When did the story of America begin? What does that story signify? These old questions are today once more becoming a matter of sharp dispute. Whether the outcome of that dispute will provide Americans with a truer understanding of how they went from where it all started to where they find themselves today remains to be seen.
The traditional answer to where and when the American story began is Philadelphia in the summer of 1776. The current editors of the New York Times beg to differ. According to the newspaper’s “1619 Project,” the story of America dates from the year when the first contingent of enslaved Africans arrived in the colony of Virginia. Everything that has ensued since stems from that fateful moment. “No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the years of slavery that followed,” according to the Times, and by the institutionalized racism that persisted following the abolition of formal slavery. The explicit purpose of the paper’s 1619 Project is to “reframe” the history of the United States “by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”
Those who were (and are?) oppressed, exploited, marginalized, and silenced because they were black will henceforth occupy centerstage as the true architects of American freedom, prosperity, and culture. According to Nikole Hannah-Jones, principal creator of the 1619 Project, “The truth is that as much democracy as this nation has today, it has been borne on the backs of black resistance,” a statement offered without caveats or qualifiers. Speaking for her fellow African Americans, she continues: “It was by virtue of our bondage that we became the most American of all.” If taken literally, that “we” suggests that citizens who are not black are thereby less American. The 1619 Project responds, if only implicitly, to the Tiki-torch wielding white racists who paraded through Charlottesville in August 2017 chanting “You will not replace us.” Perhaps not replace, comes the reply, but consider yourselves hereby demoted to a lower rank in the hierarchy of Americanness.
So the 1619 Project is—and is undoubtedly meant to be—provocative. Hear us, it demands. See us. Acknowledge us. Even perhaps, compensate us. Even more boldly, the 1619 Project questions the very foundation of this nation’s political legitimacy. The enterprise formally known as the United States of America derives its legitimacy from the Revolution of 1776, supposedly justified by self-evident truths and ostensibly undertaken in pursuit of inalienable rights, central among them a commitment to liberty. Backed by the authority of the New York Times, Hannah-Jones now dismisses this as balderdash, asserting 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.” In short, the purpose of the American Revolution was not to secure freedom, but to deny it. This is revisionism on a grand scale.
A project of such breathtaking audacity will necessarily elicit opposition, and not only from right-wing white nationalists. So the 1619 Project has done, notably from members of the historical profession. In a twentieth-century-style expression of protest, five eminent (white) historians of the United States wrote a letter to the Times. Sensing “a displacement of historical understanding by ideology,” they politely objected to the 1619 Project’s “new version of American history in which slavery and white supremacy become the dominant organizing themes.” Publishing the letter, the Times responded to the historians with equal courtesy—“we are grateful for their input”—while dismissing their complaint out of hand.
Pushing back somewhat harder, a second group of academics, most but not all black, chose a twenty-first-century platform for expressing their objections. In response to the nation’s newspaper of record rewriting U.S. history, they created a website. In the estimation of the scholars contributing to “1776 Unites,” that year, rather than 1619, marks “America’s true founding.” Rather than politeness, contributors to 1776 Unites opt for right-between-the-eyes pugnacity.
Consider, for example, the essay by Professor John McWhorter of Columbia University. The 1619 Project is not history compromised by ideology, he insists. It is naked propaganda in the service of political correctness or, in McWhorter’s lacerating words, “chardonnay wisdom” bottled by and marketed to the proudly “woke.” Embedded in the 1619 Project, he insists, is a belief that mere empiricism won’t suffice to uncover the truth that really matters. Truth requires “narrative,” carefully constructed to encourage “the suspension of disbelief” and thereby to reveal what has been hidden. Viewed from this perspective, McWhorter writes, “The 1619 idea, presented as enlightenment, is actually a rejection of history in favor of what we might call lore.”