Republican legislators in a handful of states are trying to cut funding to schools and colleges that use the New York Times’ award-winning 1619 Project for classroom lessons — efforts that have served to keep the provocative retelling of American history in the spotlight.
The project, published in the newspaper’s magazine in August 2019, is a collection of essays and stories that argue that America was not founded in 1776 when the Declaration of Independence was adopted, but rather in 1619, the year that enslaved Africans were first brought to the land that became the United States.
The project annoyed President Donald Trump so much that he appointed a panel — the 1776 Commission — to write a reportabout the “patriotic” history of the United States that countered its narrative.
That report — posted on the White House website two days before Trump left office in January — said the Founding Fathers were not hypocrites for owning enslaved people while calling for equality in America’s founding documents, and equated progressives with the fascist Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.
Though Trump is gone, animus toward the project remains, and Republican lawmakers in a handful of states, including Iowa and Missouri, have introduced bills in their state legislative bodies that would punish school districts that use the 1619 Project by cutting federal funding.
In this post, Seth Rockman, an associate professor of history at Brown University, looks at why the critics have it wrong about the 1619 Project, which he says “is a testament to patriotism, not a repudiation.”
Nineteen months after it was published by the New York Times, the 1619 Project remains in the public eye — primarily due to the efforts of its detractors to undermine it. Under the Twitter hashtag #1619Project, discussion on social media is nearly as robust today as it was when the special issue of the New York Times Magazine first appeared. And by consistently invoking the 1619 Project as an attack on America and then seeking to pass laws to ban its use in the classroom, right-wing politicians have given an unanticipated longevity to a debate about the future of the past.
As with all forms of history — a museum exhibition, a popular book in an airport bookstore, a Broadway play or a specialized article in a peer-reviewed research journal — there is space for debate about argument, evidence and interpretation. By definition, history is an ongoing conversation in which trained professionals and multiple publics wrestle with the meaning of the past. Disagreement is desirable as it shows us that something important is at stake.
So what is at stake in a version of U.S. history that foregrounds the lives and experiences of Black Americans? Why would this prove so threatening that it requires laws to prevent students from encountering it at school?
This is a question that critics of the 1619 Project have answered eloquently, if perhaps unintentionally, in their speeches, op-eds and tweets: Many of the “truths” that Americans hold sacred regarding our nation’s history and its investments in liberty and prosperity are harder to sustain once a person takes seriously slavery and its legacies of anti-Black racism.
It isn’t merely that American history would lose some of its shine, but rather that a profoundly disquieting realization would come into view. What if the possibility for some Americans to enjoy liberty and prosperity had been predicated on the very denial of those things to other Americans? What if, for much of American history, some significant percentage of the population defined freedom as the right to own other Americans?
For some (but certainly not all) Americans in 2021, this might be a revelation. The scales would fall from their eyes, they would admit they’d been living a lie or had been lied to for decades, and then … well, and then what?
According to former president Donald Trump and many other opponents of the 1619 Project, they would stop loving America and their patriotism would evaporate. It’s this desire to protect the sanctity of the American ideal that purportedly motivates legislation seeking to ban the 1619 Project’s classroom curriculum.
Yet the idea that the 1619 Project undermines American patriotism seems a large — and largely erroneous — logical leap.
Consider the many Americans in 2021 for whom the 1619 Project’s history was not a revelation but rather the acknowledgment of a long-known, long-lived, and long-suppressed truth. For such Americans, the 1619 Project was not an invitation to hate America, but an exhortation to continue marching toward the promise of a multiracial democracy.
The 1619 Project’s unsparing version of the American past, its full accounting of how we got to where we are today, would provide the tailwinds to hasten the arrival at a more just future.
This optimistic and redemptive vision was in fact at the core of the 1619 Project. Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones’s lead essay, which critics seemingly failed to read to the end, is a paean to American democracy and to the unrelenting commitment of Black Americans to seeing the nation’s highest ambitions seen through to their fulfillment. The 1619 Project is a testament to patriotism, not a repudiation.
Ultimately the deep concern about the 1619 Project’s truth-telling concerning the American past is not that it puts patriotism at risk, but rather that it jeopardizes particular versions of the American future. Such fear informs a recent Heritage Foundation report calling for the exclusion of 1619 Project curricular materials from the classroom.
This report, which I recently reviewed for the National Education Policy Center, is particularly concerned that the 1619 Project will tarnish the reputation of capitalism by associating it with slavery. Although the report devotes some space to contesting the claim that American capitalism owed anything to slavery, its primary worry is that the mere discussion of capitalism’s relationship to slavery would dispose students negatively to libertarian policy preferences.
By engaging with the 1619 Project, so it is alleged, students would become more sympathetic to policies of redistribution, social welfare and regulation. They might learn that human freedom and market freedom are not self-reinforcing, or worse, that the government has a positive role to play in economic life. If students learned that federal law, not market logic, had banned the transatlantic slave trade in 1808, they might think favorably about government regulation of economic activities and recognize that markets don’t necessarily have the power on their own to stop harm. Wait until they hear about the 13th Amendment!
The Heritage Foundation report identifies a number of characteristics it associates with capitalism: private property, entrepreneurship, enforceable contracts, and so forth. If fails to ask whether slavery had anything to do with how Americans came to define property rights, entrepreneurship, contracts, and the other “good institutions” (as economics might call them) that comprise modern capitalism.
If your economic system is predicated on private property, it surely matters that enslaved human beings constituted a form of private property more valuable than all the railroads and factories combined in the whole United States at the time of the Civil War. It matters that property rights in people — the right to “use” property as one pleased, the right to bequeath property to one’s descendants, the right to seize property when unpaid debts were due — gave slavery an outsized role in shaping the contours of American jurisprudence.
If your economic system is designed to encourage the speculative activities of entrepreneurs seeking to buy low and sell high, it matters that the buying and selling of human beings was a core example throughout much of our history.
One could make a very long list here: if capitalism is about investing in advanced technologies, look for the highest concentration of steam engines in Louisiana, not Pennsylvania, Massachusetts or New York. If capitalism is about investing in financial securities, then maybe follow the pathway of foreign investment in the bonds proffered by slaveholding states in the 1830s; or investigate where Nicholas Biddle, functionally the country’s central banker, invested the nation’s money.
In concert with the mainstream academic scholarship of the last decade and a much longer tradition within Caribbean and Black Studies scholarship, the 1619 Project does precisely this kind of searching. It “follows the money,” so to speak.
In doing so, it demands that Americans jettison a delusional mythology of national innocence. It isn’t asking readers to make a choice about loving America or hating America, but it is indeed asking readers to consciously choose to see America in the clearest light of day.
The 1619 Project might be best understood as a thought experiment: How does American history look different if you told it as though Black lives and experiences mattered?
Over the last year, Americans of every background have run similar thought experiments. Would a police officer have kept his knee on the neck of a White suspect of a minor crime for more than nine minutes? If the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrectionists at the U.S. Capitol had been Black, do you think they would have made it into the building?
“No one can tell me that if it had been a group of Black Lives Matter protesting yesterday, they wouldn’t have been treated very, very differently from the mob of thugs that stormed the Capitol,” Joe Biden, then president-elect, said after the uprising.
Yet some politicians would rather wring their hands over the “dangerous” ideas in the 1619 Project than to confront the indisputable evidence of anti-Black racism as a structural element of American society.
Perhaps the critics are correct, however, in the sense that talking about American history as if Black lives mattered is profoundly disquieting for those invested in public policy decisions that facilitate Black disfranchisement or show indifference to the disproportionate impacts of a global pandemic on Black communities.
One can criticize the 1619 Project on any number of scholarly grounds: It privileges a U.S. story in what should be a hemispheric history of African enslavement in the Americas that began a century earlier, for example. Or it is insufficiently attentive to Native American dispossession as a concurrent story, without which the expansion of slavery in the United States cannot be told.
These are fair and appropriate and are precisely the kind of things we should spend our time debating. Critics are welcome to ask whether the 1619 Project got out ahead of what the existing scholarship could bear. They’d be even more welcome to promote and support the kind of serious archival research that can lead to new knowledge about slavery’s role in the American past.
Unfortunately, most of the critical discussion of the 1619 Project has instead been focused on defending America from a presumed attack on its transcendent investment in liberty. We are witnessing many more bad-faith arguments to disparage the 1619 Project than good-faith efforts to engage its claims and push the boundaries of an inclusive and truthful American history.
Read the 1619 Project materials, including the curriculum. Read the Heritage Report as well, and read my review of that report. Engage with our history and think about what it means — for democracy, for racial equity, for capitalism, and for the nation’s future.