The 1619 Project: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly
One of the first things I discovered when teaching American history to black students in the Philadelphia public and charter schools was that the last thing they wanted to hear about is slavery. This may seem counterintuitive to some readers, but the interests of intellectuals do not always match the interests of everyday people, especially children.
As soon as I started the chapter in the textbook, I’d hear cries from the students: “Not again. It seems like that’s all we learn about in American history. I’m sick of hearing about slavery.” These children generally wanted to hear more “positive” stories about black people. Success stories.
In this light, The 1619 Project will be a useful tool for teaching black students about African-American history, with its visual artistry, good writing, and its coherent overall vision. Which is I suppose is the intention. Until one sees the poor quality of textbooks one normally uses in these inner-city schools, one cannot appreciate the utility of something like The 1619 Project. Its interactive online presentation. Its New York Times quality writing that ties past and present. Its stylish audio-visual display.
The 1619 Project tries to tackle the serious practical problem of black students finding African-American history “depressing”, at least in the way it is often presented. I would not go as far as to say that The 1619 Project makes African-American history “inspiring”, but it does attempt to give black Americans a “heroic” role in the formation of American democracy, by the way it frames the story. Still, I would have hoped for more “positive” stories of black success from the past, which young people could look to as historical models. Sometimes when I read articles by black writers from prestigious journals like the New York Times, Washington Post, and The Atlantic, their accounts of the black experience seems so bleak, one wonders how they ever got the inspiration to achieve their success.
Much has been made of the “re-framing of American history” that The 1619 Project has explicitly attempted in its presentation. This “re-framing” has been the center of criticism by some conservatives. That it is left-wing propaganda put out by the preeminent American newspaper, the New York Times, to discredit the American Founding and American capitalism. This criticism is off-the-mark, though The 1619 Project’s presentation of the relationship between capitalism and slavery is certainly incomplete and even misleading.
Long before every “identity group” under the sun was writing their own “identity-group histories”, in 1883, Ohio lawyer and state Representative, George Washington Williams, published his two volume: The History of the Negro Race in America: 1619-1880. Williams’ fascinating work is generally regarded as the first black American general history, and here we see the date “1619”. And as we peruse the major works of black American general history, the year 1619 is traditionally espoused as the “starting point”. Booker T. Washington’s The Story of the Negro (1909) also cites the date of 1619 (August). Likewise, Carter G. Woodson’s influential textbook designed for black high school classrooms of the period: The Negro in Our History (1922). John Hope Franklin’s From Slavery to Freedom (1947), which is still in print today in its 9th edition, uses this date. And of course, the text cited by The 1619 Project, Lerone Bennett’s Before the Mayflower (1962), also still in print, in its 6th edition today.
In this sense, The 1619 Project’s “re-framing” is nothing new. It’s a traditional starting point for understanding the history of blacks in the United States. However, since the 1960s, there has been a change in the overall orientation to black history that is reflected in The 1619 Project itself.
If we look at the major black historians from the first half of the twentieth century, whether we are talking of Washington, Woodson, Du Bois, etc., we see the argument oriented toward demonstrating “black progress”. These works seek to demonstrate and emphasize how far black Americans have come since slavery, and how much they have accomplished. However, in the last fifty years, since the black Revolution of the 1960s, the emphasis and overall aims of black historical writing has shifted considerably, particularly among the black intellectual elite. Its focus is now more on “highlighting black oppression”, and arguing that the de jure color caste system of yesteryear still operates de facto today.
There are multiple causes for this change in the character of black historical writing. There has been a major change of conditions over the last century, particularly for black elites. There has been a change in point-of-view generally. But also the politics has changed since the Civil Rights Movement. Here, one must understand the character of Jim Crow more precisely.
While Jim Crow is known for creating a regime where blacks were “second-class citizens”, the inequalities created by the system itself were not a product of the “letter of the law”, so much as deeply racially prejudicial enforcement practices. The ante-bellum period allowed for an explicit racial hierarchy within the letter of the law, but the Reconstruction Amendments (13th, 14th, and 15th) made the continuation of this legislative practice prohibited. Jim Crow laws were written so as to appear on the surface as “racially neutral”, but were enforced in an overtly and often explicitly racially bigoted fashion. Consequently, the political and legal fight against Jim Crow necessarily involved a demonstration of the “inequality of racial outcomes” produced by “systemic” and racially prejudicial enforcement practices. Even if the letter of the law was “racially neutral”.
The political success of this approach in the Civil Rights Movement, leant itself to imitation. And ever since, black intellectual elites have increasingly tended towards focusing on “systemic oppression”, and less on “black progress”, in the sense that it was understood by black historians of the first half of the twentieth century. And perhaps this does in fact represent a historical shift in the understanding of “black progress” itself by black intellectual elites.
Frankly, I find the 1619 Project’s treatment of the topic of “capitalism and slavery” deeply disappointing, especially since this topic has been covered so thoroughly for over a century. Its largest failing is that while it correctly identifies American slavery as partially shaping and motoring American capitalism during the 18th and 19th centuries, it omits the important ending of the story: American capitalism destroys American slavery. In fact, the ante-bellum American slave regime was the first major victim of the growth of mid-19th century American capitalism, as it is literally conquered by the Union Army, thus making way for merchant-friendly federal legislation and policies, instead of policies oriented to favor the needs of the Southern Planters.
In fact, if I felt compelled to trace the immediate “criminal roots” of modern American capitalism in some Machiavellian sense, I probably would not point to American slavery so much as the Anglo-American Civil War. Modern American capitalism is born in a “fratricide”, the greatest in American history.
Today, Hip-Hop Moguls preach the “gospel of black capitalism”, and black capitalism’s utility in insulating oneself from the problems of the color line.
Consequently, in leaving out the role of American capitalism in conquering American slavery, The 1619 Project also fails to link this with the role that black capitalism can play in mitigating problems of the color line today. This is despite the fact that the most revered black icons and influential opinion makers, such as Jay-Z, Beyonce, Puff Daddy, Cardi B, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, among others, consistently maintain this view. I assume that The 1619 Project has intentionally chosen not to present the role that American capitalism can play in mitigating problems of color, neither the role Anglo-American capitalism played in the conquest of the Anglo-American slave regime, nor the role black capitalism can play today in fighting problems of color.
If the 1619 Project involves some form of political propaganda, it is with regard to its somewhat arbitrary view of the relationship between capitalism and the American color line, and its understanding of the meaning of “black progress” more generally.