Combating Racism – Understanding History – The 1619 Project

The cover of the August 18, 2019 New York Times magazine bears this quote:

In August of 1619, a ship appeared on this horizon, near Pont Comfort, a costal port in the British colony of Virginia. It carried more than 20 enslaved Africans, who were sold to the colonists. American was not yet America, but this was the moment it began. No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the 250 years of slavery that followed. On the 400th anniversary of this fateful moment, it is finally time to tell our story truthfully.

The 1619 Project — a major initiative from The New York Times — is intended to reframe American history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the center of our national narrative — the story we tell ourselves about who we are as a country.  The August 18, 2019 issue contains 17 essays on different aspects of contemporary American life that have their roots in slavery and its aftermath. Each essay is written by a contemporary Black writer and brings to life consequential moments in African-American history. Nikole Hannah-Jones, key author of The 1619 Project, won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for her journalism.

The front page of the 1619 Project includes the words “It is finally time to tell our story truthfully.” But what does that phrase mean? Objectively? Comprehensively? Conclusively?

No serious historian doubts the centrality of slavery in the period up through the Civil War or its ongoing legacies, evident in the persistence of racism, systemic discrimination, and gross disparities in income, wealth, health, educational attainment, and criminal justice — as well as upon every facet of American culture, including the nation’s foodways, music, religious practices, speech patterns, vocabulary, literature and much more. Some have called the project "a much needed corrective to the blindly celebratory histories."

But the reaction to the project was not universally enthusiastic. The Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, quietly circulated a letter objecting to the project. The letter acquired only four signatures — James McPherson, Gordon Wood, Victoria Bynum and James Oakes — all leading scholars in their field (other similarly noted historians declined to sign the letter). They expressed “strong reservations” about the project and accused the authors of a “displacement of historical understanding by ideology.” Wilentz wrote that “No effort to educate the public in order to advance social justice can afford to dispense with a respect for basic facts.”

Criticisms of The 1619 Project by major historians focus primarily on:

  • Its omissions, including the failure to discuss the dispossession of indigenous homelands.
  • Its failure to take into account the biracial struggle against slavery and discrimination.
  • Its effort to reframe American history by considering 1619 as the year of our nation’s true founding.
  • Its failure to recognize that U.S. history has involved an ongoing, incomplete struggle about whether this country will live up to its founding ideals.
  • Its claim that the American Revolution was waged against Britain to protect the institution of slavery.
  • Its lack of nuance, whether about the motives of the American revolutionaries or Abraham Lincoln’s attitudes toward slavery and racial equality.
  • Its overstatement of slavery’s role in the nation’s wealth accumulation and economic growth.
  • Its minimizing the importance of change and struggle over time.

In December 2019, twelve scholars and political scientists specializing in the American Civil War sent a letter to the Times saying that "The 1619 Project offers a historically-limited view of slavery." While agreeing to the importance of examining American slavery, they objected to what they described as the portrayal of slavery as a uniquely American phenomenon, to construing slavery as a capitalist venture, and to presenting out-of-context quotes of a conversation between Abraham Lincoln and "five esteemed free black men." Times editor Jake Silverstein replied with a rebuttal.

In January 2020, historian Dr. Susan Parker, who specializes in the studies of Colonial United States at Flagler College, noted that slavery existed before any of the 13 colonies in a settlement known as San Miguel de Gualdape in 1526. Additional historians agreed that slavery was present decades before the year 1619 and that, in ignoring the earlier settlement, The Project 1619 authors were "robbing black history".

Significant controversy has centered on the project's claim that "one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery". Professor Wilentz noted that the claim that there was a "perceptible British threat to American slavery in 1776" is an ahistorical assertion. (The Times has clarified this statement.) He further noted that the project omitted the numerous attempts to outlaw — or impose prohibitive duties on — the slave trade by several colonies from 1769 to 1774. Historians critical of The 1619 Project have noted that many of America’s Founding Fathers, such as John Adams, James Otis, and Thomas Paine opposed slavery. They have also noted that every state north of Maryland took steps to abolish slavery following the Revolution.

According to an article in The Washington Post, Arkansas press magnate, Walter E. Hussman, is a prominent foe of Nikole Hannah-Jones, the investigative journalist who created the landmark 1619 Project. Hussman, who is White, took issue with her statement that Blacks "for the most part. . . .fought back alone" against discrimination, violence, and subjugation. Hussman claims this statement fails to reflect the contributions of abolitionists and other who sought emancipation and equality throughout American history.

EDUCATIONAL OUTREACH

U.S. history is often taught and popularly understood through the lens of its great men, such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who are seen as heroes in a global struggle for human freedom. Viewed from the perspective of those historically denied the rights enumerated in American’s founding documents, the story of the country’s great men necessarily looks very different.

A report last year from the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights and advocacy organization, found there is currently no systematic approach to teaching slavery in schools — and lessons often miss crucial components of this fundamental American topic. It’s taught as a Southern phenomenon, rather than something originally sanctioned in the Constitution, and the voices and experiences of enslaved people are generally left out. Many teachers surveyed said they were concerned about terrifying black children or making white children feel guilty.

The Pulitzer Center, a non-profit organization dedicated to raising awareness of underreported global issues by supporting quality journalism and programs of education and public outreach, partnered with The New York Times, to develop a curriculum and educational outreach efforts to bring this material to students. The curriculum invites students to examine the history and the legacy of slavery in the United States, as well as in our national memory. [NOTE: The Pulitzer Center is not affiliated with Columbia University’s Pulitzer Prizes.]

The Pulitzer Center curriculum offers discussion questions and guided reading, as well as activities that are aligned with the Common Core State Standards. Fareed Mostoufi, the senior education manager for the Pulitzer Center, said editors at The New York Times were eager for educators across grade levels to reconsider how slavery is taught.

The reading guide for the issue includes broad questions that can be posed to students even if they’re not ready to read the full project, he added. And the Pulitzer Center pulled out quotes and key names, dates, and terms from each essay in the 1619 Project, so educators can identify which ones are right for their students.

The Pulitzer Center is also offering grants to 40 educators in 2021 to develop standards-aligned units meant to engage students with the project or related content. Since the project's publication in August 2019, related curricular materials have reached approximately 4,500 classrooms, according to the Pulitzer Center's website, and at least five school systems have adopted it districtwide, including Chicago Public Schools and District of Columbia Public Schools.

Mark Schulte, the K-12 education director for the Pulitzer Center, said “I have to believe that this is going to really change the way history is being taught in this country.”

In an article in Inside Higher Ed, Steven Mintz, a professor of history at the University of Texas, wrote that, “Teaching students how to think historically is a noble ideal, but an aim that is very difficult to implement in practice. In my view, it is impossible for students to grasp history without some sense of the big picture. This requires students to view history not as a succession of heroes or separate, disconnected events, but in terms of overarching themes, critical debates and periodization.”

U.S. history and social studies, perhaps more than any other K-12 fields of study, evoke controversy over what should be taught and who should decide. Legislatures frequently intervene and mandate coverage of particular topics. State boards of education sometimes select textbooks and spell out curricula. The College Board, through its Advanced Placement courses, helps dictate topical coverage and the way the subjects are treated. Then there are classroom teachers who have some leeway in how and what to teach. And finally, there is a diverse public, which, through its protests and complaints, can shape the method and practice of teaching, topics covered, and their interpretation.

In an effort to avoid controversy and better align middle and high school curricula with college expectations, history and social studies teachers increasing say that they teach students how to think rather than what to think. The recommended approach is to emphasize critical thinking skills rather than simply describe foundational events by teaching students how to formulate questions, conduct research, evaluate sources and synthesize information.

CURBING THE PROJECT'S IMPACT

As of mid-May, legislation has passed in Idaho, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Tennessee, outlawing critical race theory teachings. Lawmakers in at least five other states — South Dakota, Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Texas — have introduced legislation that would prohibit schools from teaching The 1619 Project or cut funding from those that do. On February 9, 2021 Iowa House Bill 222 won subcommittee approval, making it eligible for consideration by the state’s House Education Committee. The bill would ban schools, colleges, and regents institutions from incorporating the 1619 Project or "any similarly developed curriculum" in U.S history classes and would take away state aid from institutions that use it. Lawmakers argued that the curriculum inspired by the project "attempts to deny or obfuscate the fundamental principles upon which the United States was founded."

In July 2020, Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas proposed the "Saving American History Act of 2020", prohibiting K-12 schools from using federal funds to teach curriculum related to the 1619 project, and make schools that did ineligible for federal professional-development grants. Cotton added that "The 1619 Project is a racially divisive and revisionist account of history that threatens the integrity of the Union by denying the true principles on which it was founded."

According to an article in last week's Washington Post, students, parents, and teachers in Round Rock, Texas, a diverse Austin suburb, spent last summer studying how to combat generations of systemic racism. "Teachers say that administrators and school board members have been supportive of a more inclusive approach to history and an honest assessment of the nation's failures in addition to its successes." Now Republican legislators have passed a bill that will restrict how teachers talk about race and current events. Governor Greg Abbott is expected to sign the bill. The sponsor of the bill, State Representative Steve Toth, described the theory as a "souped-up version of Marxism" and said his bill "is about teaching racial harmony by telling the truth that we are all equal, both in God's eyes and our founding documents." Educators have countered that "We the people . . " as initially conceived, left out just about everyone who wasn't a White male property owner and that teaching students otherwise would be dishonest.

Efforts to curb the project's impact in classrooms reached the federal level in the months leading up to January 20th. The President ignited controversy when he said that the project "rewrites American history to teach our children that we were founded on the principle of oppression, not freedom," and encouraged communities to reassert “control of how children receive patriotic education in their schools."

Those supporting the project say attempts to ban curriculum based on it are a form of censorship and prevent students from engaging in important discussions.

India Meissel, former president of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), sent in an email to K-12 Dive — an organization that provides news and analysis for leaders in K-12 education. In it, she wrote, "I believe that some of the controversy comes in that many people see this as a desire to totally rewrite American history. It is not. . . the project is not the only resource being used to teach America's history, it is "an important one" that incorporates in the curriculum traditionally underrepresented Black voices."

Anton Schulzki, the president-elect of NCSS, said social studies educators and their insights are often overlooked by "well-meaning, but oftentimes ill-informed" lawmakers pushing what should be taught in classrooms.

"The kerfuffle over the 1619 Project, in particular, is the latest attempt to wade into what should be taught in schools. Rather than allowing educators to make the best decisions for appropriate curriculum materials, there seems to be a rush to judgment about one set of resources," he wrote in an email to K-12 Dive. "Indeed the hallmark of quality social studies education is to examine a variety of sources and to teach students to read, write and think critically about those sources," he added.

CONCLUSION

The New York Times special section has prompted a serious reflection about this nation’s past and about history education more broadly.

The 1619 Project is part of a broader argument that the underlying forces driving U.S. history are racism and xenophobia, capitalist exploitation of labor and natural resources, hierarchy (including gendered hierarchies), and greed and that has produced a society that is distinctive in its propensity toward violence, veneration of guns, and extreme and corrosive individualism.

Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, drew a useful distinction between literal or objective truth -— a set of agreed-upon names, dates and events — and historical truth — how events are remembered, experienced and felt. Freud's approach acknowledged that the past invariably impinges upon the present, and that lived experience possesses truth value even if it isn’t exactly correct.

For Freud, the meaning of past incidents only becomes apparent in retrospect. Such a perspective might help us understand that the true meaning and consequences of our society’s experience with slavery only manifests itself over time. Factual and human truths may differ, but both fall under truth’s rubric.

America’s students need an honest, fair-minded understanding of the past, not a whitewashed, sanitized version. They need to engage with this country’s profound contradictions: that a land of opportunity and a haven for religious freedom, with its soaring ideals of liberty and equality and unmatched technological and scientific achievements, could, simultaneously, be a place of displacement and dispossession, slavery, discrimination, and violence and death without a counterpart in the 19th-century Western world.

History is best understood not as a fixed body of knowledge but as an ongoing debate. It is constantly rewritten as public interests shift, new voices enter the conversation and new interpretive frameworks arise. We should always welcome fresh viewpoints, no matter how unsettling or controversial. But we should also subject those views to close, critical scrutiny.

As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in 1936, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

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Additional focus will be given to The 1619 Project in future newsletters. Stay tuned!

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