Should the New York Times’ 1619 Project be added to school curriculum?
- The New York Times' 1619 Project, published August 14, 2019, was helmed by Nikole Hannah-Jones. The project consists of a series of essays with the expressed aim to “reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as [America’s] true founding.” Hannah-Jones’ tweets (since deleted) echoed this thesis, which sparked controversy across the political aisle as this claim seemed to displace 1776 as the true founding of America.
- Hannah-Jones’ 1619 Project was awarded the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in Commentary in May 2020. The National Association of Scholars issued a letter, signed by 21 professors, historians, and academics, to the Pulitzer Prize Board in October 2020 urging them to rescind the award.
- Hannah-Jones has stated America is “not an exceptional nation,” and in response to a New York Post op-ed calling the civil unrest seen throughout America this summer as the “1619 riots,” she tweeted approvingly, “it would be an honor. Thank you.”
- In July 2020, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) announced the “Saving American History Act,” to prevent schools from teaching the project, and allow the federal government to pull funding to schools that teach it regardless. Sen. Cotton has called the project “a racially divisive, revisionist account of history that denies the noble principles of freedom and equality on which our nation was founded.”
The NYT's and journalist, Nikole Hannah-Jones' 1619 Project does not deserve a place in American schools' curricula. One of the multitudes of reasons for this is the fact of its goal to explicitly 'reframe' the founding of America as having been based solely on an effort to perpetuate slavery. It therefore presents itself as unassailable historical truth, yet the project was not vetted or consulted by historians, who have since spoken out against it. Their critiques of the project have widely been ignored. In May 2020, a two-word adjustment Hannah-Jones made to the project changed the idea of 'all of' to 'some of' (regarding her claim colonists were interested in the revolution primarily to keep their slaves). This substantial change undermines the project's entire thesis. But even with this change, the thesis remains ahistorical.
As a countermeasure, a group of predominantly black cultural scholars has established the 1776 Unites campaign. Their goal is to shed the image of black victimhood and help people see not only the uniqueness of America's founding, but the subsequent promise to its black citizenry rather than being forever defined by its initial failures.
No serious historian would claim the American founding was perfect. Nor that the founding fathers did all they could to abolish slavery at the country's inception. However insufficient, they acknowledged the abhorrent practice and established methods to phase it out. It is undeniable America has a fraught history with slavery, and very few can be painted as either entirely noble or villainous in slavery's demise. But the 1619 Project does nothing to address the nuances of American history. Instead it magnifies the flaw in our country to center it as the feature, not the bug.
Experts argue the biggest obstacle to teaching slavery effectively in classrooms is our deep-seated need to perceive history as progress. We emphasize history progressing forward on a straight line for all Americans. So learning about its true, and usually ugly, undersides can be unsettling. However, in letting this happen, we deny the truth and struggle of a significant percentage of the population.
Some of the harshest critics of the New York Time's 1619 project, such as Senator Tom Cotton, claim slavery was a 'necessary evil upon which the union was built.' And this proves the very argument the project makes—that 250 years of enslavement has had a profound effect on every aspect of life in America. Americans today know very little about the lives of those who were enslaved. And many lack understanding of how slavery was central to the country's foundation. And so it does not matter if it is the 1619 project that is introduced to students or any other program that examines slavery, so long as it is one that would actively help us recognize the real trajectory of U.S. history. Adding the 1619 project into the school curriculum would also help students better understand the Black Lives Matter movement's current rise and demands to address the systemic racism that still exists today. The fact remains that progress is fragile and, often, reversible. Any attempt to redress historical inequities requires knowledge of those inequities, which the 1619 Project manages to provide, while also putting it in context to create a joint political and economic base.