Politics

Who's afraid of the 1619 Project?

The 1619 Project, the brainchild of New York Times staff reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones, has had an impact on the foundation of the way in which we approach American history and its intertwined Black history, which is often dusted off and separated out into a neat package for educational consumption during the month of February, languishing the rest of the year.    

When the project launched, I sent my husband out, in vain, to get a copy of the launch magazine — which sold out almost instantly. I had to make do with a download. Since that moment in August of last year, the project has continued to affect teaching, curricula, and has sparked an unlearning of what we thought we knew about enslavement and this nation.

Though the launch of the project was met with acclaim, Hannah-Jones and her team also had to confront both academic and right-wing resistance, which I previously reported on in “The 1619 Project: The good, the bad, and the ugly racist responses.”

In ”Slavery Was Not a Secondary Part of Our History,” Jamelle Bouie, a member of the 1619 team, wrote:

I am just one of many contributors to The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project and can’t claim to speak for it. But I have found the reaction to the project — or at least, one specific set of reactions — very revealing and worthy of a little analysis.

The stated aim of the project is to “reframe the country’s history” around the arrival of enslaved Africans to English North America. The argument is not that the United States was actually founded in 1619 but that its culture, economy, politics and social relations are inextricably bound in the race-based chattel slavery that would emerge in Virginia and spread throughout the colonies. Or as Nikole Hannah-Jones, who organized the project, puts it in her introductory essay, “Anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country.”

My favorite riposte to the bloviatingly biased bigots whose world just couldn’t accept a Black-eyed view of who we are as Americans came from Wonkette’s Stephen Robinson.

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In “Conservatives Terrified New York Times 1619 Project Will Remind Black People Slavery Existed,” Robinson spoke to his own experience.

We were born in 1970s South Carolina, and we recall learning about the “lost cause” and benevolent slave masters. Actual quote from a teacher: “Slave owners rarely beat their slaves. Slaves were valuable. Would you beat your car?” Comparing humans to automobiles is the sort of depersonalization that was a key element to propaganda. White children were conditioned to feel no shame for their cultural inheritance and black children were conditioned to respect and admire our oppressors — not just the founding fathers but the Confederate generals our schools and roads were named after.

Unsurprisingly, the package has received considerable pushback from conservatives. They’ve made a forceful attack, in particular, on the idea that the founding was bound up in slavery and white supremacy. In The New York Post, Rich Lowry of National Review calls this idea an “odious and reductive lie.” The Federalist says it is “sweeping historical revisionism in the service of contemporary left-wing politics.” Ilya Shapiro, of the Cato Institute’s Robert A. Levy Center for Constitutional Studies, said the 1619 Project was intended to “delegitimize mankind’s greatest experiment in human liberty & self-governance.”

I thought, at the time, the controversy would soon die down, and that rightwing naysayers would move on to other myths to shore up, and find more “politically correct” demons to slay.

I was wrong.

The 1619 Project continues, and the denial chorus still stands by the American exceptionalism door, guarding the realms of historical white privilege.

What was even more disturbing, for me, was the unholy pairing of hysterical critiques from both the right and the purported “left.” Not that I’m surprised by left-racism. It’s a fact of life for those of us who face the harsh reality of racism’s insidiousness worming its way into all the facets of American life. The hallowed halls of historiography are not exempt, and in fact have been the seat of transmission of false narratives written by the victors for centuries.

While the most recent feint was made by The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf, aided and abetted by his mirror image over at The National Review, Rich Lowry, the white-protective academic contingent was represented by an historian: the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill ‘s Peter Coclanis.

Coclanis first came to my attention when he wrote what a commenter called an “apologia for white supremacy” and I call a wishy-washy white wash on the issue of the fate of University of North Carolina’s “Silent Sam” Confederate statue. His latest efforts, published in the right-leaning Spectator USA, is subtitled, ”The New York Times is stoking the woke with a narrative of shame.”

“Stoking the woke?” His attempt at hipness fell flat.

Coclanis proceeds to diss and dismiss The New York Amsterdam News — a Black newspaper, and “insult” The New York Times by equating the too. Yes, that was meant as an insult. From his perspective, the elite Gray Lady has fallen on hard times and has fled to Harlem, tainted by clearly inferior Blackness.

Oh my! The caucasity of his put-down would be laughable, were it not so racist.

Historian Timothy Stewart-Winter weighed in, responding to Coclanis with a series of tweets.

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Thread reader

The Amsterdam News, founded 1909, is one of the nation’s oldest Black-owned newspapers. Like its peers, it‘s declined in circulation and influence since the 1940s-60s—a time when Black journalists couldn’t get jobs at white-owned papers. /2

Does saying that the @nytimes reads “more like a Midtown edition of the Amsterdam News than a national newspaper of record” just mean it’s become too local, provincial? Obviously not. The Times is less focused on NYC than ever. /3

(Never mind that the News was long a national paper in many ways; MLK Jr, a Southerner, was a columnist.) Rather, Coclanis is saying he feels that the Times has become a Black newspaper. And let’s pause here for a moment to think about that perception. /4

To state the obvious, the Times has not become a Black newspaper. It‘s still owned by a white family. The newsroom remains beyond-overwhelmingly white. A Black man has been executive editor for 5 years, but there’s no particular reason to expect his successor will be Black. /5

If Coclanis perceives the Times as Black-run or Black-dominated, it’s because white people mistake even small increases in the number of Black people in white spaces as major changes—or even through the lens/language, which has a long history, of Black people taking over. /6

If he just means the Times has become pro-Black: Has he been reading the same paper that I have? When the AP style book last year disallowed euphemisms like “racially tinged” and “racially charged,” many people saw it as an implied rebuke of the Times. /7

Is #1619Project perfect? Is every decision the creators made the same one every historian would have made? Of course not. But the backlash is extremely troubling. I think people fear that @nhannahjones will—and can—change K-12 teaching. And as a historian, I hope she does. /end

An African-American studies teacher, who tweets as Quita Is the Bronx, was quick to reply to Stewart-Winter.

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#1619Project does not attempt to use the standards of traditional historiography, for that field is rooted in white supremacist patriarchy.  If you’re judging it from that vantage point, you are wholly missing the point. 1/

History ed needs a shakeup. Dubois and Woodson argued that in the early 1900s.  Academia needs a shakeup. If we only rely on sources created by those aligned with the dominant power structure, we cannot effectively challenge dominant power. 2/

Educators interested in liberation need to question & critique traditional sources in the academe; and bring in sources of information from popular & folk culture. Believe that Beyonce has as much to say about Black feminism as Patricia Hill Collins. 3/

So #1619Project has to be taught side-by-side with traditional sources and we need have some deep conversations about why there is such a wide disparity in the historical record.  Because there’s no such thing as objectivity in historical study.  Students should know that. 4/

Hannah-Jones, uses the Twitter handle Ida Bae Wells, invoking Ida B. Wells Barnett—fittingly, as she’s one of the co-founders of the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting. As the leader of the 1619 Project, Hannah-Jones has been targeted for much of the criticism, and pushes back—forcefully.

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Columbia School of Journalism professor and New Yorker staff writer Jelani Cobb’s response to the 1619 tempest linked the past of enslavement to its continuance in the modern era.

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Beyond academia, an assault on 1619 from the libertarian-left can be found in The Atlantic, where staff writer Conor Friedersdorf threw in everything but the kitchen sink to make his point in “1776 Honors America’s Diversity in a Way 1619 Does Not.”

“Academic historians, conservatives, and Trotskyist socialists rightly reject The New York Times’ reframing of the past,” Friedersdorf wrote. But do we really care about what a group of not-black Trotskyists on the World Socialist Website think about enslavement and U.S. history? I doubt Friedersdorf does either, but citing Trotskyist opinions certainly gives his polemic some much-needed lefty cachet.

I was not surprised when he then proceeded to tout the names of high-profile dead Black men in an attempt to bolster his thesis.

America’s original revolutionaries, along with Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and Martin Luther King Jr., all placed the universalist ideals of the Declaration of Independence at the center of this country’s founding. But that paradigm is under vigorous challenge from The New York Times Magazine. Last summer, the magazine began publishing the 1619 Project, marking the 400th anniversary of enslaved Africans’ arrival in Virginia. In essays, stories, poems, podcast episodes, and more, the Times has grappled with how slavery shaped all that followed.

Douglass and MLK Jr. seem to be the go-to guys for white liberals to invoke in support of whatever convoluted argument they want to tell us, about us. Plus, these dead Black icons are not around to refute any of the claims made in their names.

Frankly, I find it tiresome. I’ve linked to the piece. If you feel the need—go read it.

Here are some of my favorite responses.

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The Times editor-in-chief, Jake Silverstein, first published a response to the critics on Dec. 20, with an update on Jan. 4.

It may be true that under a less egalitarian system of government, slavery would have continued for longer, but the United States was still one of the last nations in the Americas to abolish the institution — only Cuba and Brazil did so after us. And while our democratic system has certainly led to many progressive advances for the rights of minority groups over the past two centuries, these advances, as Hannah-Jones argues in her essay, have almost always come as a result of political and social struggles in which African-Americans have generally taken the lead, not as a working-out of the immanent logic of the Constitution.

And yet for all that, it is difficult to argue that equality has ever been truly achieved for black Americans — not in 1776, not in 1865, not in 1964, not in 2008 and not today. The very premise of The 1619 Project, in fact, is that many of the inequalities that continue to afflict the nation are a direct result of the unhealed wound created by 250 years of slavery and an additional century of second-class citizenship and white-supremacist terrorism inflicted on black people (together, those two periods account for 88 percent of our history since 1619). These inequalities were the starting point of our project — the facts that, to take just a few examples, black men are nearly six times as likely to wind up in prison as white men, or that black women are three times as likely to die in childbirth as white women, or that the median family wealth for white people is $171,000, compared with just $17,600 for black people. The rampant discrimination that black people continue to face across nearly every aspect of American life suggests that neither the framework of the Constitution nor the strenuous efforts of political leaders in the past and the present, both white and black, has yet been able to achieve the democratic ideals of the founding for all Americans.

The fragility of those who feel threatened by any attempts to correct the canon that is dubbed “history” is once again on display, and will continue as long as the academy remains a mostly white male elite bastion. But it is changing, and I am heartened to see the push-back and defense of the 1619 Project coming from a diverse segment of both academics and journalists, some of whom are both white and male.

Silencing those who examine history through a Black lens enlightens no one. We can change how history is written, taught and learned. Kudos to those folks who are making it happen.




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