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I have since spent my entire career trying to help low-income people of all races to overcome poverty as I did: BOB WOODSON
‘In this country, you can even kill white people and get away with it if those white people are fighting for Black lives. This is the legacy of 1619,’ tweeted Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of The 1619 Project, in reaction to a jury’s decision to acquit Kyle Rittenhouse of all charges related to the shooting three men in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
That same flawed worldwide – one that traces the cause of nearly all of society’s ills to America’s so-called ‘original sin’ of slavery – is also perpetuated in the latest iteration of her work.
But that’s not say the newly released ‘The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story’ should be dismissed in its entirety.
Recently, I spoke to a gathering in northern Virginia, just outside Washington, DC. The gentleman who introduced me noted that at one time, the Commonwealth-approved guidelines for teaching history required that American slavery be taught to school children as a benign institution in which happy and carefree bondsmen were grateful recipients of free food and housing. This was not 150 years ago, the gentleman explained, but as recently as the 1970’s.
The kind of revisionist American history that glossed over slavery, Jim Crow, the atrocities committed against Native Americans—hardly unique to Virginia—demanded correction.
And slowly but surely, corrections began to come.
But even as blatant lies were quietly replaced with more accurate content, the larger black American story was too often limited to a lesson or two on Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King, Jr. each February.
‘The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story’ purports to fill this void, as did the original series of essays, published in the New York Times in 2019. The book version, again edited by Nikole Hannah-Jones, who won a Pulitzer Prize for the original, contains revised versions of the original essays, and several new ones.
The first failure of ‘The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story’ is ironically spelled in Nikole Hannah-Jones’ (above) introduction, which obsesses over slavery, Jim Crow and general black victimization to the nearly complete exclusion of the remarkable black resilience, achievement, and triumph
Hannah-Jones, creator of The 1619 Project, reacted on Twitter to a jury’s decision to acquit Kyle Rittenhouse of all charges related to the shooting three men in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
And while I find the book an overall improvement on the offering of two years ago, I’m afraid it still fails as black American history in several important respects.
Its first failure is ironically spelled in Hannah-Jones’ introduction, where she complains about the way black Americans were portrayed in the history she learned growing up: ‘We were not actors but acted upon. We were not contributors, just recipients. White people enslaved us, and white people freed us. Black people could choose either to take advantage of that freedom or to squander it, as our depictions in the media seemed to suggest so many of us were doing.’
Had I paid more attention in history class growing up, I would have shared Ms. Hannah-Jones’ objections: the story of blacks in America as told in American classrooms is too often the tale of what has been done to us, not what we have done in response.
But by obsessing over slavery, Jim Crow and general black victimization to the nearly complete exclusion of the remarkable black resilience, achievement, and triumph, ‘The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story’ is guilty of the same crime as the revisionist history textbooks it seeks to replace.
The figures between its covers are chiefly shown as passive recipients of insults and atrocities, not human beings with agency, no matter how constrained or restricted their legal liberty might have been.
I was born into a lower income black neighborhood in 1937, and obviously I experienced segregation and racism.
After I overcame the difficulties of my childhood, which included the death of my father and dropping out of high school, I was able to obtain an Ivy League master’s degree.
‘The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story’ is guilty of the same crime as the revisionist history textbooks it seeks to replace.
I have since spent my entire career trying to help low-income people of all races to overcome poverty as I did. And in that work, I have watched countless Americans overcome homelessness, abuse, addiction, the loss of loved ones, and so much more to become successful, productive, and redeemed.
So, there is something particularly tiresome to me about middle and upper class educated blacks who never picked cotton or sat on the back of any bus being so aggrieved about wrongs they never even experienced.
As Woodson Center’s 1776 Unites scholar Delano Squires has noted, we are now beset by ‘white liberals who are looking for absolution from sins they didn’t commit and black liberals who are looking to be affirmed for injustices they didn’t suffer.’
And despite some favorable adjustments, that sense of grievance saturates the 1619 Project book much as it did the original essays.
The book’s second failure is its nakedly ideological attempts to link the very real atrocities of the past to policies in the present that its authors do not like.
If the true goal of the project is to illuminate the complete black American experience, then our story shouldn’t be the handmaiden of any ideological or political agenda. But its pages make perfectly clear that the authors only see ‘white supremacy’ in policies that progressives want to do away with.
For example, the chapter entitled Fear by Leslie Alexander and Michelle Alexander repeats the popular but tenuous claim that modern policing is rooted in slavery, asserting, ‘This narrative [of black immorality and laziness] made it easy to rationalize draconian punishments as well as stop-and-frisk and surveillance tactics not unlike those employed by slave patrollers more than a century ago.’ A thin connection at best.
But even if we accept this connection for the sake of argument, as 1776 Unites author Coleman Hughes points out in our own collection of essays Red, White and Black, are policing techniques the only practices that can be linked to slavery and Jim Crow?
Could we not infer that ‘labor market regulation is rooted in slavery because the Black Codes used occupational licensing to keep blacks in menial positions’?
The book, to its credit, acknowledges that blacks were intentionally excluded from benefiting from the New Deal (although it stops short of pointing out the racist intentions of the Davis-Bacon Act minimum wage, which are a matter of Senate record). But might not current minimum wage laws and 200-hour licensing requirements to braid hair be rooted in slavery too?
Left largely unmentioned are the examples of black performance and achievement during slavery and segregations that at times exceeded that of the white population.
The all-black Dunbar High School in Washington, DC, outperformed comparable white schools academically during segregation, and the black marriage rate was higher than that of whites until about 1950. No one worried about elderly people getting mugged in broad daylight or babies being shot in their cribs.
Why do the authors not consider these kinds of facts part of the black American story?
Is it because they would undermine the case they try to make that all present day black suffering is attributable to the legacy of America slavery?
But the greatest failure of the 1619 Project book is its insistence on certain historical myths of its own making, while also neglecting to acknowledge the excesses and outright falsehoods of the initial essays.
The New York Times itself infamously changed some of the more outrageous statements from the original such as its own claim that the Project ‘aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding…’ to more easily defensible assertions without issuing any retractions.
In the same way, the book has quietly revised the easily refutable claims without acknowledging them, just as so many school districts silently discarded lessons that showed slaves happily going about their labor without acknowledging their shameful misrepresentation.
Thus the book is guilty of the same sin it claims to be correcting, all while clinging stubbornly to the absurd idea that the Colonies ‘might never have revolted against Britain if some of the founders had not understood that slavery empowered them to do so; nor if they had not believed that independence was required in order to ensure that the institution would continue unmolested.’
The collection of essays ignited a firestorm of controversy not because most Americans want to deny that slavery was indeed terrible, but because the authors were weaponizing slavery to try to manipulate the country to adopt a progressive policy agenda that only a tiny fraction of Americans favor.
By contrast, the Woodson Center’s 1776 Unites curriculum tells the stories of ordinary black Americans who suffered under slavery and segregation but triumphed and achieved remarkable things.
Students learn about the lives of Biddie Mason, who was born a slave and died a millionaire philanthropist, and Elijah McCoy, who, relegated to the most dangerous job on the railroad because of his race, became a world-famous inventor and engineer.
The horror of American slavery is important to understand not because it is unique at all to America. Slavery in one form or another existed all over the world for thousands of years. It is important to understand because it illuminates the incredible odds against which so many black Americans have triumphed.
We are unique not because of our suffering but because of the heights our achievements in spite of it. But somehow there is little room in the 1619 Project for that part of our story.
There are some people who will no doubt learn something from the 1619 Project in its latest incarnation, but those who need it most—those who truly want to understand what it has meant and means to be a black American—will most likely shy away from it precisely because it once again proves itself untrustworthy, and in some cases just as guilty of revisionism as the false histories it seeks to correct.