The 1619 Project is the Common Read for 2020

Mount Holyoke College’s Common Read for 2020 will be prose essays from The New York Times Magazine’s ongoing initiative The 1619 Project.

By Christian Feuerstein

Mount Holyoke College’s Common Read for 2020 will be selected prose essays from The New York Times Magazine’s ongoing initiative The 1619 Project.

“I am really excited that the selection committee chose articles from The 1619 Project,” said Amber Douglas, dean of studies and director of student success initiatives. “The 1619 Project is powerful and important. Now, more than ever, it is essential that we as a community, engage with the history of the transatlantic slave trade and its enduring legacy of  systematic anti-Black racism, oppression and violence in this country. It is important for us to learn how to engage with difficult topics with respect—to struggle with difficult and evocative material—to experience discomfort in that process and to have what we read, the ideas, change us.”

The 1619 Project was published in 2019 with the goal of re-examining the legacy of slavery in the United States and timed for the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in Virginia. 

The project, helmed by Nikole Hannah-Jones, a staff writer at the magazine, includes essays on the history of different aspects of contemporary American life, which the authors argue have roots in slavery and its aftermath. 

Hannah-Jones was awarded the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for commentary for the lead essay in the project.

Ali Aslam, assistant professor of politics and member of the committee that chose this year’s Common Read, noted The 1619 Project’s timeliness. 

“For me, The 1619 Project felt urgent before the marches and protests that followed the killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police,” he said. “My hope is that we can grasp, with the help of the essays, just how pervasive and deeply ingrained slavery and its legacy are in American culture, norms and ideals.” 

Michelle J. Markley, professor of geology and also a member of the selection committee, concurred. 

“The 1619 Project is in a different format than previous selections — essays that touch on a wide range of topics, such as politics, economics, music, history, agriculture, urban planning, medicine and health care,” she said. “Our hope is that this wide range of short essays will encourage more faculty to assign and discuss parts of the Common Read in more courses than usual.” 

The written essays were the focus for the Common Read, rather than photo essays or podcasts, to be mindful of accessibility and access for students. The essays were written by a wide variety of authors on far-ranging topics, including attorney Bryan Stevenson on mass incarceration, journalist Linda Villarosa on medical inequality, Times critic Wesley Morris on American popular music, Times columnist Jamelle Boule on reactionary politics, sociologist Matthew Desmond on American capitalism and its roots, and more.  

The Common Read began in 2000 as part of the College’s annual Orientation and is open to the College community, including prospective and current students, faculty, staff and alums. Those who are not current Mount Holyoke College students, faculty, or staff members can access a free PDF of the August 18, 2019 New York Times Magazine issue on the Pulitzer Center website. (Note that this free PDF may not be fully accessible.) 

Discussions around the Common Read are the first intellectual dialogue based on a shared text that new students have at Mount Holyoke, as they start to learn how to express themselves about complex issues while building community. They will continue the discussion into their fall classes and throughout the year.