Arguing about the Past: Why all the fuzz about the 1619 Project?

The 1619 Project is all the rage in conservative circles.  And for the life of me, I can’t figure out why. I still remember when the piece came out a year ago.  I shared the essay from Nikole Hannah-Jones far and wide.  The idea, the concept, spoke to me.  Here is how the project opens:

In August of 1619, a ship appeared on this horizon, near Point Comfort, a coastal port in the English colony of Virginia. It carried more than 20 enslaved Africans, who were sold to the colonists. No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the years of slavery that followed. On the 400th anniversary of this fateful moment, it is finally time to tell our story truthfully.

More specifically, the 1619 Project “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” This is a project about historical memory and how we choose to remember the past.

These opening passages brought to mind David Blight’s work on memory and the historiography of Reconstruction.  As Blight explained elsewhere

we also are aware, as historians, that memory is a social creation. There are collective memories. Lots of memory scholars love to debate whether there is such a thing as collective memory, and how do you know a collective memory when you meet one, and so on, but we do know they exist. Institutions build memories. People create memories. Churches create memories. Nations create memories. And all that really means is that they create narratives. They create stories that go to battle with other stories.

Reading the 1619 Project  reminded me of the question posed by the great historian John Hope Franklin in 1948, “In what direction is Reconstruction historiography moving?” It reminded me of Dubois’ Reconstruction history. It reminded me of “The Dark and Bloody Ground of Reconstruction Historiography.”  It reminded me of the Dunning School and its account of Reconstruction as a “Tragic Era.” It reminded me of modern debates about confederate monuments. It reminded me of Nietzsche’s “On the use and abuse of history for life,” on the centrality of forgetting as a way to remember the past.

What could possibly be wrong with a project that tries to recapture a forgotten past?

A lot, apparently.

***

In a press release introducing the “Saving American History Act of 2020,” Senator Tom Cotton blasted the 1619 Project as “a racially divisive, revisionist account of history that denies the noble principles of freedom and equality on which our nation was founded.”  Accordingly, “[n]ot a single cent of federal funding should go to indoctrinate young Americans with this left-wing garbage.” 

Similarly, Robert Woodson argued that “what they’re doing is rewriting American history — and, unfortunately, they are using those suffering and struggle of black America as a bludgeon to beat America and define America as a criminal organization. And it’s lethal.” To his mind, the 1619 Project “is one of the most diabolical, self-destructive ideas that I’ve ever heard,” Woodson said, adding that it tries to lower the United States to the status of a “criminal organization.”

In recent days, President Trump similarly threatened to cut federal funding from schools that incorporate the 1619 Project into their curriculum. He tweeted, “Department of Education is looking at this. If so, they will not be funded!” The tweet came on the heels of a directive from the President, through the Office of Management and Budget, banning training sessions that are “divisive, anti-American propaganda.” The memo specifically referenced training on “‘critical race theory,’ ‘white privilege,’ or any other training or propaganda effort that teaches or suggests either (1) that the United States is an inherently racist or evil country or (2) that any race or ethnicity is inherently racist or evil.”

More specifically, critics have focused on some factual inaccuracies in the original essays.  In particular, Hannah-Jones’ opening essay states the following: “Conveniently left out of our founding mythology is the fact that one of the primary reasons some of the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.” Weeks before, Leslie Harris, a historian at Northwestern University, asked to fact-check the essay, “vigorously disputed the claim.”  The Times followed up with questions, but in the end did not remove the claim from the published essay.  This worried Professor Harris.  

Overall, the 1619 Project is a much-needed corrective to the blindly celebratory histories that once dominated our understanding of the past—histories that wrongly suggested racism and slavery were not a central part of U.S. history. I was concerned that critics would use the overstated claim to discredit the entire undertaking. So far, that’s exactly what has happened.

Critics have pounced on her response as proof positive that the entire 1619 Project is wrong-headed, ideological and just plain wrong. (For some of these many critiques, see here, and here, and here, and here, and here).

* * *

As I read these critiques, I wonder what their authors think about those moments in our collective past that proffer a country they do not wish to see. What to make of the Constitutional Convention and the various slavery compromises? How to understand the taking of lands from Native American tribes and the breaking of myriad treaties (according to Professor Matt Fletcher, “The rule of thumb is every treaty’s been broken”)? What might they say about the Mexican War? Fugitive Slave Laws and Prigg v. Pennsylvania? The Settlement of Reconstruction? The Chinese Exclusion laws? The War of 1898?

And that’s the point. The fight over the 1619 Project is a fight about how we remember our past. Professor Harris wrote — yet the critics apparently missed it — that “[i]t is easy to correct facts; it is much harder to correct a worldview that consistently ignores and distorts the role of African Americans and race in our history.” Professor David Waldstreicher similarly writes, “[s]eeking to discredit those who wish to explain the persistence of racism, critics of the New York Times’s 1619 Project insist the facts don’t support its proslavery reading of the American Revolution. But they obscure a longstanding debate within the field of U.S. history over that very issue—distorting the full case that can be made for it.” Writing in the Atlantic, Adam Serwer explains that the debate over the 1619 Project “represents a fundamental disagreement over the trajectory of American society.”

This debate reminds me, finally, of Eric Foner’s pointed question, which served as the title of his 2002 book: “Who Owns History?” In the preface, he writes that “[t]here is nothing unusual or sinister in the fact that each generation rewrites history to suit its own needs, or about disagreements within the profession and among the public at large about how history should best be taught and studies.” The debate over the 1619 Project is not new. What is surprising, however, is that some historians seem surprised by that fact.

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