On Recent Criticism of The 1619 ProjectHistorians in the News
tags: slavery, teaching history, 1619 Project, 1776 commission
Jake Silverstein is the New York Times Magazine editor.
The 1619 Project, which was conceived of and led by Nikole Hannah-Jones, a staff writer at The New York Times Magazine, advances a bold claim: that the date when the first enslaved Africans arrived in the English colonies that would become the United States — August of 1619 — can be regarded as the nation’s birth or point of origin. Why does the project propose this? In part because, as its essays show, the system of slavery and oppression that began on this date has led to so many of the problems that define our past and our present; in part because, as Hannah-Jones argues, the struggle against this system of oppression has been a pivotal freedom movement unfolding across many generations to advance progress for American society as a whole; and in part to advance the case that, as the heroes of both of these stories, Black Americans, whose presence in the English colonies that would become the United States began on this date, should occupy a central role in American history.
In the 14 months since publication, the project has attracted millions of readers and had a remarkable impact on the way that many Americans think about the country’s past. It has elevated the year 1619 to a far more prominent status than it has ever had. And it has prompted countless conversations and reflection about the persistence of racism and inequality in a country founded on the principle that “all men are created equal.” It has also attracted a fair bit of criticism. Some of that criticism has come from supporters of the project and its goals, who want to challenge certain of its ideas or interpretations of historical moments. Other critics have tried to challenge the legitimacy of the entire project and of our decision to publish it. The vociferousness of these latter critics, who have come to include the president of the United States, is perhaps understandable, given the project’s attempt to unsettle the way that Americans think about their nation’s history. As the editor of the magazine, I have worked with our research staff to look at all claims of factual inaccuracy — a standard process that has resulted in some minor corrections, which you can find at the bottom of some of the individual articles online — but otherwise I have tried to let the project to speak for itself.
Recently, however, a new line of criticism has emerged, centering on a series of edits made to the presentation of the project online in the months after publication. Because these edits raise questions, at least in the minds of some, about the editorial practices behind the project, I’d like to offer a picture of the underlying facts.
One fact of life about editing a “multiplatform” publication today — one that our readers consume in the print magazine, on the web and on mobile devices, as well as sometimes through audio, video and live events — is the challenge of figuring out how to present the same journalism in all those different media. A significant portion of time goes into writing all the “display language” that describes our stories across these various platforms: headlines for print and online, social copy, summaries of stories for newsletters, etc. The bigger the project, the more numerous the platforms tend to be, which means that even more of this work is required. To give a recent example, a magazine project on food insecurity in America by the photographer Brenda Ann Kenneally took up an entire issue of the print magazine and a special section in the Saturday edition of the print New York Times, produced by the National Desk; online it took an entirely different form, produced by The Times’s Digital News Design team, with a text that had only small overlap with anything that appeared in print.
No project during my tenure has been bigger, and involved more platforms, than The 1619 Project. In print, the project existed as a magazine issue containing 10 historical essays and one photo portfolio, plus a broadsheet section continuing an essay and a brief history of slavery. Online, these elements came together in a richly designed digital presentation, and they were joined over time by a five-episode podcast, produced in conjunction with The Times’s audio team; new articles; a photo essay; videos of live events; and more. (The whole notion of calling this a project was to emphasize that the work would be ongoing.)
Most of the questions around our display language have centered on variations on a single phrase. In some cases, we referred to 1619 as the nation’s “birth year,” in others as our “birth date,” in others as “a foundational date,” in others as our “point of origin.” In one instance of digital display copy, we referred to 1619 as our “true founding.” It is this use of this last phrase, and its subsequent deletion, that was the subject of an article in the online magazine Quillette and then, more recently, that figured prominently in a column by my colleague Bret Stephens, a columnist on The Times’s Opinion page.
A few notes on this phrase, “true founding”: It was written by a digital editor and approved by me. (Hannah-Jones, as a staff writer at the magazine is not typically involved in matters of digital display language.) It does not appear in the print edition of The 1619 Project. This phrase was introduced when the project went online, in August 2019, appearing in an un-bylined 55-word passage that lived in a small box on the project’s main web page, as well as on the individual story pages, which read as follows: “The 1619 Project is a major initiative from The New York Times. It aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”
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