The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinions from authors who share our goal of expanding the conversation about how public policies affect the daily lives of people throughout our state. Holly McCall is the editor of Tennessee Lookout, which first published this comment.
You should be completely out of the political loop – and I suppose you are not, if you are reading this – for not having heard of “The 1619 Project” and the brouhaha surrounding it.
A publication by journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones and The New York Times, “1619” first appeared in an August 2019 issue of New York Times Magazine. In May 2020, Hannah-Jones was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Comments for her opening essay.
It was in 1619 that African slaves were first brought to America – the year before Mayflower arrived – and the dust jacket on the expanded book version of the project refers to it as “a new origin story.” 1619, writes Hannah-Jones, is when the real story of America began, not 1776 when the American Revolution began.
I managed to miss reading the original version in the Times, and I might not have maintained interest in it if it were not for former President Donald Trump. Trump introduced many people to the project in September 2020, when he merged it with critical race theory, an academic concept many Americans had never heard of before. He called both “a crusade against American history … toxic propaganda, ideological poison that, if not removed, will dissolve the bourgeois ties that bind us together, will destroy our country.”
I’m one of those people who’s never heard of critical race theory before, and now that I’m familiar with it, I feel confident telling you that your elementary school children are not going to be taught it. While “The 1619 Project” has developed a curriculum that can be taught in schools, I also feel confident that it would not happen in Tennessee schools, even before the Tennessee General Assembly passed a law earlier this year banning teaching critical race theory. .
But I like a challenge, and there is nothing that the President of the United States calls writing “toxic” to make me want to check it out. I bought the book as fast as I could, read it as fast as possible, and now I’m here to review it.
There has been so much tumult and rage over “The 1619 Project” from right-wing groups like “Moms For Liberty” and Trump supporters that I was surprised the book did not come with a big “Trigger Warning!” sticker on it. I walked into the book with an open mind and honestly expected to be surprised by historical revelations.
I was not surprised as much of the book seems to be common sense, but I learned a hell of a lot.
One of Hannah-Jones’ most controversial claims is that slavery was a primary motivation for the American Revolution. Most of us are taught a heroic story of America’s founding, told that a group of upright white men pushed back against tyranny and the unjust taxation of the British crown.
That’s true, but of course there’s more to the story. The primary authors of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights were Virginians who were slaves. We have long known that Thomas Jefferson became the father of at least six children by a slave woman, Sally Hemings, but both George Washington and James Madison also ran plantations with the slave labor.
Princeton University historian Sean Silenz was one of a handful of historians who criticized Hannah-Jones’ theory, pointing out that not all men who were part of our founders were pro-slavery.
That is also true, but many of us consider our own well-being when we take measures that can be welcomed in public and more than one thing can be true. We can agree with Hannah-Jones that a number of America’s early leaders may well have tried to protect their own interests by breaking out of England, while also acknowledging that this was not the only factor.
How else to account for the virulent reaction of colonists to the Dunmore Proclamation, the document through Virginia’s Royal Governor, John Murray, Earl of Dunmore, who announced that if settlers took up arms against Britain, he would free all the slaves in the state? It is not far to accept Hannah-Jones’ theory that leading Virginia did not want to lose access to slave labor, but also to acknowledge that the settlers may also have grown tired of King George III telling them what to do. .
I hardly scratch the surface of the book, and much of its content is indisputable. There are ample studies to support the information in Linda Villarosa’s essay on medication: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released data showing that black Americans were 1.4 times more likely to die from COVID-19, for example. And no one will be surprised by claims that African American musicians and artists have had an unmanageable influence on American culture.
When the pandemic started, I started taking history courses online through the Harvard Extension School for fun, and over the past 18 months I have been reminded that interpretations of historical events evolve in the same way that science does: as we explore our past, our knowledge grows. “The 1619 Project” adds a different and necessary interpretation of America’s history to our national discourse: It’s not something to fear or slander.
Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are influenced by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own comment here.