To the 1619 Project: Use More Art, Less Fake History

The Gulf Stream, 1899, by Winslow Homer. Oil on canvas. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Wolfe Fund, 1906)
Look at art before jumping to conclusions.

The 1619 Project, prepared by the New York Times and the Pulitzer Foundation, has taken plenty of hits for factual and intellectual sloppiness and its elevation of ideology — its high-end race baiting — over historical truth. The Project, published in August 2019 as a 100-page standalone issue of the New York Times Magazine, rewrites American history to put anti-black racism at the center of our political, social, and economic evolution since 1619, when 20 slaves arrived in Jamestown, Va. When a journalist starts a story with two whoppers — American patriots rebelled in 1776 to protect the slave system and “all men are created equal” was self-serving rubbish — I’m left in a skeptical frame of mind.

Of course, racism isn’t the gas that powers the American experiment. It’s making money. Still, while racism isn’t, as the Times insists, “our defining feature,” slavery and its aftermath are America’s most enduring tragedies. The 1619 Project is a poignant cultural event rooted in genuine, justifiable aggrievement. In reading it, I learned a lot.

The 1619 Project reads history backward. The reporters at the Times use their standards and perspectives, the 2019 models, to deduce, interpret, and judge what people thought and did hundreds of years ago. Aside from slandering the dead, it’s a recipe for mistakes, dead ends, and distortion. A better way to divine the past is to look at its art.

A good art historian is a connoisseur, certainly, but it’s not called “art history” for nothing. I’ll look at four paintings by Eastman Johnson (1824–1906) and Winslow Homer (1836–1910) created between 1859, when Johnson did Negro Life at the South and 1899, when Homer’s The Gulf Stream appeared.

Johnson already was a well-regarded portraitist, but Negro Life at the South, a multi-figure, choreographed opus, made him America’s most famous painter of everyday life. It’s a chock-full time capsule. It’s a baseline, too. Where did African Americans stand months before secession and war?

Negro Life at the South, 1859, by Eastman Johnson. Oil on canvas. (New York Historical Society)

In his poem “The Road Not Taken,” Robert Frost offers two diverging roads. Johnson, another hardcore New Englander, presents multiples more. It oozes ambivalence and uncertainty, which is a good way of describing where the American middle sat on the eve of a war no one imagined would prove so devastating.

The setting is a dump. Under a collapsing, moss-eaten roof, a young black man — his white shirt catches our eye — chats up a young mixed-race woman. Above them, a dark-skinned woman leans from a window, holding a mixed-race baby. Both look into the distance. An old, onyx-colored banjo player sits in the center, with two young black children idly listening — they seem comatose — and another dancing. A black woman sits by the children. Another dark-skinned girl — she’s too young to be a woman — walks from the steps of the house. A young light-skinned girl in blue points to a well-dressed white woman eavesdropping and a black woman behind her. The house next door is bigger and well-kept, walled-off and seeming to hover.

In 1859, the art critic from the New York Daily Tribune, which editorialized against slavery, believed that Johnson’s picture showed “slavery as it is,” in a ruinous and desolate state and nearing collapse. He jumped to one conclusion — Johnson never tells us whether they’re slaves or not. Many urban blacks were freedmen. By keeping it murky, Johnson seems to question the future not only of slaves but of African Americans as a race.

The Tribune critic found Johnson’s characters simple, careless, indolent, “forgetful, perhaps ignorant of degradation,” entranced by music. Yet the couple woo and flirt, telling us romance and love are universal human conditions embraced by all races. The baby commands the heights, looking to his future. What will it be? Johnson invests in him the capacity to imagine a future, which implies the autonomy to make his own choices and legacy.

The banjo player is a stereotype. Prior to Negro Life at the South, African Americans were often shown playing music or dancing, suggesting that they’ve got rhythm but, aside from brawn, not much else. He’s the past, the end of a brutal history during which bondage was one feature but caricature was another. Placed in the center, he seems the hub from which the others spin. Johnson’s range of skin tones isn’t accidental. He and the seated woman attending the dancing boy are the darkest and the oldest and seem to represent Old South tropes of music maker and caregiver. Blacks were often shown dancing in 1840s and 1850s. Johnson seems to ask whether or not the young boy will simply follow the stereotype. The baby and the young woman are the lightest, along with the young girl in blue pointing to the intruding white “miss.” Is the baby’s father a white man? Yes. Is he the master? Possibly.

The young black man turns his back to us. He’s on the make, leaning in. His companion demurs, as any proper young woman of any race would do. He’s a strapping guy, a laborer, discarding his axe and hoping for a smooch. He’s in courting mode at the moment, but, when he’s got the axe in his hands, he’s weaponized. He evokes black power and sex. He might be dangerous.

Johnson has created a stage set and enacted a mystery sans dead body. The young white woman is seeing a secret world, a universe parallel to hers but separate. That’s one feature of America in 1859. Few Northerners — and Johnson’s audience was Northern — knew blacks as anything but abstractions, though the future of black America was becoming their urgent, ugly business. Johnson pulls back the curtain a bit. He presents a multigenerational African-American collective that isn’t static or one-dimensional. He presents them not quite with empathy but with camaraderie.

So what’s the future? The present, we know, is unsustainable. The lean-to seems ready to collapse. Is the answer a mixture of races? That’s one logical end point for integration, however inconceivable it was to almost everyone in 1859. Is integration or, more precisely, assimilation possible? As abuzz as the scene is, what’s missing is work, the first building block of American identity. Is the answer continued segregation, or some form of “separate but equal”? The girl in the blue dress is a mirror image of the white trespasser. She seems to say “stop.” A barking dog sounds an alarm. Is it repatriation of blacks to Africa? That was Lincoln’s altogether impractical idea. In any event, the old way of thinking — blacks are passive and servile, as innocent as they are ignorant — wouldn’t stand.

A Ride for Liberty — The Fugitive Slaves (recto), ca. 1862, by Eastman Johnson. Oil on paperboard. (Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Gwendolyn O. L. Conkling, 40.59a-b)

Johnson’s A Ride for Liberty, from 1862, is one scenario, and a daring one. Johnson once more gives us a “you are there” feeling, and he emphasizes it by writing on the back of the canvas that he witnessed the flight of the black family when he was a war artist covering the Second Battle of Manassas. It’s not make-believe.

It’s a radical picture for an American artist. It gives African Americans agency. The family shows courage and mobility. A black man takes initiative and takes charge, fleeing toward the Union Army whose bayonets glisten. The picture defies the protocol for depicting black men by proposing that freedom and opportunity are there for the taking. It’s a riff on the Bible’s Flight into Egypt, in which another young family flees danger.

I think the 1619 Project’s big failure, aside from its simple-mindedness, is its aversion to possibility, change, and contradiction. People don’t naturally and relentlessly point in a single direction like GPS. They respond to short-term interests. Often, they’re in denial. They change their minds. Some are hypocrites. Some have double standards. Some set goals for a distant future, punting here, backsliding there. For some, fear rules the soul. Some, like the family in Ride to Liberty, seize the day. The mess, what Harold Macmillan called “one bloody thing after another,” makes for history. For the 1619 Project, racism is the one-size-fits-all motivator. The art doesn’t back this up.

Where did leadership after 1865 go wrong? I would have started at that point, when everything was turned upside down. What was on the menu during Reconstruction, and who made the bad choices? Was it Lincoln, whom the 1619 Project calls a white supremacist? Was it human nature? The Civil War was a catastrophe, and people’s default mechanism is to put bad things as far out of mind as possible.

Black leaders had contradictory, competing visions, which invited ambivalence, apathy, and defeatism across the board, black and white. Examples are Booker T. Washington, who, as far as I can tell, goes unmentioned by the Times, and W. E. B. Du Bois, one preaching assimilation to white America’s MO over time, the other pushing separation and black socialism. Query to the whiz kids at the Times: Which model do they endorse? Today, African American isn’t much to brag about. Frederick Douglass goes unmentioned. Martin Luther King Jr. gets a photograph. In the 1619 Project, a lot of good people disappear.

Why did the villains overwhelm the heroes? Why was opportunity for progress blown for so long? I think 1619 is one moment, but 1776 is another, as is 1808, when the American slave trade ended as prescribed by the Constitution in 1788. In 1794, Congress barred slavers from using American ships. Then there’s the Missouri Compromise in 1820, which grappled with slavery’s expansion into the Louisiana Purchase — maintaining the balance of power between North and South, with Slave-state Missouri admitted into the Union at the same time as free-state Maine. Then we get to 1865, the end of the Civil War. There’s the flop of Reconstruction, decades of Southern apartheid, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Since then, we’ve seen race riots, an African-American president, and Black Lives Matter. Why did so many new starts lead nowhere? Racism had to have many human voices. Who failed us, and why? What have we learned?

Johnson and Homer depicted black subjects through the 1860s into the 1890s, but A Ride for Liberty is the only action painting. The rest are paintings of black children in nature, an old trope since blacks were considered creatures of nature — simple, illogical, and best suited to the garden or the field. They almost never grow into autonomous, active adults. Subjects are sometimes solitary figures in prayer. Their piety is moving. Faces aren’t generic but near-portrait likenesses. Still, these pictures suggest their moment isn’t in this world but the next.

A Visit from the Old Mistress, 1876, by Winslow Homer. Oil on canvas. (Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of William T. Evans, 1909.7.28)

Homer’s A Visit from the Old Mistress, from 1876, is the most penetrating. It’s a pregnant moment if there ever was one and quite a frosty stare-down. Former slaves and former mistress are shown as equals. The blacks aren’t obsequious. They outnumber the lady of the house. No one’s happy. Homer originally gave the white woman a red flower held in her right hand. Was it a peace offering? He painted it out, opting for the stark, fraught moment. A new world is to be negotiated amid a mirthless mood. For proponents of integration and assimilation, the painting posits a deep gap to bridge.

If Negro Life at the South is a seminal antebellum picture, Homer’s The Gulf Stream is a valedictory. It’s a launch into the 20th century and a bleak admission of failure, too. The 1619 Project might have told a more believable story had it soldered itself to these two paintings.

Gulf Stream could be a sad ending to the promise of Negro Life at the South and A Ride for Liberty. Forty years had passed, and Homer presents us with an all-muscled black man trapped, powerless, and alone. He glistens like an oiled bodybuilder, but he’s passive and prostrate. No possibility of heroism here. He’s spent.

How did he get on the boat? Was he trying to escape? If he did, he failed. Man and vessel are now at the mercy of the sea. He’s waiting, and things don’t look good. A twister is heading his way. A three-mast ship is far in the distance, moving on with its business. Sharks bide their time. The open hatch looks like the entrance to a tomb, the torn sail a shroud, the forward hatch a coffin. The ruined mast evokes a ubiquitous Victorian grave monument: the broken column. By the bow is a rope tie that resolves itself into a black cross. Ropes lower coffins into the grave. Ropes secured Jesus in the Flagellation. Rope is used for lynchings, too.

Reconstruction might have ended in 1876, but it took another generation for the genuine gains that post-war blacks made in freedom and opportunity to wither. Race riots were frequent and fierce in 1898 and 1899. Jim Crow laws were just becoming entrenched. Lynchings reached their peak. In North and South, terrorists targeted blacks who were assimilating and succeeding, in business or farming. Homer was well aware of this. He devoured newspapers. Homer had many friends, but the man he saw most often in 1899 was the African-American Lewis Wright, his father’s caregiver and servant until he died in 1898 and Homer’s until his death in 1910. In a few years, the arch-racist Woodrow Wilson would re-segregate the federal workforce.

For Homer, nature becomes a stand-in for culture. The sea is uncontrollable, ruled by laws humanity can’t change. Culture is more malleable, but it can be maddeningly fixed, too. Man and boat in The Gulf Stream are at the bottom of a swell, locked in place by a wall of water behind them and an ominous black triangle of water before them. The black man looks at a school of flying fish, acrobatic and fetching but as doomed as he is. They’re prey for sharks and birds alike. So he’s got no place to turn.

The national culture, at this point in Homer’s life, seemed as intractable. After forty tumultuous, exhausting years, race relations froze. To Homer, the black man’s fate was fixed. Much as the ship in the distance goes on to the next port, so had white America. The two ships might be separate, but they’re hardly equal. Possibility, hope, agency, and the authority to negotiate a new power structure — all features of Johnson’s and Homer’s earlier work — seem to have disappeared by that moment, but only by that moment. Martin Luther King Jr. called America a work in progress, springing from the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, both statements of a radical and unique philosophy. Consulting the art from the years after the Revolution would be helpful, too.

Homer himself titled his painting “The Gulf Stream.” He knew those waters well, having vacationed in Florida and the Caribbean for years. Starting in the Gulf of Mexico, which washes the shores of the major slave states of the Deep South, the Gulf Stream moves along the East Coast out to the Atlantic around Newfoundland. It then splits, its southern current heading to West Africa, where, coincidentally, the story of the 1619 Project begins. The Gulf Stream moves from south to north, much as America’s racial conundrum moved south to north. The title is one of Homer’s characteristically clever puns. He seems to close a circle, using the present to quote the past.

Homer’s painting might seem opaque, but he’s more adept at making narrative sense of the past, present, and future than the 1619 Project’s makers. By the black man’s side are stalks of sugar cane. Why sugar? Slavery is as old as humanity, and, by the way, America didn’t invent it. Neither did it start in the Western Hemisphere to serve the interests of the cotton industry. Only 6 percent of African slaves came to North America. The rest — 94 percent — went to the Caribbean islands and South America. They went to sugar plantations.

In 1899, America became a world power, dismembering and replacing the old Spanish Empire in that “splendid little war” with Spain. Homer was well aware that slavery in Cuba and Brazil lasted until the late 1880s, and he seems skeptical about America’s capacity to absorb south-of-the-border places built on black slavery. Our track record with our own newly free wasn’t the best.

In The Gulf Stream, the artist seamlessly zigzags from present to future to past. In the 1890s, scholars were starting to research and publish the history of the Middle Passage, the great enslavement of West African blacks. Millions were sold into slavery. Homer knew that thousands were tossed overboard, dead or alive. Sharks were reputed to have changed their migration patterns to take advantage of the new source of food. Such was the past, and so was Homer’s present.

I suppose what I’d like from the 1619 Project is nuance and precision rather than a rant. Great art offers both. They might seem contradictory, but they’re not. Great art, like human nature, is complex. One point in time was 1619. There are many twists and turns in the 400 ensuing years. People learn from past mistakes and good and bad actors. What we got from the 1619 Project is a rant. Looking at art done in the past is a better way to reach and understand the truth.

I’m not sure why the Smithsonian Institution got involved with this scold-fest. The 1619 Project and the Smithsonian’s museums had a memorandum of understanding in which the Smithsonian supplied scholarly help. The Smithsonian name and logo also appear, gratis, on the back cover of the 1619 Project, and that looks like an institutional endorsement. Of course, the 1619 Project wanted to glom on to the Smithsonian’s credibility.

I wouldn’t have touched it with a ten-foot pole. The authors have an agenda, and it’s not promoting good history.

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