Bret Stephens, New York Times, October 9, 2020
If there’s one word admirers and critics alike can agree on when it comes to The New York Times’s award-winning 1619 Project, it’s ambition. Ambition to reframe America’s conversation about race. Ambition to reframe our understanding of history. Ambition to move from news pages to classrooms. Ambition to move from scholarly debate to national consciousness.
But ambition can be double-edged. Journalists are, most often, in the business of writing the first rough draft of history, not trying to have the last word on it. We are best when we try to tell truths with a lowercase t, following evidence in directions unseen, not the capital-T truth of a pre-established narrative in which inconvenient facts get discarded. And we’re supposed to report and comment on the political and cultural issues of the day, not become the issue itself.
As fresh concerns make clear, on these points — and for all of its virtues, buzz, spinoffs and a Pulitzer Prize — the 1619 Project has failed.
Those concerns came to light last month when a longstanding critic of the project, Phillip W. Magness, noted in the online magazine Quillette that references to 1619 as the country’s “true founding” or “moment [America] began” had disappeared from the digital display copy without explanation.
These were not minor points. The deleted assertions went to the core of the project’s most controversial goal, “to reframe American history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year.”
That doesn’t mean that the project seeks to erase the Declaration of Independence from history. But it does mean that it seeks to dethrone the Fourth of July by treating American history as a story of Black struggle against white supremacy — of which the Declaration is, for all of its high-flown rhetoric, supposed to be merely a part.
In a tweet, Hannah-Jones responded to Magness and other critics by insisting that “the text of the project” remained “unchanged,” while maintaining that the case for making 1619 the country’s “true” birth year was “always a metaphoric argument.” I emailed her to ask if she could point to any instances before this controversy in which she had acknowledged that her claims about 1619 as “our true founding” had been merely metaphorical. Her answer was that the idea of treating the 1619 date metaphorically should have been so obvious that it went without saying.
She then challenged me to find any instance in which the project stated that “using 1776 as our country’s birth date is wrong,” that it “should not be taught to schoolchildren,” and that the only one “that should be taught” was 1619. “Good luck unearthing any of us arguing that,” she added.
Here is an excerpt from the introductory essay to the project by The New York Times Magazine’s editor, Jake Silverstein, as it appeared in print in August 2019 (italics added):
“1619. It is not a year that most Americans know as a notable date in our country’s history. Those who do are at most a tiny fraction of those who can tell you that 1776 is the year of our nation’s birth. What if, however, we were to tell you that this fact, which is taught in our schools and unanimously celebrated every Fourth of July, is wrong, and that the country’s true birth date, the moment that its defining contradictions first came into the world, was in late August of 1619?”
Now compare it to the version of the same text as it now appears online:
“1619 is not a year that most Americans know as a notable date in our country’s history. Those who do are at most a tiny fraction of those who can tell you that 1776 is the year of our nation’s birth. What if, however, we were to tell you that the moment that the country’s defining contradictions first came into the world was in late August of 1619?”
In his introduction, Silverstein argues that America’s “defining contradictions” were born in August 1619, when a ship carrying 20 to 30 enslaved Africans from what is present-day Angola arrived in Point Comfort, in the English colony of Virginia. And the title page of Hannah-Jones’s essay for the project insists that “our founding ideals of liberty and equality were false when they were written.”
Both points are illogical. A “defining contradiction” requires a powerful point of opposition or inconsistency, and in the year 1619 the points of opposition were few and far between. Slavery and the slave trade had been global phenomena for centuries by the early 17th century, involving Europeans and non-Europeans as slave traders and the enslaved. The Africans who arrived in Virginia that August got there only because they had been seized by English privateers from a Portuguese ship headed for the port of Veracruz in Mexico, then a part of the Spanish Empire.
In this sense, and for all of its horror, there was nothing particularly surprising in the fact that slavery made its way to the English colonies on the Eastern Seaboard, as it already had in the rest of the Western Hemisphere.
An early sign that the project was in trouble came in an interview last November with James McPherson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Battle Cry of Freedom” and a past president of the American Historical Association. He was withering: “Almost from the outset,” McPherson told the World Socialist Web Site, “I was disturbed by what seemed like a very unbalanced, one-sided account, which lacked context and perspective.”
In a lengthier dissection, published in January in The Atlantic, the Princeton historian Sean Wilentz accused Hannah-Jones of making arguments “built on partial truths and misstatements of the facts.” The goal of educating Americans on slavery and its consequences, he added, was so important that it “cannot be forwarded through falsehoods, distortions and significant omissions.”
Then there was an essay in Politico in March by the Northwestern historian Leslie M. Harris, an expert on pre-Civil War African-American life and slavery. “On Aug. 19 of last year,” Harris wrote, “I listened in stunned silence as Nikole Hannah-Jones … repeated an idea that I had vigorously argued against with her fact checker: that the patriots fought the American Revolution in large part to preserve slavery in North America.”
None of this should have come as a surprise: The 1619 Project is a thesis in search of evidence, not the other way around. Nor was this fire from the right: Both Wilentz and Harris were at pains to emphasize their sympathy with the project’s moral aims.
Yet, aside from a one-word “clarification” issued in March — after months of public pressure, The Times conceded that only “some” colonists fought for independence primarily to defend slavery — the response of the magazine has been, in effect, “nothing to see here.” In a pair of lengthy editor’s notes, Silverstein has defended much of the scholarship in the project by citing another slate of historians to back him up. That’s one way of justifying the final product.
Almost inevitably, what began as a scholarly quarrel became a political one.
About a month before the project’s publication, Silverstein reached out to the Pulitzer Center to propose a 1619 curriculum for schools. Soon thereafter, the project was being introduced into classrooms across the country.
It’s one thing for a newspaper to publish the 1619 Project by way of challenging its subscribers: After all, they pay for the product. It’s quite another to become a pedagogical product for schoolchildren who, along with their parents, in most cases probably don’t subscribe. This was stepping into the political fray in a way that was guaranteed to invite not just right-wing blowback, but possible federal involvement.
That’s exactly what has happened. When “1619” was spray-painted on a toppled statue of George Washington, many people took angry or horrified notice. When Hannah-Jones tweeted that “it would be an honor” for the summer’s unrest to be called “the 1619 riots,” the right took notice again. For many, the 1619 Project smacked of fake history coming from the “fake news” — with results that were all too real. As unbidden gifts to Donald Trump go, it could hardly have been sweeter than that.
Sure enough, last month Trump suggested he would cut off federal funding to any public school using it in its curriculum. He even proposed establishing a “1776 Commission” to help “restore patriotic education to our schools.” Many Americans shudder at the thought of what the president might have in mind by “patriotic education.” But ideas have consequences. They aren’t always the ones that authors — or publishers — anticipate or desire.