Professor: Why I Teach the Much-Debated 1619 Project — Despite its FlawsRoundup
tags: teaching history, 1619 Project
John Duffy is professor of English and faculty fellow of the Klau Center for Civil and Human Rights at the University of Notre Dame.
The decision by the Board of Trustees at the University of North Carolina to deny tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project, has once again thrust Hannah-Jones and the project into the center of controversy. It is familiar territory. Indeed, the impressive number of awards and honors accorded to Hannah-Jones and the 1619 Project may be rivaled only by the array of detractors who have spoken out against both.
The 1619 Project aims, as stated in an introduction to the project, “to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contribution of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” The project further seeks to demonstrate how the enslavement of Africans in the 18th and 19th centuries continues to disadvantage Black Americans today. Yet the 1619 Project has drawn fire both from mainstream historians and right-wing political figures.
Historians have faulted the 1619 Project for misrepresenting the causes of the American Revolution, distorting the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, discounting the contributions of White allies in the struggle for racial justice, and dismissing American aspirations of freedom and equality as hypocrisy. Historian Sean Wilentz has termed the project “cynical,” while scholar Allan C. Guelzo has argued that “the 1619 Project is not history; it is conspiracy theory.” Even historians sympathetic to the project have called out its factual errors and inaccuracies.
A Heritage Foundation commentator wrote that teaching the project in schools would “destroy our present institutions, economic system and ways of thinking, and replace them.” Newt Gingrich called the project “a lie,” and former president Donald Trump, conflating the 1619 Project and critical race theory, declared that both were “toxic propaganda, ideological poison, that, if not removed, will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together, will destroy our country.” Conservative lawmakers at the federal and state levels have sought to ban the teaching of the 1619 Project.
Such critiques are intended to undermine if not cancel the 1619 Project. Yet the questions these criticisms raise about history, ideology and the legacies of slavery provide compelling reasons for teaching the project in schools and universities.
In the first-year seminar on the 1619 Project that I teach at the University of Notre Dame, students discuss essays of the project exploring the relationship of slavery to present-day capitalism, health care, mass incarceration and other topics. Students read historians critical of the project, and rebuttals to these critiques.
While I encourage students to draw their own conclusions about the controversies, we do not attempt to decide collectively which perspectives are more accurate. Instead, we discuss reasons historians disagree, how such disagreements are argued and what this suggests about historical truths. We consider who gets to tell the story of a people and what is at stake in the telling.
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