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What the 1619 Project Really Means

On the 400th anniversary of the landing and sale of the first Africans in Virginia, The New York Times published a series of essays — the "1619 Project" — by journalists and scholars on the meaning of slavery to America. Its purpose was "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." Oddly, this gesture toward questioning the national hymn of progress provoked a loud protest from both liberal and conservative academics.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine, begins her introductory essay by approaching slavery and racism through her own family’s stories, and then describes the much-overlooked centrality of slavery to the economic rise of the United States. Hannah-Jones and the other essayists frame America as a nation born in the protection of slavery whose basic institutions are constructed on a racist logic. "Anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country, as does the belief, so well-articulated by Lincoln, that black people are the obstacle to national unity," Hannah-Jones wrote in what became the most criticized sentence in the collection.

Five distinguished historians of early America, Sean Wilentz and James McPherson of Princeton, Gordon Wood of Brown, Victoria Bynum of Texas State, and James Oakes of the City University of New York Graduate Center, responded by penning a protest letter to The New York Times. Although, they said, they applauded the 1619 Project’s goal of foregrounding the history of slavery and racism in American history, they took issue with what they alleged were "factual errors" and with an interpretation they claimed was a "displacement of historical understanding by ideology."

While the 1619 Project ranged across a large swath of the American experience, including redlining, mass incarceration, the history of racist medicine, the white appropriation of black music, and the emergence of historically black colleges, the five historians’ letter focused obsessively on the project’s reinterpretations of the American Revolution and the abolitionist movement. With a certainty rarely found among historians, they write: "The project asserts that the founders declared the colonies’ independence of Britain ‘in order to ensure slavery would continue.’ This is not true … every statement offered by the project to validate it is false." Additionally, they call the 1619 Project’s assertion that African Americans have largely had to struggle for their rights by themselves a "distortion." The signatories to the letter demanded the "removal of these mistakes from any materials destined for use in schools, as well as in all further publications."

Read entire article at The Chronicle of Higher Education