The 1619 Project Returns: Hope for a Critical Perspective

1619 Project by NY Times via Wiki Commons

After its explosive arrival on the political stage, the 1619 Project is set to return. This time in book form, as Pulitzer Journalists Nikole Hannah-Jones and her colleagues have expanded on their famous work. One can only hope that it improves upon a much-needed criticism of the traditional American narrative.

The project, which began in 2019, challenged traditional views of American history. In most cases, that challenge was justified, and where it made mistakes, corrections were made. I happily pointed out mistakes, but with the project rising onto the national stage, very few critics were concerned with its actual meaning or arguments.

Here Comes The Backlash

It isn’t too surprising that the 1619 Project provoked a backlash. Indeed, any narrative which seeks to challenge the orthodox perspective will create controversy. And the 1619 project was certainly bold in its challenge. In its introduction, The New York Times explained the purpose of the project, saying:

The 1619 Project is an ongoing initiative from The New York Times Magazine that began in August 2019, the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.

1619 Project, New York Times, 2019.

This perspective necessarily ran into the usual responses that come with critiquing the triumphant narrative that many Americans have been sold. One example, one I have examined before, is the Heritage Foundation’s video on the subject.

As I explained then, the very arguments that the 1619 Project works to address are repeated without so much as a substantial critique of the actual facts undergirding their response. Indeed, it was a vapid and flaccid response to what could’ve been a lively and honest debate about this legacy and its future. And it would continue like that, especially among Republicans. But I have already addressed much of that backlash. What’s important to note is that flawed as it was, the 1619 Project’s detractors are not particularly interested in its historiographical implications. Far from it.

Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) proposed a law to prohibit the federal government from giving funds to schools that used the project in its curriculum and called it a “racially divisive, revisionist account of history that denies the noble principles of freedom and equality on which our nation was founded.” This approach, in turn, created a liberal backlash of its own, creating a political schism over the project. Though the project is not obligated to limit its work to appease this backlash. One can only hope that as the new project comes out, it will avoid these dishonest tactics and get to the root of America’s history with racism.

What’s Next? AND WHY THE BACKLASH MATTERS

We can expect to see the project expand upon its analysis and address some of its criticism if all goes well. While the 1619 project has done its best to address key issues, it has not fully addressed its critics directly. Nikole Hannah-Jones’ essay, America Wasn’t a Democracy Until African Americans Made It One (2019), was one provocative piece that tried to give a more human perspective than other works in the project but did not get ahead of its critics. Though that is not too surprising, considering the personal nature of the essay. Like any work of historiographical value, it should, in theory, address its critics and work to address their views and, refute them as firmly as possible.

By firm, I mean that the project should endeavor to address the exact arguments against the project’s core mission. Rather than making an edit after the fact, it should focus on its critics and its, both political and historical. Whether or not the 1619 project’s creators wanted it, they are the centerpiece of ongoing controversy about who we are as Americans and who we are as a nation. Though, considering her statements in response to her critics, I feel that this project will be worth the wait.

“People who send threats, people who make threats, what they’re really trying to do is silence you… This is my mission. And so nothing will distract me from that, and I just can’t go around worried about what might happen. I just have to do my job.”

Nikole Hannah-Jones, 2021.

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