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.