A Historian’s Critique of the 1619 Project

By Victoria Bynum

“White privilege,” “wealthy elites,” “mansplainers,” “old white people,” “ivory tower elites.” These are just a few of the epithets hurled at me and the four historians I joined in protesting the flawed and inaccurate history presented in the New York Times’s 1619 Project. A quick pass through Twitter reveals that some historians are “ashamed of,” even “heartbroken by,” our letter to the Times editor. One historian chastised us for criticizing the 1619 Project at a time when our “republic” is so dangerously divided! Really, historians? Is it no longer our right or responsibility to critique works of history, at least not when they’re about a long, ugly episode of our nation’s history? Does history not have to be accurate if the subjects were truly victims, as enslaved Americans surely were? But I digress.

On August 18, 2019, the New York Times released its highly-touted 1619 Project, featuring historical essays and original literary works aimed at “reframing” American history with a new founding date—1619, the year that 20 or more Africans were brought to Virginia—to replace  1776, the year the Declaration of Independence was signed. The project offers slavery and its legacies to contemporary American society as the nation’s central defining features.  

New York Times journalist and project director Nikole Hannah-Jones provides the project’s “intellectual framework,” which posits slavery as the dominant feature of North American settlement, and the American Revolution as a duplicitous movement designed to protect slavery from its abolition by the British Empire. Hannah-Jones urges that we remember Presidents Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln first and foremost for their racism rather than their ideals of nationhood. Her assertions on these topics were forcefully critiqued by historians Gordon Wood, James McPherson, and James Oakes in interviews with the World Socialist Website (WSWS), and by Sean Wilentz in the New York Times Review of Books (NYTR). My own criticisms, in an interview with the WSWS, centered on the Project’s historical treatment of class and race. I elaborate here on those remarks. 

After reframing the meaning of the American Revolution, Hannah-Jones moves on to the Civil War and Reconstruction, barely touching on American abolitionism and ignoring the Free Soil Movement, though both were seeds of the antislavery Republican Party. In discussing the nation’s wrenching effort to reconstruct itself after the Civil War, she asserts that “blacks worked for the most part . . . alone” to free themselves and push for full rights of citizenship through passage of the Reconstruction Amendments. Rightly emphasizing the vigilante white violence that immediately followed the victories of a Republican-dominated Congress, she ignores important exceptions, including the Southern white “Scalawags,” many of whom were nonslaveholders who fought against the Confederacy in the war and participated with blacks and Northern Republicans in passing the Reconstruction Amendments. 

To be sure, Southern whites were among the most conservative members of the Republican Party. Nonetheless, important legislation was passed with their participation, enabling the United States by 1868 to begin building a more racially just, democratic society before white supremacist Democrats derailed Reconstruction. Furthermore, not only does Hannah-Jones ignore the Scalawags, but also Matthew Desmond, in his essay on capitalism and slavery, ignores nonslaveholding propertied farmers, the largest class of whites in the antebellum South, and from which many Southern Republicans emerged.

Likewise, the 1619 Project ignores late 19th and 20th century interracial efforts to combat the power of corporations by an emergent industrial working class. Instead of studying the methods by which industry destroyed such efforts by fomenting racism, the project continues to argue that blacks struggled “almost alone” in a world where an undifferentiated class of whites controlled the levers of power. Thus, some of our nation’s greatest historical moments of interracial class solidarity, the labor struggles shared by working class people across the color line, are erased. For example, the Populist Movement is barely mentioned, the early 20th century Socialist Movement, not at all.*** And, although Jesse Jackson’s rousing Rainbow Coalition speech at the Democratic Convention of 1984 is remembered favorably by one project author, the small farmers, poor people, and working mothers that Jackson included alongside “African Americans, Arab Americans, Hispanic Americans, and gay and lesbian people” are ignored.

Multiracial communities are also passed over by the 1619 Project. Yet, race-mixing among Africans, Europeans, and American Indians early on presented British colonists with a dilemma—how to maintain the image of race-based slavery while increasing their labor force by enslaving people of partially or even predominantly white ancestry. The essentialist theory of hypodescent eventually provided the solution. Simply put, African blood was decreed so powerful (or polluting) that a mere fraction of African ancestry was enough to render a person “black” no matter how white that person’s appearance. Hannah-Jones herself recognizes the fallacy of “race” when she writes that “enslavement and subjugation became the natural station of people who had any discernible drop of “black” blood (italics mine).

The 1619 Project makes no attempt, however, to explore connections between race mixing and the class history of the United States. But make no mistake. The Southern slaveholding class knew that racial identity was a game of semantics. Slavery was first and foremost a closed labor system. Racism provided the rationale. Between 1855 and 1860, prominent proslavery author George Fitzhugh had no difficulty urging the United States to merge its systems of class and race by enslaving lower-class whites as well as people of African ancestry.

The 1619 Project claims to be a long overdue contribution to understanding slavery and racism over the course of 400 years of American history. It includes literary works of poetry, fiction, and memory that are revelatory and moving. They and many of the short research pieces evoke sadness, outrage, and anger. But they are not well served by the larger project, which sweeps over vast chunks of innovative and ground breaking historiography to tell a story of relentless white-on-black violence and exploitation that offers no hope of reconciliation for the nation. The project’s great flaw is its lack of solid grounding in the history of European colonization, the American Revolution, the American Civil War, and racial and class relations throughout.

History is a profession that takes years of training. In his response to our letter to the New York Times, editor Jake Silverstein admits that, although the Times consulted with scholars, and although Nikole Hannah-Jones “has consistently used history to inform her journalism.” . . . . the newspaper “did not assemble a formal panel [of historians] for this project.” Perhaps this explains why a number of 1619 Project defenders, including Hannah-Jones, implicitly deny the need for training by claiming there is no such thing as objective history anyway. Too often, the assumption that journalists make good historians leaves us fighting over dueling narratives about the past based on political agendas of the present.

%%%%%%%%

 

***On January 6, 2020, historian Charles Postel, author of The Populist Vision, posted a long thread on Twitter that began with the following remarks:

1/The NYT letter vs #1619 Project objects to the words “for the most part” black people “fought alone,” w/ some critics focusing on post-Civil War history of interracial class solidarity against corporate power. But history is more complicated than critics allow. Some thoughts.

2/Yes, there were instances, even heroic ones, of biracial farmer-labor solidarity. Yet, “for the most part,” these were isolated and ephemeral, or more promise than reality. Meanwhile, exclusion, indifference, and betrayal ran deep and wide.

After reading Professor Postel’s words, I went back to my essay and realized that, indeed, the above ***-marked paragraph of that essay does not adequately address the depth of racism that destroyed interracial alliances among laborers and farmers of the late 19th century and early 20th century, making them tragically short-lived. I responded to Professor Postel with the following reply:

Bynum: As the 1619 critic who made this point about interracial class solidarity, I entirely agree with you. These were “moments,” not movements, of interracial solidarity. My reference to them lacked the necessary context to avoid exaggeration.

I responded to additional comments in Professor Postel’s thread as follows:

Postel: Post-CW leaders & members of farm & labor movements made choices. But if we are to make better choices, we need a clear-eyed view of this history, a view shaped by the historical record and not ideological preference, no matter how noble that preference might be.

Bynum: I agree; these interracial moments do not effectively refute that blacks mostly worked alone. But they belong in any history of race relations in order to understand class, race, power, and fear. Or will the metaphor of racism in the DNA of our nation suffice in the classroom?

Postel: Powderly and leaders of Knights of Labor had similar views about national reunification. But they took seriously the need to enroll black workers. In the mid-80s, this involved heroic moments of interracial cooperation in the coal fields and on the railroads.

Bynum: These are the efforts made by organized labor that illustrate the need for the 1619 Project to include postwar industrialization and the struggles by black and white laborers alike to survive in a nation only 20 years beyond Civil War and Emancipation.

Postel: But what of Populism? The critics recycle old chestnut that Jim Crow was elite response to unity of white Farmers’ Alliance & Colored Farmers’ Alliance, and that Pops were one of “our nation’s greatest historical moments of interracial class solidarity.” But hold on.

Bynum: Historians have shown clearly that efforts at racial cooperation failed. Yet Tom Watson’s efforts were remarkable, as was his bitter descent into virulent racism when fusion failed. Shouldn’t 1619 draw from historians to show the forces that destroyed alliances like these?

Postel: The full story, of course, cannot be told in tweets. But these notes suggest that the claims made by the critics of Project 1619 about post-CW interracial class solidarity are based more on ideology (the way we may wish things had been) than verifiable fact.

Bynum: I take responsibility for that ill-defined “claim.” Still, I urge the Project to treat people of color as part of the working class, to acknowledge moments when white workers struggled against the cries of white supremacy, to note the CIO’s greater success in the 1930s.  

&&&&&&&&

I appreciated the opportunity to clarify my remarks to Charles Postel and to the public. I also urge the creators of the 1619 Project to integrate his insights and those of other historians into their own work wherever appropriate.

Vikki Bynum

 

 

 

 

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21 replies »

  1. Great editorial. I’m so glad that you advocate historical facts over gross generalizations promulgated by historically-informed journalism. I’ve seen a great deal of that lately, not just in the 1619 project.

  2. Although I see what the project is trying to do, I had my own concerns & appreciate your thought-provoking response. I hope a useful discussion will result but fear that won’t be possible in today’s climate. Peer review is a necessary part of our profession; the vitriolic response to the letter I’ve seen on social media is not. Taking a public stand on a controversial subject is an act of bravery. I’ve always admired your work & courage.

  3. Prof. Bynum,

    Thanks for your blog and this post. I have come across your name and work in relation to some of my research projects and my issues with several historians, such as Stauffer at Harvard. Although you are a professional historian and an educator I have found that your approach to history and its instruction is an exception to the rule that governs the Ivory Towers. As a friend of mine says, “History is contested ground.” I agree. And it is a struggle for truth and fidelity to the history and an informed interpretation in opposition to group think.

    The “1619 Project” has become very popular and I think that is a good thing. The greater participation and discussion of history the better. I am all for the inclusiveness as oppose to the exclusivity as defined by the likes of Stauffer, Blight and others.

    In my communities, “White Man Lies” is not an abstract concept. And to speak about how history has largely been taught and told for peoples of Non-European nationality in this country is nothing less than “diabolical,” as a dear friend of mine says. The realization and manifestation of the “1619 Project” is the culmination of generations upon generations of lost history.

    An awareness of this history has been a long time coming. Yet in this area or “wokeness” we still get products like “Harriet” which is basically a half-made up movie … one of the plots is entirely fictional with characters and situations that never existed. And I have the emails in my archives to demonstrate how “diabolical” Kate Larson truly is. Families I work with have told me to keep her away from researching their families. It is real out here. You know. Too many do not know.

    I will likely make another comment and will need to review your blog in full — I am familiar with your background re: your book and what happened. I am a back of the late night 70 bus history round table historian … the local history and the people’s history is what informs my perspective, alongside the exacting sources and larger history.

    Thank you for standing on the front lines and your character to speak up for the back of the bus historians and griots.

    Very respectfully,
    John Muller
    author, Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C.: The Lion of Anacostia (The History Press, 2012) & Mark Twain in Washington, D.C.: The Adventures of a Capital Correspondent (The History Press, 2013)

    • Thanks for your comments, John. And I’m delighted that you’re the author of works on Frederick Douglass and Mark Twain, two of my favorite political/literary figures of history!

      Your statement that, “In my communities, ‘White Man Lies’ is not an abstract concept” resonates with me from the opposite side of the racial divide–I grew up hearing them, too, as they were used to socialize the younger generation of whites to perpetuate the vicious cycle of racism.

      At a fairly young age, I decided that I would not participate in lies to the best of my ability. I’m pretty sure that’s what attracted me to the craft of history. It’s also why I don’t particularly like “historical” movies, even though the story I tell in The Free State of Jones became one. That was an ironic experience for me, made worse by the Jenkins/Stauffer conflict you referenced. In that situation, a journalist, combined with a historian who mainly lent his name, produced a “popular” version of my book in order to promote a movie!

      My objections back then to the Jenkins/Stauffer book was a plea for sound history as well as respect for another person’s work, and my critique of the 1619 Project is a similar plea, although it does not personally involve me. I am by no means arguing that the project should not have been made. Quite the contrary, the idea of centering American history around the role of slavery and racism is a powerful one. I remain convinced, nonetheless, that neither can be understood without including the central role of class. Furthermore, if a historically-sound project was desired, more historians (and there are plenty of talented black historians to choose from) and fewer journalists should have been enlisted. Frankly, I blame the New York Times for that not being the case.

      Thank you again for taking time to write such a thorough commentary.

      Vikki

  4. As a proud black American (both my parents sides go directly through hell Jim Crow to the truly tragic American chattel slavery; to slave ships where we lose our ancestry) anyway the bottom line I got from the 1619 Project was this: America was founded on 2 things: BLACK SLAVES AND RACISM!

    Those 2 things are irrefutable –SLAVERY AND RACISM — and Jim Crow & Chattel slavery will forever prove it!

    So what many of you whites are doing is mere nitpicking but not truly tearing down the gist of the 1619 Project that America was built on slavery of blacks and racism.

    Even President Trump said recently “BLACKS BUILT AMERICA!” then he added ” WE ALL DID! BUT BLACKS WERE SUCH A BIG PART OF IT” — WOW to hear such an ignorant man speak such profound truth that you fragile egotistic whites are trying to tear down — such ashamed

    To prove just how fragile you whites are: James M. admitted he did not read the 1619 Project — just skimmed through some of it! Like WTF – then to make things worse, he admitted the truth of much of what he read by saying he didn’t learn anything new! … Moreover Gordon Woods admitted in his piece that it is “Certainly” true that there were slave plantation owners who fought in the American Revolution to keep slavery alive! SMH

    All this fuss from old white historians is nothing more than WHITE FRAGILITY — proven by the fact they have torn down nothing but rather shown their WHITE FRAGILITY!

    Now I will list some irrefutable FACTS!! that no historian in his right mind disagrees with and thus proves America was indeed founded on black slaves and racism:

    **All13 colonies had slaves **4 out of first 5 Presidents from Virginia (a major slave colony controlled the government) **41 of the 57 signers of the Declaration of Independence slave owners **in 1860, 4 Million black slaves n the South were literally worth more than all the banks, railroads, and manufacturing companies in America COMBINED!!! **those same black slaves produced upwards of 75% of all American exports **all Northern cotton textile mills ran off slave cotton thus positively and astronomically affecting the entire Northern economy **and U do realize in the 1607 to 1610 Jamestown Virginia white people had no black slaves, and look at the disastrous results: during the Starving Time white man ate his own feces and ate his fallen comrades and ate their shoes and jackets too — FACTS!! **ONE LAST THING – many scholars say in 1860 America poured 20% to 25% of all its wealth into those 4 million black slaves n the South — even the lowest number by scholars is 14% of all America’s wealth were poured into those 4 million black slaves — either way SHOCKING!!!!

    In finishing: this article and all other anti 1619 Project commentary is nothing more than WHITE FRAGILITY and the proof is the facts above stand unrefuted by all scholars. But of course the 1619 Project can be picked apart on the peripheral but the center/the foundation of the 1619 Project remains unassailable!

    Sincerely Yours;
    Black Skin

    • Dear Black Skin,

      I am familiar with views such as yours, which allow no room for dialogue among people of different races. Therefore, our communication ends here.

      Vikki

      • Black Skin,

        All due respect, the author of this blog post need not “yell” and this and that to articulate her points. And you needn’t either but you choose to. I understand it is what it is. These professors can’t hold their ground intellectually and factually when confronted with folks, such as you and I, that have no reverence for their work. The author of this blog post isn’t that one. Don’t know her from a can of paint but read some of the action reports of her work. You can can find it if so inclined. You are raising the lost history they won’t tell and don’t want told. If you mentioned David Blight I’m right there with you shoulder to shoulder, back to back. But you coming at this lady sideways even though you may think you’re being forthright.

        The first runaway slaves or runaway enslaved persons were white folks. The English sent PWT over here. You know I ain’t lying. You mention the signers … look at some of their backgrounds. One dude – Paca from Maryland – his ancestor was an indenture who married the widow of his owner.

        Methodism coming out them cuts. They won’t tell that history. Quakers get all the play and in that the telling of Richard Allen is minimized or not told at all.

        I hear you. I do. These folks are diabolical and flagrant with it. But this lady Vikki or Prof. Bynum aint the one.

        You want to come at folks that deserve it let me get with you … I got a list. David Blight at Yale, John Stauffer at Harvard, Adam Goodheart at Washington College, Leigh Fought, others and whole universities.

        You want to fight for the cause let’s get at it. You appear one with a war story or two or three.

        These folks are diabolical. White Man Lies is a mug. When you holding the throne seat you needn’t yell, just state your theory of relativity. As you have but you know these folks ain’t built to respond … I got a war story or two, too.

        All due respect to you and yours.

        John
        back of the 70 bus
        Georgia Avenue
        Washington City
        Uptown, DC
        USA

  5. Great post. While I believe the 1619 Project is a step in the right direction I think it is also flawed. I am a direct descendant of an indentured servant who arrived in Jamestown in 1616. He survived many trials & after serving out his indenture married his former master’s daughter. Until 1619 the main labor in that colony was done by white indentured servants brought from England. The 1619 slaves were the first in the English colonies but the first colonies were Spanish & they had both Black slaves & some free Blacks, The failed DeLuna Colony at Pensacola, FL was the first & there were not only Spanish settlers & soldiers from Vera Cruz, Mexico but also Indians from Mexico & also Black slaves in this large group. The Spanish colony at St. Augustine lasted & is generally recognized as the first as it survived & prospered. It also had not only Black but also Indian slaves. Also at that colony were free Black colonists & the first free Black colony at nearby Fort Moses. Those colonies were all founded in the 1500s. Therefore lets all recognize that Black slavery was in America long before it came to Jamestown and no matter which colony it started at first it was driven by the need to keep those colonies economically prosperous for the upper classes back in Europe who were basically footing the bills to keep them going. .

    • Thank you, Marcie Lee. I admire your research on your family, and the care you’ve taken to ground it in the larger historical context of that time!

      Vikki

  6. For those who wish to read more about the debate over the 1619 Project, the above “pingback, which links to Albert Mackey’s thorough overview of the issue on his blog “Student of the American Civil War,” is essential reading!

    Vikki

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