On May 5 Rev. David Brown, a diversity advisor at Temple University held a public conversation about the themes of my book Disrupting Whiteness. The event was sponsored by the Inside-Out Prison- Exchange program, which brings together traditional undergraduate college students and incarcerated men and women in a college course. Following the conversation, there were a number of questions raised, some of which we were able to address, but many we were not. Over the next several weeks I would like to address these questions.
For those who would like to view the entire conversation, it can be found at https://www.facebook.com/theinsideoutcenter/videos/756890645187518
Question: Why is the 1619 Project so controversial? I have listened to it and the politicians that are trying to halt it just confirm the overt racism in politics.
The Lion’s Story
There is an African proverb that states, “Until the lion tells his side of the story, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” The American history most of us grew up learning in school told the story of Europeans coming to a strange “New World,” “civilizing” it and expanding the Euro-American influence from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. We learned about the settlement at Jamestown, the Puritans and Pilgrims in New England, families moving west, cowboys fighting Indians and the building of a transcontinental railroad from the east to the west coast of the continent. All of what we learned was true but incomplete. We learned the hunter’s version of American history.
The 1619 Project, a series of essays, podcasts, and artistic expressions sponsored by the New York Times, seeks to tell the story of America from the vantage point of African slaves forcibly transported from their ancestral homes in overcrowded ships and being forced into enslaved labor for over two centuries before being granted citizenship. However, that citizenship status was and has continually threatened by Black codes, lynchings, voter suppression, police violence, redlining, overt and covert discrimination from the end of the Civil War to the present.
The 1619 Project tells the lion’s side of the story, which in the telling has challenged the long-held myths and beliefs used to characterize the United States as “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” The actions and words of some of the nation’s iconic historical figures, such as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln have been called into question and offered a stiff critique from those who suffered because of them. The project has also offered different perspectives on the reasons for key events, such as the American Revolution. All of this has raised the hackles of professional historians and moved legislators (who most likely have not read one page of the 1619 Project essays) to ban their use in public education.
The Story of a Flag
In the opening essay to the Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones tells the story of her father growing up in Mississippi amidst lynchings and other routine acts of violence against African Americans. At 18 years of age he joined the Army in hopes that “if he served his country, his country would finally treat him as an American.” She goes on to say, “the Army did not end up being his way out. He was passed over for opportunities, his ambition stunted.” And yet outside her home, her father flew an American flag. Hannah-Jones could not understand her father’s insistence on flying the flag. She writes: “How could this black man, having seen firsthand the way his country abused black Americans, how it refused to treat us as full citizens, proudly fly his banner?” She goes on “My father knew exactly that our people’s contributions to building the richest and most powerful nation in the world were indelible, that the United States simply would not exist with us.” The American story is not complete without the African American component of that story.
The 1619 Project Perspective
Hannah-Jones and her fellow essayists set out to prove the validity of her father’s actions and beliefs. In August 1619 the newly arrived residents of Jamestown on the coast of Virginia purchased 20-30 slaves from English pirates who had stolen them for a Portuguese slave ship most likely bound for South America. They were the first of over 12.5 million Africans to be kidnapped and loaded on slave ships. Nearly two million of those captured would die en route; 400,000 would be sold in what would become the United States and would do the lion’s share of the agricultural and construction work that helped the new colonies and budding nation prosper. The cotton the slaves picked was sent north to New England textile mills which would clothe the nation, expand its exports and lead to an Industrial revolution. The rise of industry and wealth was earned on the back of the stolen labor of the African slaves.
And yet when Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence stating “all men are created equal,” he did not include the 20% of the population that was enslaved. Likewise, after the American Revolution, leaders of the new nation wrote a Constitution that allowed the southern colonies to hold their slaves rather than abolish it. In that move, the seeds of the Civil War that would come two generations later were sown and they kept in place the barbarous system of human cruelty and oppression that had fueled the new success to that point.
Hannah-Jones and her fellow essayists go into great detail critiquing all areas of American life through the lens of African-American history and the racist patterns still operative today. While many Americans, white and Black, would like to believe we as a nation have outgrown and moved past the ravages and brutality of our history, recent events and actions cause many to question if in fact, we have “moved on.” The recurring incidents of police violence against Black and Brown bodies, the vast inequities that exist in education, health care, and wages between Whites and Black and Brown folks indicate that we still have a long way to go. And one of the things that holds us back from reaching that true place of “liberty and justice for all” is an unwillingness to acknowledge and grapple with the great harms and injustice of our history that still shape our actions today.
The harsh truths presented by the 1619 Project are and should be open to debate. Several prominent historians have raised questions. This is as it should be. As historian Nicholas Guyatt writes: “Argument isn’t an obstacle to the work of historians; it is the world of historians.” The role and impact of history on our lives in the present is why knowing and grappling with history is so important. The sad thing is the most of us were presented a history of key facts, events, and prominent individuals. We are not used to going back and reexamining what happened in the past to better understand our present. That is what historians do; that is what the 1619 Project invites us to do.
Many legislators and political leaders would rather silence the debate rather than learn from it. They say they are concerned that white children will feel guilty about the nation’s past which in turn will undermine their patriotic commitment to the nation. The reality is that suppressing the truth and hiding the sordid facts of our history will backfire. I speak from an experience as one who grew up in the era of the Vietnam War. Hundreds of thousands of my peers and friends were sent to Southeast Asia to fight a war they were told was to stop the spread of Communism. Only later did we learn that throughout the war the U.S. government lied to us about its purposes, the progress of the war, and the nature of the enemy. The truth of Vietnam could not be hidden and came out and it has shaped the perspective on how to listen to political leaders ever since. The truths of the 1619 Project ultimately prevail and the attempt to suppress it is futile. Rather than seek to hide the truth, we should commit ourselves – children and adults – to examine that truth and expand our understanding of it.
Facing Our Past to Move to The Future
Ironically, the effort to suppress the teaching of history as presented in the 1619 Project actually proves one of its central theses, that White Supremacy has been and still is a central ideology and force guiding the actions and decisions of our nation’s leaders. Moreover, as historian Guyatt writes: “White supremacy shapeshifts through the nation’s history, finding new forms to continue the work of subjugation and exclusion.” By seeking to deny the history of white supremacy in this country fervent but uninformed legislators reveal their own privilege and white supremacy.
Critics like to characterize the writers of the 1619 Project and its supporters like me, as unpatriotic, as seeking to undermine their foundation of our nation’s democracy. I contend that a system unwilling entertain a variety of perspectives is not a true democracy. While some ideologies may seem threatening, asking Americans to consider the story of America through the eyes of its enslaved ancestors and their descendants, is not such a threat. It is actually the hope that moved the father of Nikole Hannah-Jones to fly his flag. In that simple gesture, he was saying his story and that of his ancestors matter too, and that we need to read, listen, cherish and learn from that story.
My hope is that the 1619 Project can move us to hear the African-American story, as well as other under-represented aspects of our history from the perspective of Native Americans, various strains of the Hispanic American and the rich culture of our Asian-Americans. Some of what we will learn will be hard to swallow, but only by giving ourselves to this task as a citizenry can we ever get close to realizing the vision enshrined in our nation’s founding documents.