"My mother raised my siblings and me to be Hegelians ... and that means the purpose of critique is dialectial, to reach a higher synthesis, which in turn reveals new contradictions demanding new critique." (Robin D. G. Kelley in an essay on the conflict between Cornel West and Ta-Nahisi Coates)
The following is a list of sources I consulted in writing two blog posts on the New York Times’1619 Project during my fall, 2021 sabbatical. I’ve also included some notes on and extended excerpts from some of the sources. It’s not an exhaustive list of all that had been written about the Project. Whatever value the Times’ Project itself may have, the discussion of it provides a fascinating window into the creation of history, the fault lines within the profession, and the political and ethical implications of the work that historians do, not to mention the nature of American slavery and the Black experience in American history. If the Times’ goal was to advance the dialectic and reveal new contradictions in our collective understanding of slavery and the place of Blacks in American history—as opposed to promoting one particular way of thinking about it—then it was certainly a great success. The articles in the Project itself are good, but by no means do they provide the last word on their subjects (no work of history ever does). It’s really in the debate over the project and various related readings that I’ve learned the most.
The online version of The 1619 Project.
The 1619 Project Curriculum website by The Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting in collaboration with the Times.
An introduction to a forum with four historians hosted by the Times claims that Jones’ goal for the 1619 Project was to begin a conversation about slavery and “stimulate more dialogue.”
“This project is an origin story. It is not pretending to be the origin story,” she wrote. “We are talking about a particular moment in time and making an argument and really asking a question: What would it mean to imagine 1619 as an origin story and how would that help us understand the country that we are?” Alan Taylor said the Project presented “an unsettling narrative, but one that forces us to think … about the fundamentals of American history. And I think that’s been immensely useful.” According to this source, comments from this panel “had something to do with” the Times’ decision to issue the clarification of its statement that “one primary reason the colonists fought the American Revolution was to protect the institution of slavery.” That wording was changed to this: it was “a primary motivation for some of the colonists.”
WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED IN 1619?
Jones discusses the arrival of Africans in Virginia briefly in her opening essay.
Also in the Times Magazine, Mary Elliott’s and Jazmine Hughes’s “Brief History of Slavery,” asserts that 1619 “set the course” for American Slavery in its account of the sale of 20 Africans as servants in late August.
Nell Irvin Painter, celebrated African-American historian, and author of the History of White People, a global history of racism, said the 1619 Project was “not history as I would write it,” but declined to sign the letter criticizing it. Her book and an article she published in the Guardian four days before the Times Magazine came out, argues that it’s inaccurate to say the Africans who arrived in 1619 were enslaved. “People were not enslaved in Virginia in 1619, they were indentured,” she writes. “The 20 or so Africans were sold and bought as ‘servants’ for a term of years, and they joined a population consisting largely of European indentured servants, mainly poor people from the British Isles whom the Virginia Company of London had transported and sold into servitude.” Then again, as she writes in her book, unfree white laborers brought to the colonies were essentially enslaved. Few outlived their terms of indenture. See History of White People, 40-41.
Painter’s book also offers a persuasive counterweight to the exceptionalist view of American enslavement of Africans adopted by the Times:
In short, the 1619 Africans were not “enslaved”. They were townspeople in the Ndongo district of Angola who had been captured by Imbangala warlords and delivered to the port of Luanda for shipment to the Americas. Raiding, capturing and selling people was not an exclusively African practice.
The History of White People begins as a history of the enslavement of white people. She writes: “It will not be lost on the reader that over more than a millennium the vast story of Western slavery was primarily a white story.”
I also made use of a fellow high school teacher’s website. John McNeer teaches at a private school in Richmond Virginia, and his page on 1619 offered a detailed discussion the events of 1619 while placing them into the broader historical context. Citing scholarship by the white historian James Horn, he seems to accept the view that the White Lion Africans were enslaved, though he acknowledges that historians don’t all agree.
Raiding for captives to sell belongs to a long human history that knows no boundaries of time, place or race. This business model unites the ninth-12th-century Vikings who made Dublin western Europe’s largest slave market (think of St Patrick, who had been enslaved by Irish raiders in the fifth century) and 10th-16th-century Cossacks who delivered eastern European peasants to the Black Sea market at Tana for shipment to the wealthy eastern Mediterranean. The earliest foreign policy of the new United States of America targeted the raiders of the Barbary Coast who engaged in a lively slave trade in Europeans (think Robinson Crusoe). Sadly, the phenomenon of warlords who prey on peasants knows no boundaries of time or place.
See also, this National Parks timeline of the evolution of slavery in Virginia from the arrival of Africans in 1619 to the first slave code, 1705.
CONTINGENCY v. INEVITABILITY
Two assessments of the educational value of 1619 which influenced my thinking on the subject include this piece by Andrew Riely, another fellow private high school teacher in Massachusetts:
Racism in the United States, Riely argues, echoing Edmund Morgan,
was not something preordained….Students should not learn about racial democracy only in the context of the drafting of the Constitution, or of Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal policy, by which time it was fully formed. To learn why white male identity became the defining qualifier (along with property ownership) for participation in politics across much of early American society, it is as vital to study the roots of this phenomenon as its later manifestations. Otherwise, students will learn that American racism is fixed—its origins obscure and its status unchanging. This can only contribute to racial pessimism and the conclusion that the pursuit of equality under our current political framework is a fool’s errand.
Also in line with Morgan, Matthew Karp, an associate professor of history at Princeton University and an expert on the Civil War and slavery, in Harpers critiques the seed analogy:
Above all, the historical imagination of the 1619 Project centers on a single moment: the purported date that marks the arrival of African slaves in British North America. “This is sometimes referred to as the country’s original sin,” writes Jake Silverstein, the editor of The New York Times Magazine, “but it is more than that: It is the country’s very origin.” Out of this moment, he continues, “grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional”—the kernel of four hundred years of economic, political, and cultural life. History, in this conception, is not a jagged chronicle of events, struggles, and transformations; it is the blossoming of planted seeds, the flourishing of a foundational premise….
However sordid or sublime, our origins are not our destinies; our daily journey into the future is not fixed by moral arcs or genetic instructions. We must come to see history, as Brown put it, not as “what we dwell in, are propelled by, or are determined by,” but rather as “what we fight over, fight for, and aspire to honor in our practices of justice.” History is not the end; it is only one more battleground where we must meet the vast demands of the ever-living now.
The Washington Post summary of the conflict over the project included the “turf-guarding academics” line.
Adam Swerer’s account in the Atlantic adds more details and makes the case that the conflict is centered around two opposing metanarratives of US history: “a vision of American history as a slow, uncertain march toward a more perfect union. The 1619 Project, and Hannah-Jones’s introductory essay in particular, offer a darker vision of the nation, in which Americans have made less progress than they think, and in which black people continue to struggle indefinitely for rights they may never fully realize.”
The historians’ letter critical of “1619” and the Times response.
The World Socialist Website’s original critique.
The American Historical Review defends 1619 against historians writing on the WSWS and elsewhere.
The WSWS responds to the AHA. Authors David North and Tom MacKaman accused the AHR editor Lichtenstein of engaging in racial essentialism, assuming “that one’s understanding of history is determined by one’s race” and embracing “racialist theories of history.” This is the same that article quotes at length from an email sent by Barbara Fields. Here it is in full:
I could hardly miss the hype of The 1619 Project, particularly since I am a print subscriber to the NYT. Although I have saved the issue (knowing that some of my students will have seen it, most likely online, and will have been seduced by its tendentious and ignorant history), I’m afraid I have not troubled to read the issue all the way through. The pre-launch publicity warned me of racecraft in the offing. And once I had the issue in hand, the first few bars disinclined me to waste my time on the rest of the operetta. Not that I would have expected anything more of the Times. Ask their writers to take the time to read Edmund Morgan or David Brion Davis or Eugene Genovese or Eric Williams or any of the explosion of rich literature about slavery in the United States and the hemisphere published over the past century? What an idea! And the packaged history they have assembled fits well with neo-liberal politics.
A listing of the people involved in the 1776 commission.
Civil War Historian Allen Guelzo calls the 1619 project a “conspiracy theory” and engages the debate over American exceptionalism. Where Jones and the Times’ project argue for negative exceptionalism, Guelzo makes the case for positive exceptionalism.
Perhaps the most persuasive defense of the project was written by David Waldstreicher, in the Boston Review. He says reporting on the controversy (he singles out Serwer’s essay) fails to acknowledge that the debates over the content of 1619 reflect “deep fault lines in the field of U.S. History,” which he traces back to Charles Beard’s revisionist history of the Constitution a century ago. His article lays out the contours of the debate over the Revolution and identifies the historians on each side, including three of the four panelists on the Times-sponsored forum mentioned above.
Wildersteicher places himself on the pro-Times side against its critics, but calls for building “a bridge over the fault lines in the scholarship,” acknowledging that the Revolution included both ‘proslavery and antislavery dimensions.” The conflict over the Project “explains a lot about what we are going through right now,” he writes.
The blame game that Wilentz and others have sought to play on the 1619 Project’s journalists is as much about political strategy as it is about history, and it can be traced all the way back to the split among abolitionists in 1840. Garrisonian radicals insisted that the Constitution was a “covenant with death.” They also tied the struggle against slavery and for black citizenship to the plight of women. The liberals, by contrast—who went on to found antislavery political parties—saw these positions as divisive and strategically unsound. It might be fine for fashionably progressive circles in eastern cities, but it wouldn’t play well in Ohio. (Not coincidentally, Wilentz has been writing for years about such progressive-liberal splits, while consistently championing traditional Democratic Party politics—opposing first Barack Obama, then Bernie Sanders, and now anyone else who indulges “high-minded politics,” in the present or the past.)Wildersteicher goes on to say that Frederick Douglass has been criticized for making the same strategic decision, but it was based on “a deep logic, as well as political savvy…. To celebrate what was good and criticize what was lacking in the American Revolution were two sides of the same civic coin. Both were necessary for political reasons, but not least because both were true.”
Defenses of the Project tend to focus mostly on criticizing the critics. In this piece, Nicholas Guyatt accuses his fellow historians of engaging in “a level of vitriol that is neither productive nor scholarly,” and writes them off as a fading generation of gate-keepers resentful of younger scholars.
In her Politico article, Leslie M. Harris criticizes the Times for ignoring her warnings against exaggerating their claim that preserving slavery was a primary motivation for the American Revolution. But she offers stronger criticism of the project’s political and academic critics. She writes:
The best-known of those letter-writers, however, built their careers on an older style of American history—one that largely ignored the new currents that had begun to bubble up among their contemporaries. By the time Gordon Wood and Sean Wilentz were publishing their first, highly acclaimed books on pre-Civil War America, in the early 1970s and mid-1980s, respectively, academic historians had begun, finally, to acknowledge African American history and slavery as a critical theme in American history. But Wood and Wilentz paid little attention to such matters in their first works on early America.Harris reserves high praise, however, for Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom, “which addresses explicitly how the intertwined histories of Native American, African American and English residents of Virginia are foundational to understanding the ideas of freedom we still struggle with today” and perhaps contains the best argument against the 1619 seed analogy.
To the degree I am familiar with how my colleagues at Exeter teach the origins of slavery in American history, Morgan’s book has provided the guiding spirit.
Here, a group of early American historians discuss the enduring significance of Morgan’s book.
The civics and history education priorities of Biden’s Department of Education make no mention of Morgan’s book.
Laurence Shore places Morgan into an even more complicated discourse on the origins of slavery in his essay on another influential work on the topic in "The Enduring Power of Racism: A Reconsideration of Winthrop Jordan's White Over Black," History and Theory 44 (May 2005), 195-226.
Coates’s Afro-Pessimism was discussed on my blog here and here.
On Bayard Rustin’s schooling of Martin Luther King Jr. in non-violent strategy: see John D'Emilio, Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin (Simon and Schuster, 2003), 230-236.
On the history of the use of the seed metaphor, see Daniel Lord Smail, On Deep History and the Brain (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 76-80. Snail argues that a better metaphor than the seed, is biology's other model of growth: phylogeny. “With phylogeny, there is no blueprint. If lineages appear to head in certain directions, it is only because organisms are doomed to pursue the Sisyphean goal of optimal design in a changing environment” (79). Past historians, he argues, have used the seed metaphor to justify European imperialism. In those narratives, European conquest brought the seed of civilization to “seedless” non-western peoples, whose “cultures were doomed to a timelessness broken only when they were absorbed into the expanding cone of historicity created by Western expansion, colonization, and imperialism” 78.
In her Politico essay, Leslie Harris praises historians who documented the “ways in which black people fought for freedom before, during and after the Revolutionary era—and how, as the 1619 Project rightly points out, they challenged the patriots to live up to their own ideals of freedom for all—ideals that only fully began to be realized at the close of the Civil War, and have still not been fulfilled.” I would add that other historians, including me, have done the same thing with later US wars (pardon the self-promotion).
The debate among historians about 1619 is mostly a debate among leftists. I think Adolph Reed offers some insight into the fundamental divide the debate reflecs in his introductory essay to Class Notes, when he discussed the division that emerged among radical 60s activists in the 70s and 80s, between those who retreated into academia and came to see deconstructing language and oppressive structures as a political act and Labor Party leftists like himself who adhere to an “organizational approach to politics.” The former group emphasized pluralistic, identity group politics, based on “ascriptive identity” categories rather than a class politics based on shared material interests cross boundaries of identity like race, gender and ethnicity. Only a class politics based on the common interests of workers, he argues, is capable of forming a mass politics capable of wielding power and realizing progressive ends. Such a politics of common interests, he argues, “is a politics that, like trade unionism, presumes a concrete, material basis for solidarity—not gestures, guilt-tripping and idealist abstractions.” Those who believe that institutional structures of oppression—like systemic racism—must be dismantled before any meaningful change can occur invite progressive dispair. They came to believe that “capitalist or ruling class power was so great that any specific action attempting to challenge it was destined to fail.” They fail to recognize, he said "that putting the ball in play can suddenly change the alignment of forces in the field and create openings that could not have been predicted. …[They] forget, that is, what Marx recognized more than a century and a half ago that although constrained by structures ... the course of history is dynamic and open-ended, that people actually do make history, even if not ‘just as they please under circumstances chosen by themselves’" (xiii-xiv) Adolph Reed, Jr., Class Politics: Posting as Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene (New York: The New Press, 2000).
While the cultural radicals fight over the schools' history curriculum, we may also be sing an increase in what Reed called the "organizational approach to politics,” during "striketober" of 2021. Labor historian Nelson Lichtenstien writes that the number of workers on strike is small by comparison to previous "strike waves,"
But what may be even more significant is the cheerleading, the hope, and the expectation for a labor upsurge that has been manifest ever since scores of eager young journalists descended upon Bessemer, Alabama, last winter to cover the union effort there to organize an Amazon distribution center. American liberals know that something is missing from the body politic, and that something is a labor movement with sufficient strength to not only boost pay, but also wield the kind of political power that once pushed Midwestern Republicans to raise the minimum wage, vote for civil rights laws, and even increase social spending.