tribes and that were validated via small-scale conquests of other tribal units within nearby compounds or at best, across the nearby waters, these conquests and local discoveries never gave him the cosmic grandeur of a universal aspirational identity and consciousness attained by European Man.
Indigenous Man’s cosmogonies canceled him out of the historical process because they never equipped him to aspire to become a universal man; the measure of all things. Primordial cosmogony was always in flux, dependent on the weather, the unruly demons, or the ineffable gods who ruled the cosmos, or the tribal chiefs who had access to them and whose whims and moods determined the moods and nature of the gods themselves.
European colonial expansion can be seen in several lights. One could say European man transformed each colonial outpost into an aspirational domain where, say, any Englishman, could realize himself and become who he thought he was meant to be in the world. These colonies were transformational units that, to the European cosmogony and moral imagination, were parts of a whole in a mechanistic rational universe. Disenfranchised individuals were not so much regarded as social ballasts as they were inanimate parts of nature to be appropriated and transformed out of nature into commodifiable material units.
It was on such terms that the New World was founded. The United States was the legatee of such a tradition. Paradoxically, in the seeds of its founding also lay the principles for the liberal emancipation of those who had been enslaved and left outside the historical process. It is to America’s greatness that, beginning in 1776, she created a complex and often tendentious system that would eventually widen the pantheon of the human community to liberate and universalize those locked out of the domain of the ethical. The United States had built in constitutive, regulative features of self-criticism, self-reflexivity, and self-correction. The road was messy, but the forward-looking intention of the principles were clear: all human beings were created equal. None today, in the United States of America, is locked outside of the historical process.
Jason D. Hill is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center and a professor of philosophy at DePaul University in Chicago. His areas of specialization include ethics, social and political philosophy, American foreign policy and American politics. He is the author of several books, including “We Have Overcome: An Immigrant’s Letter to the American People” (Bombardier Books/Post Hill Press).