The Destructive 400-Year Old Legacy of Slavery
To present an entertaining and informative history podcast on an obscure or lesser-known topic is an admirable and novel feat, but to present a new podcast on a topic that has been thoroughly researched and meditated upon since the times in which it was happening, is a task in and of itself.
1619, a podcast that was created by New York Times correspondent Nikole Hannah-Jones as part of the larger 1619 project, takes up that baton to weave a narrative that extends from the moment the first cargo ship carrying slaves set sail four hundred years ago, to the present day.
In this endeavor, she is using the podcast form to presents the brutal legacy of slavery—its factors and its implications— in a digestible format that the younger generation can engage with.
The multi-part history podcast that debuted August 23, 2019, is not meant to be exhaustive or particularly linear in and of itself. Hannah-Jones dispenses with the idea of telling the story point by point and instead intertwines moments both great and small, famous and infamous, personal and historical to tell the story.
This is a smart move on her part, as when listening to the show, one can’t help but see the dots that she is connecting from events of centuries ago with the newsprint that is being typed for tomorrow’s headlines.
She explains early on that the struggle for basic human rights that begin when that first cargo ship touched land was not one solely for those first slaves, nor merely for their descendants who endured unspeakable treatment, but for all people.
So by bridging the gap between then and now, the podcast becomes just as much about today as it is about the periods that followed the reconstruction and the civil rights movement.
Conversation and Contradiction
One of the main ways in which Hannah-Jones frames these moments is with her own experiences growing up, as well as the experience of her parents and grandparents. In particular, she speaks of her own disillusionment from an early age with the idea that she has agency here, in her home country.
She examines the complex legacy of slavery affected different generations—both directly and indirectly— and how the conversations between these generations are equally as complicated. She does this however as a vehicle to make her overarching point: how inherent contradictions were built into the legacy of slavery and racial discrimination.
The podcast really begins to shine when she takes on these moments of blatant hypocrisy. So when she illuminates a moment like when the founding fathers were running into some major cognitive dissonance as they were drafting the founding documents of our nation.
By framing the scene in way that explains how a phrase like, "that all men are created equal" ends up as a statement of purpose in such a revolutionary document, but is in turn spoken from the lips of men who disregarded the idea of affording this same status to the slaves they owned, the listener can really feel the twist of the betrayal. They can understand how such a crucial and yet somehow "trivial" decision set the stage for a brutal future for the thousands of men and women who were and would be enslaved.
In the same spirit, Hannah-Jones walks us through an anecdote about a serviceman who was mercilessly beaten in public only hours after returning from abroad. The irony that is at play in this vignette is as incredible as it is terrible. Its inclusion in the episode sheds light on how deep the roots of discrimination and dehumanization were that a man who has just returned from fighting for the United States in World War II could have received such treatment.
These small vignettes are mostly free of commentary and are followed by a pregnant pause. These moments allow the listener to peek into the darkness that pervades these vicious instances in American history just enough to grab you, while also letting you fill in the decades that separate each moment presented.
How The Story Will Be Told
It is not immediately clear if there’s going to be a certain structure that these episodes will take on going forward, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. These initial episodes— two have been released as of this writing— allow Hannah-Jones the ability to find ways that will best serve the topics at hand, and finds elements that will breathe different perspectives into the story. It is not just a story of those who struggled through these times, but also the factors and actors that brought them into play.
So whereas the first episode naturally set the table for the main focus of the series, the second episode took a particular element of the entire history of the subject—that of cotton, specifically the industry thereof— and used it as a jumping-off point to bring other unique factors into the larger story.
For example, this particular episode features NYT contributor and writer Matthew Desmond, who helps to trace the crop’s impacts economically and politically, while also tying these points to the contemporary era.
In this instance, in particular, they catalog the shared connotations that the rise and fall of the cotton industry in the post-Civil War south with the housing market crash of the mid-2000s.
Though clearly the series bears the mark of exhaustive research, it is not outwardly academic in its approach. More so, it dances along the barriers of the personal, political, complicated, past, present, and future of the struggle.
And though Hannah-Jones is at the center of the project, she calls on archival audio and outside contributors— author Jesmyn Ward reads a beautiful excerpt of prose in episode two— to help tell the story by way of the big detours that extend off the main timeline.
After all, this is a story that will not need to be told and re-told. Hannah-Jones knows this but also knows more so of the importance to tell the story in an engaging and purposeful way. It seems like no accident that early in the first episode, an archival clip is shared of a gentleman who was part of a slave lineage that leads directly back to Thomas Jefferson himself.
The gentleman explains his reluctance to speak about his experiences as a slave, saying, “I don’t like to talk about it, because it makes people feel sad.”
Hannah-Jones uses this clip as a sort of lever that sets the series into motion, with the insinuation that she will help to tell the story that so many have heard, and yet still don’t want to always hear again.
Though it may difficult to hear at times, and for Hannah-Jones to tell, the takeaway from this new podcast seems to be that these implications that are discussed will still ring true today in ways in which might not directly relate to the legacy of slavery, but will nonetheless continue to reflect those events 400 years ago tomorrow, and forever after.