Monday, December 23, 2019

If You Want to Go to War..., I'll Take You There!

wsws |  “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 Web Site (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.