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Education

History According to the 1619 Project

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Historical Revisionism

As the country commemorates the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. this weekend, it’s worthwhile to revisit the 1619 Project.

Never content to leave unwoke history alone, last August the New York Times launched the 1619 Project. The “newspaper of record” states that this “ongoing initiative” “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.” It’s a conscious attempt to make the country’s “real” founding stem from when the first African slaves arrived in Virginia, rather than when the thirteen colonies declared their independence from Great Britain (or, say, 1620, when the Pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts, or 1607, when Jamestown was settled). Instead of fixing the founding of the country on a constructive event, the New York Times seeks to define the U.S. by its failures.

The 1619 Project deliberately minimizes the contributions and cultures of white Americans and magnifies and romanticizes the contributions and culture of black Americans. Ironically, in this way it’s the inverse of the longtime failure of texts to describe or even acknowledge the historical contributions of blacks. In the introductory essay, Nikole Hannah-Jones writes: “More than any other group in this country’s history, we have served, generation after generation, in an overlooked but vital role: It is we who have been the perfecters of this democracy.” And later, “Out of our unique isolation, both from our native cultures and from white America, we forged this nation’s most significant original culture.”

The 1619 Project’s obsession with race, standing alone, is bad enough, but it’s even worse that it’s actually being used in public school curricula. Thus, as with other progressive revisionism, it’s likely to become the accepted Story of America within a generation unless there’s significant pushback.   Fortunately, respected and accomplished historians of American history have publicly addressed the manifold historical inaccuracies of the 1619 Project. And these aren’t historians dedicated to the “Lost Cause.” As part of the National Association of Scholars 1620 Project Lucas Morel, professor at Washington & Lee University and author of the forthcoming Lincoln and the American Founding, writes:

The strangest thing about the essay is the claim that transplanted Africans and their descendants were the key to American greatness. Hannah-Jones cites no African principles of self-government or ideals of humanity when she quotes the famous pronouncements of the Declaration of Independence. . . . Ironically, however, even in this warped retelling, black Americans’ principal means of saving white Americans from their worst selves was not anything African but the quintessentially American ideals of human equality and natural rights.

In a similar vein, Gordon Wood, professor emeritus of history at Brown, said in an interview with the World Socialist website, of all places (one of the few media outlets examining the 1619 Project in critical detail):

I think the important point to make about slavery is that it had existed for thousands of years without substantial criticism, and it existed all over the New World. It also existed elsewhere in the world. Western Europe had already more or less done away with slavery. Perhaps there was nothing elsewhere comparable to the plantation slavery that existed in the New World, but slavery was widely prevalent in Africa and Asia. There is still slavery today in the world.

And it existed in all of these places without substantial criticism. Then suddenly in the middle of the 18th century you begin to get some isolated Quakers coming out against it. But it’s the American Revolution that makes it a problem for the world. And the first real anti-slave movement takes place in North America. So this is what’s missed by these essays in the 1619 Project.

The 1619 Project maintains that “anti- black racism runs in the very DNA of this country.” Ignored is the obvious fact that unless substantial numbers of white Americans had worked to free the slaves, and then ensure that African Americans had civil rights, it wouldn’t have happened. Hannah-Jones criticizes Lincoln for suggesting in 1862 that freed slaves be resettled in Africa because he feared whites and blacks couldn’t coexist. Obviously, blacks weren’t resettled in Africa, and just as obviously it didn’t happen because most whites were willing to coexist — albeit at the time on an unequal basis — with blacks. White Americans had the political power to expel African Americans had they chosen to do so. But they didn’t. The Civil War ended, and — imperfectly, incompletely — African Americans became legal citizens. As Princeton historian James McPherson, responding to Hannah-Jones’s claim that “anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country,” told the World Socialist website:

[T]he idea that racism is a permanent condition, well that’s just not true. And it also doesn’t account for the countervailing tendencies in American history as well. Because opposition to slavery, and opposition to racism, has also been an important theme in American history.

As we remember the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that’s something we should all remember — and celebrate.

Peter Kirsanow — Peter N. Kirsanow is an attorney and a member of the United States Commission on Civil Rights.

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