The 1619 Project and Uses and Abuses of HistoryRoundup
tags: slavery, historiography, journalism, 1619 Project, 1776 commission
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.
Not since the late 1960s has U.S. history has seemed so relevant. Students are actually quite eager to know about the impact of past pandemics, the effectiveness of mass protests in precipitating social change and, above all, the roots and persistence of today’s racial inequalities.
A hot-off-the-press opinion piece by columnist Bret Stephens, following President Donald J. Trump’s call for a 1776 Commission to promote a more patriotic version of U.S. history in public schools, has reignited controversy over the 1619 Project.
The Stephens essay deals largely with the press’s proper role and responsibilities. He views the Times’ effort to reframe the narrative of American history and the national conversation over race and to alter classroom teaching as overreach. “The job of journalism is to take account of that complexity, not simplify it out of existence through the adoption of some ideological orthodoxy.”
His piece raises a seemingly rhetorical question: Should a deep-pocketed corporation be able to distribute a curriculum to K-12 schools without serious professional vetting?
My own view is that the 1619 Project represents a huge missed opportunity by the leading historical associations to prompt public discussion about the important factual and conceptual issues the project raises. These groups failed, in my judgment, to provide the essential background that K-12 teachers need if they are to teach the issues raised by the project effectively, or even to provide forums where key controversies could be debated and discussed.
No serious historian doubts the centrality of slavery in the period up through the Civil War or its ongoing legacies, evident in the persistence of racism, systemic discrimination and gross disparities in income, wealth, health, educational attainment and criminal justice -- as well as upon every facet of American culture, including the nation’s foodways, music, religious practices, speech patterns, vocabulary, literature and much more.
Criticisms of the 1619 Project by major historians instead focus on:
- Its omissions, including the failure to discuss the dispossession of indigenous homelands and of economic class.
- Its racial essentialism, apparent in its failure to take into account the biracial struggle against slavery and discrimination.
- Its dismissal of the revolutionary ideals of liberty and equality as a sham, and failure to recognize that U.S. history has involved an ongoing, incomplete struggle about whether this country will live up to its founding ideals.
- Its lack of nuance, whether about the motives of the American revolutionaries or Abraham Lincoln’s attitudes toward slavery and racial equality.
- Its overstatement of slavery’s role in the nation’s wealth accumulation and economic growth.
- Its ahistoricism, in minimizing the importance of change and struggle over time.
The 1619 Project is part of a broader argument that the underlying forces driving U.S. history are racism and xenophobia, capitalist exploitation of labor and natural resources, hierarchy (including gendered hierarchies), and greed and that has produced a society that is distinctive in its propensity toward violence, veneration of guns and extreme and corrosive individualism.
This argument contains much more than a kernel of truth, but it isn’t, of course, the whole story, which also includes an ongoing moral civil war over what kind of country this will be. Among the issues at stake in this debate is how societal improvement comes about and especially the role of pragmatic politicians like Lincoln, the two Roosevelts, Wilson and Lyndon B. Johnson as forces for transformation.
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