J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, November 10, 2021

The Short, Ongoing History of “The 1619 Project”

In connection with the publication of the revised and expanded book edition of The 1619 Project, Jake Silverstein, the New York Times Magazine editor who green-lighted Hannah Nikole-Jones’s original proposal for a special issue, wrote a long essay covering two topics:
  • the genesis of the original publication and how it became a focus of political controversy.
  • how the project fits into the historiography of the American Revolution.
On the first topic, Silverstein dates the “substantive” pushback against the project to a letter from five eminent American historians which the magazine published and responded to in December 2019.

The ever iconoclastic author William Hogeland noted that that framing left out how the World Socialists Web Site started to run interviews with those same historians the previous month. I quoted from the conversation with Gordon Wood back here.

The interviews were much longer than the letter, as well as more intemperate (and in some cases inaccurate) about what the original “1619 Project” said. They served but didn’t support the World Socialists’ own critique of the project, a Trotskyist approach that emphasizes economic issues over racial ones. Since socialists are one part of the political left, more powerful critics on the right were able to argue that opposition to the 1619 Project wasn’t simply reactionary.

Me, I think it’s impossible to find any activity that doesn’t have political meaning, even if it’s not easy to see at the time. Of course “The 1619 Project,” or anything about racial injustice in American society, has a political dimension. As does overheated opposition to it.

Silverstein’s essay recounts how far the political response went in a year with a Presidential election and another with an attempted coup:
By the end of the summer, 27 states had introduced strikingly similar versions of a “divisive concepts” bill, which swirled together misrepresentations of critical race theory and the 1619 Project with extreme examples of the diversity training that had proliferated since the previous summer. The list of these divisive concepts, which the laws would prohibit from being discussed in classrooms, included such ideas as “one race, ethnic group or sex is inherently morally or intellectually superior to another race, ethnic group or sex” and “an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race, ethnicity or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed by other members of the same race, ethnic group or sex,” as Arizona House Bill 2898 put it.

To be clear, these notions aren’t found in the 1619 Project or in any but the most fringe writings by adherents of critical race theory, but the legislation aimed at something broader. “The clear goal of these efforts is to suppress teaching and learning about the role of racism in the history of the United States,” the A.H.A. [American Historical Association] and three other associations declared in a statement in June. “But the ideal of informed citizenship necessitates an educated public.”
One of the basic points of both “The 1619 Project” and “critical race theory” is that for at least three hundred years American schools and other institutions did operate on the basis that “one race, ethnic group or sex is inherently morally or intellectually superior to another.” And that the consequences of those centuries still affect us every day. These “divisive concepts” laws prohibit promulgating such ideas further, but they also stifle teaching about the history and results of those ideas.

TOMORROW: The long effort to tell the history.

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