If you haven’t yet heard about the New York Times Magazine’s much-hyped 1619 Project, it’s not for lack of effort on the part of the Times’s marketing department. The project has spawned school-related curriculum and materials co-sponsored by the Pulitzer Center, a live-events series, podcasts, and books. The Times even produced a lavish television commercial about the project that ran during the Academy Awards. No doubt some entrepreneurial minion at the Times’ “Journeys” office, which sponsors expensive tours led by Times reporters to destinations around the world, is eagerly devising a 1619-themed “immersive travel experience” that will also, conveniently, produce profits for the Times.
One of the most outspoken marketers of the project is its creator, Nikole Hannah-Jones, who brought the 1619 show to the University of Virginia on Monday as part of the university’s Democracy Initiative. The event, hosted in the beautiful Dome Room in the Rotunda, was a question-and-answer session with UVA’s president, Jim Ryan, and it sold out quickly (it was also live-streamed online).
As many articles and essays have noted, the scholarly response to the 1619 Project has been less than enthusiastic. In COMMENTARY’s October 2019 issue, the historian Wilfred M. McClay offered an early evisceration of it. His work was followed by fellow historians such as Sean Wilentz, Gordon Wood, and James McPherson, who outlined numerous serious inaccuracies and misinterpretations in the project’s many essays. They have also strenuously objected to the overarching tone of the project, which views all of American history through the lens of slavery. “To teach children that the American Revolution was fought in part to secure slavery would be giving a fundamental misunderstanding not only of what the American Revolution was all about but what America stood for and has stood for since the Founding,” Wilentz told the Atlantic. The Times’ response to this criticism was a long but unpersuasive letter from the magazine’s editor, Jake Silverstein, that incorrectly claimed the disagreements were largely matters of interpretation.
During the UVA event, when Hannah-Jones (who was wearing a large gold “1619” brooch) was asked about these critics, she was dismissive: “Their criticism is not legitimate,” she said. She offered no substantive response to their claims but did make light of them by saying, “I didn’t sit down and say, ‘I’m just going to make up some shit about the Revolution.’” She also claimed that “historians objected to a non-historian doing public history,” especially because she is a “black woman who presents the way I do.” This is in keeping with her general approach to her critics. After McPherson, author of Battle Cry of Freedom, criticized aspects of the project, Hannah-Jones responded, “LOL. Right, because white historians have produced truly objective history.”
Hannah-Jones is marketing the 1619 project as a more truthful alternative to the current narrative about America’s past, but hers is a narrative that can only be believed if you willfully ignore the complicated realities of history.
Which is precisely the point. This isn’t a scholarly effort to challenge and correct the historical record; it’s an identity-politics version of National Treasure, except instead of an ancient tomb of riches being revealed, it’s the hidden venality of the Founding Fathers, Abraham Lincoln, and anyone else who fails the 1619 Project’s moral litmus test on race.
That includes African Americans who disagree with Hannah-Jones’s pessimistic approach to America. A group of African-American scholars and journalists, led by Bob Woodson, recently announced a 1776 Project whose purpose is to “uphold our country’s authentic founding virtues and values and challenge those who assert America is forever defined by its past failures, such as slavery.” It highlights the “resilience” of Americans and “the spirit of 1776, the date of America’s true founding.”
Hannah-Jones’s response to these African-American scholars tells you everything you need to know about the tone of the 1619 Project: This photo was her non-verbal tweeted response, to which she added in a later tweet, “It’s a sad thing that these few black people are trying.”
Her response is in keeping with the presentist purpose of the project, even though it cloaks itself in the mantle of history. If you begin with the assumption that the United States is and always has been irredeemably racist, there is no way to write or practice the discipline of history. Presentism demands oversimplification in the service of advancing an ideology, not historical knowledge, as a brief sampling from Hannah-Jones’ remarks at UVA suggests: “You name anything in America and it can be traced back to slavery;” “We died making sugar and now black people die more from sugar than any other group;” “The Founders didn’t really believe in democracy, but black people did.”
To those Americans who feel that the pessimistic narrative Hannah-Jones is pushing doesn’t fully capture the complicated richness of the American past, she has this to say: “I don’t care that you don’t think I was nice enough to Abraham Lincoln….Lincoln has gotten a free ride in classrooms.” Her grievance with white Americans is clearly deeply felt and often expressed with anger: “We don’t need a project to reframe how good white Americans have been to us….Most white Americans have been and continue to accept egregious inequality against black folks. That’s just true….You didn’t sign the Declaration either but you’re claiming that shit.”
Hannah-Jones is not a historian, and has never done the work a historian does (which she readily acknowledges). Her essay in the project is powerful in part because she draws on her personal history to make her case and offers a polemical and at times very moving portrait of what it’s like to grow up black in America.
Which is fine; just don’t call it history — or force-feed it to school children as history, or market it with conspiratorial inflection as the “real” history of the country when all you’ve done is cherry-pick from secondary sources (some of which are highly questionable) to suit your presentist narrative. Hannah-Jones’s sensibility, which infuses the project, was best expressed in a story she told about the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, which now features a permanent exhibit with a marker where slave quarters once stood and information about George Washington’s slaves as well as the Bell’s links to the abolitionist movement.
Hannah-Jones talked about “how p*ssed so many white folks get because they have to hear about slavery before they see the Liberty Bell” and “what I love about it is it forces it.” I’ve taken my children to the Liberty Bell, and we saw the exhibit about slavery and, contra Hannah-Jones, it didn’t feel forced at all. And even though we are white, we were not “p*ssed” (nor, evidently, were any of the other visitors of many different races who were there that day). On the contrary, the exhibit offered detail and background that helped us better understand the complicated history of the Bell and its place in our nation’s history as a symbol of liberty. Its tone was the opposite of the 1619 Project, even as Hannah-Jones’s glib and obnoxious assumptions about what white people think and believe are a mirror image of the white racism of the past and present she is so quick to denounce.
Which raises some questions for an institution like the University of Virginia, which sponsored the 1619 event as part of a Democracy Initiative. The discussion was a good example of some aspects of democracy: criticism, protest, people exercising their right to challenge authority (in this case, the authority of history), and individuals criticizing institutions like UVA for their perceived failure to live up to their own ideals.
But missing from the event was evidence of other important markers of healthy democracy, such as deliberation, compromise, and the pragmatic effort to find real-world solutions to problems. (Despite airing frequent complaints about present-day treatment of black Americans, Hannah-Jones offered few practical suggestions beyond demanding that universities like UVA grant admission and free tuition to any descendants of the slaves who helped build the university.)
By all means, give platforms to people like Hannah-Jones—who calls herself “the Beyonce of journalism”—to make her case for her particular (and particularly radical) vision. Toss her softball questions like the ones she faced from UVA president Ryan and the audience so that the event becomes more a celebration of an ideological vision than a genuinely nuanced conversation about the ideals of democracy.
But then sponsor a real debate.
Invite scholars who disagree with the 1619 Project to make their case and face questions as well; have a panel of people from the 1776 Project offer their alternative vision of how best to teach American history. Create a public space where competing ideas and different ideals really will be debated, rather than a platform where narrow ideological views are unquestionably praised.
The 1619 Project and its promoters have made it clear their goal isn’t merely to challenge or disrupt the already rich historiography of slavery, but to “destruct” the narrative of America’s past, as Hannah-Jones put it. But as history has already taught us, destruction is often pursued by zealots without forethought, and it is always a much easier task than repair.