On Monday, Nikole Hannah-Jones, founder of The New York Times‘ “1619 Project,” admitted that her project is not a history and that the battle over it is about “memory” — a fight to “control the national narrative.” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) has moved to defund schools that teach the project.
“The fight over the 1619 Project is not about history. It is about memory,” Hannah-Jones tweeted. “I’ve always said that the 1619 Project is not a history. It is a work of journalism that explicitly seeks to challenge the national narrative and, therefore, the national memory. The project has always been as much about the present as it is the past.”
She claimed the 1619 Project “never pretended to be a history,” but said it involves “using history and reporting to make an argument.”
“The fight here is about who gets to control the national narrative, and therefore, the nation’s shared memory of itself. One group has monopolized this for too long in order to create this myth of exceptionalism,” Hannah-Jones added. “If their version is true, what do they have to fear of 1619?”
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The 1619 Project aims to redefine America’s past, claiming the country’s true founding occurred in 1619, with the arrival of the first black slaves to Jamestown, rather than in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence. Focusing on race, the project aims to deconstruct various aspects of American society as racist and oppressive.
Yet early on, the project met with criticism from real historians. Hannah-Jones had claimed that “one of the primary reasons” the colonists revolted against Britain in 1776 was to preserve the institution of slavery. Slavery was not one of the motivating factors of the revolution. In fact, the revolution disrupted slavery. The Times eventually had to post an embarrassing correction.
Not to worry, because the 1619 Project isn’t history, Hannah-Jones says. But she also encourages supplemental history curricula based on the project. She also insists that the project is true, even if it isn’t history but rather journalism and narrative.
The 1619 Project isn’t true
Yet the project is not an accurate reflection of American history. For one thing, there were black slaves, and black freedmen, in America for a century before 1619. Whoops!
The Smithsonian Magazine disputed the 1619 Project because the Spanish brought slaves to present-day South Carolina in 1526.
“In 1526, enslaved Africans were part of a Spanish expedition to establish an outpost on the North American coast in present-day South Carolina. Those Africans launched a rebellion in November of that year and effectively destroyed the Spanish settlers’ ability to sustain the settlement, which they abandoned a year later. Nearly 100 years before Jamestown, African actors enabled American colonies to survive, and they were equally able to destroy European colonial ventures,” the magazine reported.
Ignoring these and other pre-1619 slaves “effectively erases the memory of many more African peoples than it memorializes,” the Smithsonian Magazine article argued. Therefore, the New York Times project “silences the memory of the more than 500,000 African men, women, and children who had already crossed the Atlantic against their will, aided and abetted Europeans in their endeavors, provided expertise and guidance in a range of enterprises, suffered, died, and – most importantly – endured.”
Of course, the 1619 Project is also false in a much deeper sense. Its narrative delegitimizes the very real benefits of American freedom and prosperity by claiming that racist oppression is the central truth behind the country’s ideals, while in truth the country was founded in pursuit of freedom and equality but the Founders allowed slavery to persist, laying the groundwork to defeat it eventually.
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What do they have to fear of the 1619 Project?
The pernicious narrative of the 1619 Project also carries devastating effects. At its heart, the project aims to demonize America’s founding and heritage.
The 1619 Project uses Marxist critical theory to demonize America and inspire an unguided and destructive revolution. Portland activist Lilith Sinclair expressed a similar idea when she said, “There’s still a lot of work to undo the harm of colonized thought that has been pushed onto Black and indigenous communities.” As examples of “colonized thought,” she mentioned Christianity and the “gender binary.” She said she organizes for “the abolition of … the “United States as we know it.”
Marxist critical theory encourages people to deconstruct various aspects of society — such as capitalism, science the nuclear family, the Judeo-Christian tradition, even expectations of politeness (as the Smithsonian briefly taught) — as examples of white oppression. This inspires an aimless and destructive revolution.
When vandals toppled a statue of George Washington in Portland, they spray-painted “1619” on the statue. When Claremont’s Charles Kesler wrote in The New York Post “Call them the 1619 riots,” Hannah-Jones, responded (in a since-deleted tweet) that “it would be an honor” to claim responsibility for the destructive riots and the defamation of American Founding Fathers like George Washington.
In a November 9, 1995 op-ed, the 1619 Project founder condemned Christopher Columbus as “no different” from Adolf Hitler and demonized the “white race” as the true “savages” and “bloodsuckers.” She went on to describe “white America’s dream” as “colored America’s nightmare.” Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) expressed a similar sentiment when she called for the “dismantling” of America’s “economy and political system,” in order to root out supposed racist oppression.
Yet the “1619 riots” have arguably oppressed black people far more than the U.S. supposedly does. The riots have destroyed black lives, black livelihoods, and black monuments. At least 22 Americans have died in the riots, most of them black.
This narrative undermines the positive aspects of America and encourages hatred toward the very country that provides its citizens with an unprecedented degree of freedom and prosperity. It encourages violent riots in the name of racial justice, even though those riots make life concretely worse for black Americans.
The 1619 Project may bring forward the stories of black Americans who have been overlooked in the past, and that would be admirable. But Americans must reject its pernicious aim to twist the national narrative against the Founders, capitalism, and more.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.