The New York Times’ 1619 Project has a conflicted relationship with history.
According to New York Times Magazine editor-in-chief, Jake Silverstein, this symposium of essays could be many things at once. At times, the “goal of The 1619 Project is to reframe American history” by “placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” But the Project also explores everyday phenomena and “reveals its history.” The Project’s more literary works “bring to life key moments in American history.” But sometimes, those literary works are preceded by a more familiar accounting of historical events “to which the author is responding.” The compendium is simultaneously a contribution to the sum of our historical knowledge and a critique of it.
That would not be a controversial approach if this collection of essays was billed as what it is: “narrative journalism.” But the “1619 Project” fast acquired a reputation as a definitive account of America’s untold origins, and its authors did not protest. Oprah Winfrey and the film distributor Lionsgate are partnering with the architect of the Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones, to “develop a multi-media history of slavery and its effects in America for a worldwide audience.” Colleges and museums hosted exhibitions inspired by these essays. Primary school districts across the country are adding the Project’s essays to their K-12 history curriculum.
All this has occurred even as practicing historians expressed skepticism about the relative historical value of the Project. Last December, five historians—Gordon Wood, Victoria Bynum, James McPherson, Sean Wilentz, and James Oakes—took issue with the 1619 Project’s central and most contentious claim: that the nation’s founding date is not 1776 but a century and a half earlier. “[T]he project asserts the founders declared the colonies’ independence of Britain’ in order to ensure slavery would continue,’” these scholars wrote, “This is not true. If supportable, the allegation would be astounding—yet every statement offered by the Project to validate it is false.” The Times took note and, accordingly, corrected the “original language” to reflect the facts while still defending “the basic point” of the offending essay.
But that was hardly the only source of frustration among academicians. Historians took exception to one essay’s contention that the disaggregation of the black family can be traced back to the 17th and 18th centuries. They balked at the Project’s exhumation of a demonstrably false assertion that slavery disproportionately contributed to the country’s wealth. Most of all, they objected to the Project’s self-aggrandizing claim that the study of slavery—both its origins and its aftermath—is an underexplored field of study and instruction.
The Pulitzer Prize Committee subversively adjudicated this dispute when it awarded Hannah-Jones the Pulitzer for the category “commentary”—not some more empirical genre like, for example, history. Nevertheless, the Times maintained that the Project’s most controversial essays remain “grounded in the historical record” and are not “driven by ideology rather than historical understanding.”
Apparently, Nikole Hannah-Jones disagrees.
“I’ve always said that the 1619 Project is not a history,” she recently averred. “It is a work of journalism that explicitly seeks to challenge the national narrative and, therefore, the national memory.” Hannah-Jones continued: “The crazy thing is, the 1619 Project is using history and reporting to make an argument. It never pretended to be a history.” Indeed, when it comes to primary education, “the curriculum is supplementary and cannot and was never intended to supplant U.S. history curriculum.” That is, indeed, quite reasonable. Even if we assume K-12 students are equipped to “interrogate” the “narrative” of America’s Founding, which they are not, such an enterprise amounts to indoctrination if the student has not yet internalized the basics. You cannot “critically deconstruct” a narrative with which you’re unfamiliar.
This was a reasonable concession to the avalanche of good faith criticism the Project received from the scholarly community. Or, at least, it would have been if Hannah-Jones had not so vehemently objected to the efforts by Sen. Tom Cotton to prevent the teaching of this document in public schools as though it were uncontested fact.
Cotton’s initiative, which is more a political statement than legislation, would strip schools of federal funding equivalent to the amount of instructional time dedicated to teaching the 1619 Project. “This bill speaks to the power of journalism more than anything I’ve ever done in my career,” Hannah-Jones wrote while promoting the Pulitzer Center’s “educational resources and curricula” designed to “bring ‘The 1619 Project’ into your classroom.” American education, implied in the series of articles she subsequently promoted, does not adequately teach “the history of American slavery.” And what is objective knowledge anyway? “LOL,” the Pulitzer-recipient wrote when confronted with Civil War historian James MacPherson’s assertion that the project “lacked context and perspective. “Right,” she continued, “because white historians have produced truly objective history.”
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that American primary education fails to explore many aspects of American history—the legacy of slavery being just one of those deficiencies. But instructional time dedicated to history has, along with the study of civics, been subordinated to a dozen other objectives educators are compelled to pursue. It would seem unwise to sacrifice more of that precious classroom time to the examination of tendentious tracts that are, by their own architect’s admission, not history, per se, but rather an argument over narratives. Students should learn the history first and argue over it later.