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Professor: Why I teach the much-debated 1619 Project — despite its flaws

Nikole Hannah-Jones attends the 75th annual Peabody Awards in New York in 2016. (Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)
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The New York Times’s 1619 Project started in 2019 with a collection of stories and essays that puts slavery and its consequences at the center of America’s historical narrative. It has become a focal point in the long-running culture war over race in America and how U.S. history should be taught in school.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, the New York Times journalist who oversaw the project and who won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary for her work on it, is at the center of a controversy after the University of North Carolina denied her tenure over the recommendation of the journalism department. It turns out that one of the voices objecting to her hiring is a major donor to the university.

One of the voices objecting to Nikole Hannah-Jones’s hiring at UNC: A newspaper baron — and major donor

Meanwhile, lawmakers in a number of Republican-led states have or are in the process of passing laws limiting how teachers can discuss race — with direct reference to the project.

Teachers across the country protest laws restricting lessons on racism

In this post, John Duffy, professor of English and faculty fellow of the Klau Center for Civil and Human Rights at the University of Notre Dame, explains why he teaches the 1619 Project to students — despite its flaws.

By John Duffy

The decision by the Board of Trustees at the University of North Carolina to deny tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project, has once again thrust Hannah-Jones and the project into the center of controversy. It is familiar territory. Indeed, the impressive number of awards and honors accorded to Hannah-Jones and the 1619 Project may be rivaled only by the array of detractors who have spoken out against both.

UNC faculty upset that prizewinning 1619 Project journalist won’t have tenure when she starts teaching at Chapel Hill

The 1619 Project aims, as stated in an introduction to the project, “to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contribution of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” The project further seeks to demonstrate how the enslavement of Africans in the 18th and 19th centuries continues to disadvantage Black Americans today. Yet the 1619 Project has drawn fire both from mainstream historians and right-wing political figures.

Historians have faulted the 1619 Project for misrepresenting the causes of the American Revolution, distorting the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, discounting the contributions of White allies in the struggle for racial justice, and dismissing American aspirations of freedom and equality as hypocrisy. Historian Sean Wilentz has termed the project “cynical,” while scholar Allan C. Guelzo has argued that “the 1619 Project is not history; it is conspiracy theory.” Even historians sympathetic to the project have called out its factual errors and inaccuracies.

Political criticism from the right has been more hyperbolic. The 1619 Project has been called “agitprop,” “un-American,” “socialism” and “garbage history.”

A Heritage Foundation commentator wrote that teaching the project in schools would “destroy our present institutions, economic system and ways of thinking, and replace them.” Newt Gingrich called the project “a lie,” and former president Donald Trump, conflating the 1619 Project and critical race theory, declared that both were “toxic propaganda, ideological poison, that, if not removed, will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together, will destroy our country.” Conservative lawmakers at the federal and state levels have sought to ban the teaching of the 1619 Project.

Such critiques are intended to undermine if not cancel the 1619 Project. Yet the questions these criticisms raise about history, ideology and the legacies of slavery provide compelling reasons for teaching the project in schools and universities.

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In the first-year seminar on the 1619 Project that I teach at the University of Notre Dame, students discuss essays of the project exploring the relationship of slavery to present-day capitalism, health care, mass incarceration and other topics. Students read historians critical of the project, and rebuttals to these critiques.

While I encourage students to draw their own conclusions about the controversies, we do not attempt to decide collectively which perspectives are more accurate. Instead, we discuss reasons historians disagree, how such disagreements are argued and what this suggests about historical truths. We consider who gets to tell the story of a people and what is at stake in the telling.

We also discuss the political arguments denouncing the project. While I find many of these critiques cynically opportunistic — gasoline poured into the trash can fires of the culture wars — we take the arguments seriously. Is the 1619 Project racially divisive? Does it teach children to be ashamed of the United States? Does it teach White people to be humiliated by their Whiteness? We examine the question as well of how a nation should address the acknowledged sins of its past. (Even critics of the 1619 Project are careful to call slavery appalling and evil.)

If one rejects the 1619 Project, how should the United States tell the story of its crimes against Black Americans? What actions should it take? What does this nation owe its Black citizens?

Such discussions ideally contribute to the intellectual growth of my students, their abilities to evaluate and make arguments about the slavery. Yet my reasons for teaching the 1619 Project are not entirely intellectual. They are equally visceral.

Most of my students come to the class with sketchy notions of the realities of slavery. In the first essay I assign, I ask students to recall how they learned about the subject. Many write about grade school lessons on Harriet Tubman or reading “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Some recall textbooks that said more about the invention of the cotton gin than slavery. Other students mention popular films such as “Lincoln” and “Django Unchained.”

My students are not unique in arriving at college with incomplete understandings of slavery. Among the findings of a study by the Southern Poverty Law Center was that high school seniors struggle with even basic questions about slavery; that teachers are often underprepared to teach the topic; that textbooks provide inadequate information; that slavery is rarely connected to the ideology of White supremacy; and that teaching slavery often focuses on the experience of White people rather than enslaved Africans.

The 1619 Project provides a counter to all that. It offers a meticulous, often searing account of the lived experience of slavery, its everyday brutality and misery. How many students — indeed, how many people? — are likely to know that:

  • Thirst, starvation and violence on the slave ships of the Middle Passage were so overwhelming, and suicide attempts so common, that sea captains placed netting around the ships to prevent the loss of human cargo and profit.
  • The 1730 slave code of the New York General Assembly decreed it unlawful for more than three enslaved people to meet on their own, and authorized “‘each town’ to employ ‘a common whipper for their slaves.’”
  • The medical experiments of J. Marion Sims, the father of modern gynecology, included cutting the bodies of Black women without anesthesia in attempts to perfect a surgical technique.

These are gruesome details, but they are the sorts of details largely missing from the collective consciousness of the United States when it comes to slavery. More, they are details that can be related to conditions still shaping the lives of African Americans. For example, in her 1619 essay on medical inequality, Linda Villarosa cites studies indicating that myths about Black people, such as their resistance to pain, continue to influence modern medical education, resulting in inadequate pain management of Black and Hispanic people compared with White people.

Yet the 1619 Project is more than a compendium of sorrows. The project is equally a celebration of Black Americans’ commitment to rights and freedoms historically denied them; a paean to Black artistry and creative genius; a testimony to Black resilience and resolve; and a blueprint for the responsible teaching of slavery.

While there other, less debated programs for teaching about slavery, few are as ambitious as the 1619 Project, which examines multiple topics to connect past histories to present inequities. Fewer still are as self-conscious about narrating the horrors of slavery and anti-Black racism from a decidedly Black perspective.

I teach the 1619 Project not because it is above criticism or because it gets every detail right. I teach it because it leads my students, many of them, to ask why they have never been taught such things previously, and because it prompts them to rethink their understandings of race, racism and anti-racism.

I teach it because it has motivated students to research such topics as the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, the problem of police violence and the role of Black women in the civil rights struggle. I teach the 1619 Project, finally, because, along with my students, I am learning from it.