Adam Serwer, Dec. 23, 2019
A dispute between a small group of scholars and the authors of The New York Times Magazine’s issue on slavery represents a fundamental disagreement over the trajectory of American society.
This article was updated at 7:35 p.m. ET on December 23, 2019
When The New York Times Magazine published its 1619 Project in August, people lined up on the street in New York City to get copies. Since then, the project—a historical analysis of how slavery shaped American political, social, and economic institutions—has spawned a podcast, a high-school curriculum, and an upcoming book. For Nikole Hannah-Jones, the reporter who conceived of the project, the response has been deeply gratifying.
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“They had not seen this type of demand for a print product of The New York Times, they said, since 2008, when people wanted copies of Obama’s historic presidency edition,” Hannah-Jones told me. “I know when I talk to people, they have said that they feel like they are understanding the architecture of their country in a way that they had not.”
U.S. history is often taught and popularly understood through the eyes of its great men, who are seen as either heroic or tragic figures in a global struggle for human freedom. The 1619 Project, named for the date of the first arrival of Africans on American soil, sought to place “the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” Viewed from the perspective of those historically denied the rights enumerated in America’s founding documents, the story of the country’s great men necessarily looks very different.
The reaction to the project was not universally enthusiastic. Several weeks ago, the Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, who had criticized the 1619 Project’s “cynicism” in a lecture in November, began quietly circulating a letter objecting to the project, and some of Hannah-Jones’s work in particular. The letter acquired four signatories—James McPherson, Gordon Wood, Victoria Bynum, and James Oakes, all leading scholars in their field. They sent their letter to three top Times editors and the publisher, A. G. Sulzberger, on December 4. A version of that letter was published on Friday, along with a detailed rebuttal from Jake Silverstein, the editor of the Times Magazine.
The letter sent to the Times says, “We applaud all efforts to address the foundational centrality of slavery and racism to our history,” but then veers into harsh criticism of the 1619 Project. The letter refers to “matters of verifiable fact” that “cannot be described as interpretation or ‘framing’” and says the project reflected “a displacement of historical understanding by ideology.” Wilentz and his fellow signatories didn’t just dispute the Times Magazine’s interpretation of past events, but demanded corrections.
In the age of social-media invective, a strongly worded letter might not seem particularly significant. But given the stature of the historians involved, the letter is a serious challenge to the credibility of the 1619 Project, which has drawn its share not just of admirers but also critics.
Nevertheless, some historians who declined to sign the letter wondered whether the letter was intended less to resolve factual disputes than to discredit laymen who had challenged an interpretation of American national identity that is cherished by liberals and conservatives alike.
“I think had any of the scholars who signed the letter contacted me or contacted the Times with concerns [before sending the letter], we would’ve taken those concerns very seriously,” Hannah-Jones said. “And instead there was kind of a campaign to kind of get people to sign on to a letter that was attempting really to discredit the entire project without having had a conversation.”
Underlying each of the disagreements in the letter is not just a matter of historical fact but a conflict about whether Americans, from the Founders to the present day, are committed to the ideals they claim to revere. And while some of the critiques can be answered with historical fact, others are questions of interpretation grounded in perspective and experience.
In fact, the harshness of the Wilentz letter may obscure the extent to which its authors and the creators of the 1619 Project share a broad historical vision. Both sides agree, as many of the project’s right-wing critics do not, that slavery’s legacy still shapes American life—an argument that is less radical than it may appear at first glance. If you think anti-black racism still shapes American society, then you are in agreement with the thrust of the 1619 Project, though not necessarily with all of its individual arguments.
The clash between the Times authors and their historian critics represents a fundamental disagreement over the trajectory of American society. Was America founded as a slavocracy, and are current racial inequities the natural outgrowth of that? Or was America conceived in liberty, a nation haltingly redeeming itself through its founding principles? These are not simple questions to answer, because the nation’s pro-slavery and anti-slavery tendencies are so closely intertwined.
The letter is rooted in a vision of American history as a slow, uncertain march toward a more perfect union. The 1619 Project, and Hannah-Jones’s introductory essay in particular, offer a darker vision of the nation, in which Americans have made less progress than they think, and in which black people continue to struggle indefinitely for rights they may never fully realize. Inherent in that vision is a kind of pessimism, not about black struggle but about the sincerity and viability of white anti-racism. It is a harsh verdict, and one of the reasons the 1619 Project has provoked pointed criticism alongside praise.
Americans need to believe that, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, the arc of history bends toward justice. And they are rarely kind to those who question whether it does.
Most Americans still learn very little about the lives of the enslaved, or how the struggle over slavery shaped a young nation. Last year, the Southern Poverty Law Center found that few American high-school students know that slavery was the cause of the Civil War, that the Constitution protected slavery without explicitly mentioning it, or that ending slavery required a constitutional amendment.
“The biggest obstacle to teaching slavery effectively in America is the deep, abiding American need to conceive of and understand our history as ‘progress,’ as the story of a people and a nation that always sought the improvement of mankind, the advancement of liberty and justice, the broadening of pursuits of happiness for all,” the Yale historian David Blight wrote in the introduction to the report. “While there are many real threads to this story—about immigration, about our creeds and ideologies, and about race and emancipation and civil rights, there is also the broad, untidy underside.”
In conjunction with the Pulitzer Center, the Times has produced educational materials based on the 1619 Project for students—one of the reasons Wilentz told me he and his colleagues wrote the letter. But the materials are intended to enhance traditional curricula, not replace them. “I think that there is a misunderstanding that this curriculum is meant to replace all of U.S. history,” Silverstein told me. “It’s being used as supplementary material for teaching American history.” Given the state of American education on slavery, some kind of adjustment is sorely needed.
Published 400 years after the first Africans were brought to in Virginia, the project asked readers to consider “what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year.” The special issue of the Times Magazine included essays from the Princeton historian Kevin Kruse, who argued that sprawl in Atlanta is a consequence of segregation and white flight; the Times columnist Jamelle Bouie, who posited that American countermajoritarianism was shaped by pro-slavery politicians seeking to preserve the peculiar institution; and the journalist Linda Villarosa, who traced racist stereotypes about higher pain tolerance in black people from the 18th century to the present day. The articles that drew the most attention and criticism, though, were Hannah-Jones’s introductory essay chronicling black Americans’ struggle to “make democracy real” and the sociologist Matthew Desmond’s essay linking the crueler aspects of American capitalism to the labor practices that arose under slavery.
The letter’s signatories recognize the problem the Times aimed to remedy, Wilentz told me. “Each of us, all of us, think that the idea of the 1619 Project is fantastic. I mean, it’s just urgently needed. The idea of bringing to light not only scholarship but all sorts of things that have to do with the centrality of slavery and of racism to American history is a wonderful idea,” he said. In a subsequent interview, he said, “Far from an attempt to discredit the 1619 Project, our letter is intended to help it.”
The letter disputes a passage in Hannah-Jones’s introductory essay, which lauds the contributions of black people to making America a full democracy and says that “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery” as abolitionist sentiment began rising in Britain.
This argument is explosive. From abolition to the civil-rights movement, activists have reached back to the rhetoric and documents of the founding era to present their claims to equal citizenship as consonant with the American tradition. The Wilentz letter contends that the 1619 Project’s argument concedes too much to slavery’s defenders, likening it to South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun’s assertion that “there is not a word of truth” in the Declaration of Independence’s famous phrase that “all men are created equal.” Where Wilentz and his colleagues see the rising anti-slavery movement in the colonies and its influence on the Revolution as a radical break from millennia in which human slavery was accepted around the world, Hannah-Jones’ essay outlines how the ideology of white supremacy that sustained slavery still endures today.
“To teach children that the American Revolution was fought in part to secure slavery would be giving a fundamental misunderstanding not only of what the American Revolution was all about but what America stood for and has stood for since the Founding,” Wilentz told me. Anti-slavery ideology was a “very new thing in the world in the 18th century,” he said, and “there was more anti-slavery activity in the colonies than in Britain.”
Hannah-Jones hasn’t budged from her conviction that slavery helped fuel the Revolution. “I do still back up that claim,” she told me last week—before Silverstein’s rebuttal was published—although she says she phrased it too strongly in her essay, in a way that might mislead readers into thinking that support for slavery was universal. “I think someone reading that would assume that this was the case: all 13 colonies and most people involved. And I accept that criticism, for sure.” She said that as the 1619 Project is expanded into a history curriculum and published in book form, the text will be changed to make sure claims are properly contextualized.
On this question, the critics of the 1619 Project are on firm ground. Although some southern slave owners likely were fighting the British to preserve slavery, as Silverstein writes in his rebuttal, the Revolution was kindled in New England, where prewar anti-slavery sentiment was strongest. Early patriots like James Otis, John Adams, and Thomas Paine were opposed to slavery, and the Revolution helped fuel abolitionism in the North.
Historians who are in neither Wilentz’s camp nor the 1619 Project’s say both have a point. “I do not agree that the American Revolution was just a slaveholders’ rebellion,” Manisha Sinha, a history professor at the University of Connecticut and the author of The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition, told me.* “But also understand that the original Constitution did give some ironclad protections to slavery without mentioning it.”
The most radical thread in the 1619 Project is not its contention that slavery’s legacy continues to shape American institutions; it’s the authors’ pessimism that a majority of white people will abandon racism and work with black Americans toward a more perfect union. Every essay tracing racial injustice from slavery to the present day speaks to the endurance of racial caste. And it is this profound pessimism about white America that many of the 1619 Project’s critics find most galling.
Newt Gingrich called the 1619 Project a “lie,” arguing that “there were several hundred thousand white Americans who died in the Civil War in order to free the slaves.” In City Journal, the historian Allen Guelzo dismissed the Times Magazine project as a “conspiracy theory” developed from the “chair of ultimate cultural privilege in America, because in no human society has an enslaved people suddenly found itself vaulted into positions of such privilege, and with the consent—even the approbation—of those who were once the enslavers.” The conservative pundit Erick Erickson went so far as to accuse the Times of adopting “the Neo-Confederate world view” that the “South actually won the Civil War by weaving itself into the fabric of post war society so it can then discredit the entire American enterprise.” Erickson’s bizarre sleight of hand turns the 1619 Project’s criticism of ongoing racial injustice into a brief for white supremacy.
The project’s pessimism has drawn criticism from the left as well as the right. Hannah-Jones’s contention that “anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country” drew a rebuke from James Oakes, one of the Wilentz letter’s signatories. In an interview with the World Socialist Web Site, Oakes said, “The function of those tropes is to deny change over time … The worst thing about it is that it leads to political paralysis. It’s always been here. There’s nothing we can do to get out of it. If it’s the DNA, there’s nothing you can do. What do you do? Alter your DNA?”
These are objections not to misstatements of historical fact, but to the argument that anti-black racism is a more intractable problem than most Americans are willing to admit. A major theme of the 1619 Project is that the progress that has been made has been fragile and reversible—and has been achieved in spite of the nation’s true founding principles, which are not the lofty ideals few Americans genuinely believe in. Chances are, what you think of the 1619 Project depends on whether you believe someone might reasonably come to such a despairing conclusion—whether you agree with it or not.
Wilentz reached out to a larger group of historians, but ultimately sent a letter signed by five historians who had publicly criticized the 1619 Project in interviews with the World Socialist Web Site. He told me that the idea of trying to rally a larger group was “misconceived,” citing the holiday season and the end of the semester, among other factors. (A different letter written by Wilentz, calling for the impeachment of President Donald Trump, quickly amassed hundreds of signatures last week.) The refusal of other historians to sign on, despite their misgivings about some claims made by the 1619 Project, speaks to a divide over whether the letter was focused on correcting specific factual inaccuracies or aimed at discrediting the project more broadly.
Sinha saw an early version of the letter that was circulated among a larger group of historians. But, despite her disagreement with some of the assertions in the 1619 Project, she said she wouldn’t have signed it if she had been asked to. “There are legitimate critiques that one can engage in discussion with, but for them to just kind of dismiss the entire project in that manner, I thought, was really unwise,” she said. “It was a worthy thing to actually shine a light on a subject that the average person on the street doesn’t know much about.”
Although the letter writers deny that their objections are merely matters of “interpretation or ‘framing,’” the question of whether black Americans have fought their freedom struggles “largely alone,” as Hannah-Jones put it in her essay, is subject to vigorous debate. Viewed through the lens of major historical events—from anti-slavery Quakers organizing boycotts of goods produced through slave labor, to abolitionists springing fugitive slaves from prison, to union workers massing at the March on Washington—the struggle for black freedom has been an interracial struggle. Frederick Douglass had William Garrison; W. E. B. Du Bois had Moorfield Storey; Martin Luther King Jr. had Stanley Levison.
“The fight for black freedom is a universal fight; it’s a fight for everyone. In the end, it affected the fight for women’s rights—everything. That’s the glory of it,” Wilentz told me. “To minimize that in any way is, I think, bad for understanding the radical tradition in America.”
But looking back to the long stretches of night before the light of dawn broke—the centuries of slavery and the century of Jim Crow that followed—“largely alone” seems more than defensible. Douglass had Garrison, but the onetime Maryland slave had to go north to find him. The millions who continued to labor in bondage until 1865 struggled, survived, and resisted far from the welcoming arms of northern abolitionists.
“I think one would be very hard-pressed to look at the factual record from 1619 to the present of the black freedom movement and come away with any conclusion other than that most of the time, black people did not have a lot of allies in that movement,” Hannah-Jones told me. “It is not saying that black people only fought alone. It is saying that most of the time we did.”
Nell Irvin Painter, a professor emeritus of history at Princeton who was asked to sign the letter, had objected to the 1619 Project’s portrayal of the arrival of African laborers in 1619 as slaves. The 1619 Project was not history “as I would write it,” Painter told me. But she still declined to sign the Wilentz letter.
“I felt that if I signed on to that, I would be signing on to the white guy’s attack of something that has given a lot of black journalists and writers a chance to speak up in a really big way. So I support the 1619 Project as kind of a cultural event,” Painter said. “For Sean and his colleagues, true history is how they would write it. And I feel like he was asking me to choose sides, and my side is 1619’s side, not his side, in a world in which there are only those two sides.”
This was a recurrent theme among historians I spoke with who had seen the letter but declined to sign it. While they may have agreed with some of the factual objections in the letter or had other reservations of their own, several told me they thought the letter was an unnecessary escalation.
“The tone to me rather suggested a deep-seated concern about the project. And by that I mean the version of history the project offered. The deep-seated concern is that placing the enslavement of black people and white supremacy at the forefront of a project somehow diminishes American history,” Thavolia Glymph, a history professor at Duke who was asked to sign the letter, told me. “Maybe some of their factual criticisms are correct. But they’ve set a tone that makes it hard to deal with that.”
“I don’t think they think they’re trying to discredit the project,” Painter said. “They think they’re trying to fix the project, the way that only they know how.”
Historical interpretations are often contested, and those debates often reflect the perspective of the participants. To this day, the pro-Confederate “Lost Cause” intepretation of history shapes the mistaken perception that slavery was not the catalyst for the Civil War. For decades, a group of white historians known as the Dunning School, after the Columbia University historian William Archibald Dunning, portrayed Reconstruction as a tragic period of, in his words, the “scandalous misrule of the carpet-baggers and negroes,” brought on by the misguided enfranchisement of black men. As the historian Eric Foner has written, the Dunning School and its interpretation of Reconstruction helped provide moral and historical cover for the Jim Crow system.
In Black Reconstruction in America, W. E. B. Du Bois challenged the consensus of “white historians” who “ascribed the faults and failures of Reconstruction to Negro ignorance and corruption,” and offered what is now considered a more reliable account of the era as an imperfect but noble effort to build a multiracial democracy in the South.
To Wilentz, the failures of earlier scholarship don’t illustrate the danger of a monochromatic group of historians writing about the American past, but rather the risk that ideologues can hijack the narrative. “[It was] when the southern racists took over the historical profession that things changed, and W. E. B. Du Bois fought a very, very courageous fight against all of that,” Wilentz told me. The Dunning School, he said, was “not a white point of view; it’s a southern, racist point of view.”
In the letter, Wilentz portrays the authors of the 1619 Project as ideologues as well. He implies—apparently based on a combative but ambiguous exchange between Hannah-Jones and the writer Wesley Yang on Twitter—that she had discounted objections raised by “white historians” since publication.
Hannah-Jones told me she was misinterpreted. “I rely heavily on the scholarship of historians no matter what race, and I would never discount the work of any historian because that person is white or any other race,” she told me. “I did respond to someone who was saying white scholars were afraid, and I think my point was that history is not objective. And that people who write history are not simply objective arbiters of facts, and that white scholars are no more objective than any other scholars, and that they can object to the framing and we can object to their framing as well.”
When I asked Wilentz about Hannah-Jones’s clarification, he was dismissive. “Fact and objectivity are the foundation of both honest journalism and honest history. And so to dismiss it, to say, ‘No, I’m not really talking about whites’—well, she did, and then she takes it back in those tweets and then says it’s about the inability of anybody to write objective history. That’s objectionable too,” Wilentz told me.
Both Du Bois and the Dunning School saw themselves as having reached the truth by objective means. But as a target of the Dunning School’s ideology, Du Bois understood the motives and blind spots of Dunning School scholars far better than they themselves did.
“We shall never have a science of history until we have in our colleges men who regard the truth as more important than the defense of the white race,” Du Bois wrote, “and who will not deliberately encourage students to gather thesis material in order to support a prejudice or buttress a lie.”
The problem, as Du Bois argued, is that much of American history has been written by scholars offering ideological claims in place of rigorous historical analysis. But which claims are ideological, and which ones are objective, is not always easy to discern.
*An earlier version of this article contained an incorrect title for historian Manisha Sinha’s book.
Adam Serwer is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers politics.