by J. Pharoah Doss, For New Pittsburgh Courier
In August 2019, The New York Times Magazine published a collection of essays called The 1619 Project. The project was launched to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Africans to the British Jamestown colony in Virginia. The expressed goal of The 1619 Project was to reframe American history. The essays drew a direct connection from slavery to modern social concerns such as the racial wealth gap, mass incarceration, no universal health care, obesity, right-wing politics, and even traffic jams.
Like all publications, The 1619 project was praised and criticized. The individual essays were praised for interpreting American history through the lens of slavery and race instead of the lens of White supremacy, but the critics lambasted the major themes of The 1619 Project as gross distortions of the historical record.
That would have been the end of the academic debate if The 1619 Project remained a commemorative event, but it became an ongoing project with a lecture series, a podcast, and resource materials for public schools.
The thought of The 1619 Project entering public school curriculums prompted professional historians (these are academics of the left, not right-wing reactionaries) to express publicly that the false premises, which The 1619 Project were based, invalidated the entire endeavor, and a group of African American public figures have launched The 1776 Project to counter what they called The 1619 Project’s demoralizing narrative.
There are two major themes of The 1619 Project that aren’t simply falsehoods but blatant reinventions of history. The first reinvention was the claim that the year 1619 is the actual founding date of America, not the year 1776, because the main idea expressed in the Declaration of Independence, that all men are created equal endowed by the Creator with certain unalienable rights, was a lie because America still practiced slavery. (Democratic Presidential Candidate Beto O’Rourke actually repeated this during a presidential debate.) The second reinvention was that the American Revolutionary War was not about enlightenment ideas or taxation but was fought to preserve slavery, because Britain’s highest court ruled in 1772 that slavery was not sanctioned by British common law.
The professional historians stated The 1619 Project didn’t explore history through a different lens, which is always welcomed, but presented falsehoods as facts to advance a contemporary agenda that centered around left-wing identity politics and reparations for slavery. Now, The 1776 Project sounded like an attempt to correct the historical record for the sake of accuracy, but it’s really a competing worldview. The 1776 Project is a direct response to the political agenda of The 1619 Project with essays promoting contemporary ideas associated with Black conservatives such as “Black patriotism over victimization” and “slavery doesn’t define Black America.”
The false premises of The 1619 Project may justify the reactionary response of The 1776 Project, but there’s no justification for history classes in public schools to be turned into battlegrounds of competing worldviews of contemporary Black politics.