The Impact Of The 1619 Project Two Years Later

The Impact Of The 1619 Project Two Years Later


Leonard Zwelling

In August of 2019, The New York Times devoted one of its entire Sunday Magazine volumes to the 1619 Project. This is essentially the brainchild of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. The idea behind it is that the true history of the United States began in August of 1619 when the first slave ship deposited its human cargo in Virginia and the process that led to the enslavement of what was once about 20% of the souls in the United States began.

Since that Sunday in 2019, the 1619 Project has been the eye in the hurricane of controversy as conservatives rose as one objecting to the teaching of the 1619 Project’s ideas in schools and its apparent rewriting of American history. In fact, 12 states have banned the teaching of the 1619 Project in its K-12 public schools.

Much of this is propagated by those who view history as static. But a brief glance at our current events shows clearly how fluid history really is. No one knows how the assault on Capitol Hill on January 6, 2021 will be recorded in history. In a quote attributed, probably inaccurately to Winston Churchill, “history is written by the victors.” What that really means is that history changes even as the events that constitute history have already occurred. History is always viewed through the filter of current beliefs.

One of the major contentions of the 1619 Project that has proven so controversial is that at least a portion of the cause of the American Revolution was the drive to preserve slavery, especially in the Southern colonies. First, that slavery existed is beyond question. Second, that it was more important to the agrarian South than to the industrializing North is also not arguable. That many of our Founding Fathers (Jefferson, Washington) owned slaves is also beyond doubt. Is it possible that the motivation of some of the key players in the nation’s founding was the means to preserve their wealth? Of course. How can you prove it? That’s the job of historiography, the writing of history which requires research and as such is a scholarly endeavor. It’s what historians do.

The article above comes from The New York Times Magazine of November 14, 2021. It was authored by Jake Silverstein, one of Ms. Hannah-Jones’ supervisors and the editor-in-chief of The NY Times Magazine. The Times is now publishing a book called “The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story” that expands on the concepts in the 2019 issue of the magazine. No doubt it will raise even more hell than the article did. Why?

Actually, it has to be obvious. Many people especially white people, and including me, were taught a version of American history that is filled with heroes and the notion of equality, but that’s not the truth. Many of those heroes were slave owners and a whole lot of people in America were not treated as equals. Those are facts. The real question is what to do about it when history is taught.

The 1619 Project aims to re-examine history and clarify the role that slavery had in forming the United States as it is today and how the forces unleashed by slavery are still active today and affecting current events. It’s the idea behind critical race theory. There are many on the right who resent the possibility that our history may not be what they learned. Heck, I remember being taught in high school that the Civil War was specifically not about slavery, but about states’ rights. Not exactly. It was pretty much about slavery as the Emancipation Proclamation, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow laws tend to substantiate.

History is constantly being rewritten. There is no way that I would have been taught that Thomas Jefferson, the author of “all men are created equal,” actually fathered six children with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves. The real message of the musical Hamilton is not the fact that all those white guys and girls were now portrayed by minority actors rapping out the story. It is that these people were real, with real passions and making real errors.

I share the concerns of some on the right that critical race theory and the 1619 Project cannot be wholesale injected into the curricula of public schools without careful consideration of how to frame these ideas that are contradictory to our most cherished tenets. But, as Mr. Silverstein says at the end of his long piece:

“You could see the pitched battles over public memory that have occurred since (the 1619 Project) as a product of the new history’s corrosive effect on national unity; or you could conclude that a republic founded on an irresolvable contradiction—freedom and slavery—was always going to wind up in irresolvable argument over how to tell the story.”

We have got to face our history—all of it. It’s not just about flags, monuments and the people whose faces are on the money or mountains in South Dakota. These were all flesh and blood humans and they had major flaws. Slavery was one of them. If the 1619 Project helps us better understand where we are today, it is of value. But care must be exercised.

Many democracies today have autocratic histories with major atrocities of which they are not proud. Germany comes to mind. But if you go to Germany today, that country faces its horrible past and teaches it to its children. We should not be afraid to do the same.

2 thoughts on “The Impact Of The 1619 Project Two Years Later”

  1. You have taken on a difficult topic with erudition and honesty about America. Having lived in the South for almost a majority of my life, I have come to understand not only slavery but also the important contributions that African Americans have made to our nation and continue to offer. With that history in mind, working towards a just culture is still a worthy effort.

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