Rethinking the 1619 Project
Great journalism can result in lousy history.
I strongly commend Sarah Ellison’s Washington Post feature “How the 1619 Project took over 2020.” It’s a thorough and balanced look at a controversy that has been escalating for quite some time. And it’s especially praiseworthy for its balance and fairness despite the twin challenges of being about a rival newspaper and, frankly, being written by a white woman.
My take on the whole thing is rather bland: the 1619 Project was simultaneously a journalistic tour de force and a stark example of why professionally trained scholars are better historians than journalists. Nikole Hannah-Jones deserved her Pulitzer for putting together the most important journalistic feature of the calendar year and sparking a necessary conversation on not only the 400th anniversary of slavery in America but at a particularly fraught time of race relations in the country. And, yet, armed with a zeal to embellish an already powerful story—and, frankly, not enough knowledge of history—it made a series of wild and unsupportable claims.
Dean Baquet is absolutely right to stand by Hannah-Jones’s work and to let Bret Stephens and others debate it on the paper’s editorial pages. And Hannah-Jones is wrong to treat criticism of factual errors—often by sympathetic Black scholars—as racially motivated. The insinuation that Stephens and the academic historians are trying to “put me in a long tradition of [Black women] who failed to know their places” is outrageous and unseemly, unbefitting a journalist of her stature.
Further, the Times‘ surreptitious edits to the text to soften or remove several overbroad or flatly erroneous claims—and Hannah-Jones’ deletion of a massive number of texts where she doubled down on them and used the power of her massive platform to shame those who dared call her out—are simply dishonest. Even lowly political bloggers eschewed that practice as unethical two decades ago.
Again, though, the overall thrust of the Project was a tremendous value add to the conversation. While I thought the significance of 1619 well-known—indeed I was telling undergraduate American government students that “America had slaves before it had Pilgrims” a quarter-century ago—bringing the power of the New York Times and its many digital platforms spread the word.
Further, while I tend to side with Stephens that 1776 is more representative of 1619 of the “true” founding of America, I never took issue with the boldness of the opposite claim. Provocative is good in polemic, garnering attention for the argument. But, in their zeal to drive the point home, they too often misrepresented fringe arguments as mainstream and outliers as the norm.