The 1619 Project and the revision of America’s history

What if what children learning in history class was completely different from what all previous generations were taught? A change drastic and big enough to alter a civilization’s identity and culture as well as push an issue already polemical and controversial to alter what it means to be a citizen of a country. This is exactly what is happening in the country of the American Dream.

The New York Times, the once prestigious and “unbiased” newspaper released in August of 2019 a series of essays entitled “The 1619 Project”.

So, what is it? In their own words:

“The 1619 Project is an ongoing initiative from The New York Times Magazine that began in August 2019, the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”

The New York Times Magazine

In other words, the project wants to reinterpret the founding of America and American history based on the arrival of slaves in 1619 and how it spells out the American identity. The goal is to reposition history through the lenses of racial division. Something that only accentuates the social issues between different races highlighted everywhere nowadays.

Founder of the 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones

The project has been highly scrutinized, evaluated and negatively received by historians. History professors from the universities of Brown and Princeton to name a few critiqued many claims made by the Times and that there was a strong need to correct the errors and distortions presented in the 1619 project.

“[The errors] are matters of verifiable fact, which are the foundation of both honest scholarship and honest journalism. They suggest a displacement of historical understanding by ideology. Dismissal of objections on racial grounds.”

Letter by 5 history professorss to The New York Times

The biggest claim made by the project founder herself was that the reason “colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery”. This is startling and would seem quite true for a person who listens to the news like a sheep (without questioning the sources). She even acknowledged that it is a work based on “memory”. Memories can be flawed, inexact and suffer from the Mandela effect. The following reasons are why the claim above is false.

Leslie M. Harris, professor at Northwestern University fact checked in collaboration with The New York Times but was ignored. She consequently went public on Politico, an American political journalism company to debunk this egregious statement.

The best evidence against the claim is in the original founding document. Thomas Jefferson, the Founding father who drafted the Declaration of Independence added an anti-slavery clause to the grievances. The grievances were against Britain and its King George III as the reasons for the existence of the United States of America as an independent self-governed country.

“He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.”

Anti-slavery clause, Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson called the institution of slavery “piratical warfare,” “execrable commerce” and an “assemblage of horrors.”

The drafted document of Thomas Jefferson was sent for edits to a pre-selected committee. The members were John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston. Then, it was sent to congressional delegates, who after debating, removed this clause in the final version.

This is because some had an economic stake in the slavery of Africans. What remains of the grievance is that King George incited “domestic insurrections among us”.

In his autobiography, well after the Declaration was signed and the constitution ratified, Thomas Jefferson blamed the Southern states of South Carolina and Georgia and some Northerners for removing the clause.

“The clause…reprobating the enslaving the inhabitants of Africa, was struck out in compliance to South Carolina and Georgia, who had never attempted to restrain the importation of slaves, and who on the contrary still wished to continue it. Our Northern brethren also I believe felt a little tender under these censures; for tho’ their people have very few slaves themselves, yet they had been pretty considerable carriers of them to others.”

Thomas Jefferson autobiography

Two other evidences are in the historical events surrounding slavery and the American revolution.

The first one is Somerset v. Stewart (1772), a case in the English Court of King’s Bench regarding human rights and labor laws. James Somerset was a slave from Jamaica and Charles Stewart a customs officer who purchased the latter. In the decision, Somerset was freed from slavery and slavery was technically abolished. This boosted the abolitionist movement but nonetheless, slavery continued throughout England and the British Empire in general. Newspaper advertisements and the abolitionists of the time, namely Thomas Clarkson and James Ramsey prove that slavery was still done. It was not until it passed the legislative process through the Slavery abolition Act 1833 that expanded the ban of the Slave trade Act of 1807 almost everywhere in the British Empire.

The second historical event is the British general Lord Dunmore’s proclamation in 1775 that established martial law and offered slaves to flee and join the British army in exchange for their freedom.

“I do hereby farther declare all indented servants, Negroes, or others (appertaining to rebels) free, that are able and willing to bear arms, they joining his Majesty’s troops, as soon as may be, for the more speedily reducing this colony to a proper sense of their duty, to his Majesty’s crown and dignity.”

Lord Dunmore, Royal Governor of Virginia

This inspired many hundreds of African Americans to join British lines with an unprecedented opportunity to be set free. Thousands were set free but not all promises were kept and only a relatively small number were freed compared to the total slave population. However, the exact number is not known.

As a result, historical documents and events do not support the claim made by Nikole Hannah-Jones that slavery is the reason of independence from Britain and foundational values of the United States. It has been called by researchers and scholars as “historical imagination” and the “capital punishment of journalism”.

The problem is that the essays are now proudly and openly used for educational purposes in schools across the United States. In September of 2019, the CEO of Chicago Public Schools wrote in a post that the 1619 project will be used as a supplemental resource in the curriculum in all schools in the district, the third largest school district in the country. The reason is that it will be used: “as a resource to help reframe the institution of slavery, and how we’re still influenced by it today.” The content is taught as facts and can be a danger to the American identity and culture as well as how the United States will be portrayed in the years and decades to come.

To combat the project, alternative organizations were set to promote the traditionally taught history of the States.

“Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”

United States Declaration of Independence

One of the groups is 1776 Unites. 1776 was the year of American independence from the English crown. It is a nonpartisan project led by African Americans with the goal to “celebrate black excellence” and “reject victimhood culture” through concentrating on the one’s who achieved, contrary to the demoralizing mainstream message. Its founder is Robert Woodson, a civil rights activist and writers include Toni McIlwaine, Latasha Fields and Ian Rowe. Charles Love’s essay on 1776 Unites website “We must scrap the ‘1619 Project’ for an accurate account of American history” is worth reading to understand the 1619 Project from the view of a black person himself.

The Trump administration also formed the 1776 commission with the goal of supporting “patriotic education” and end the “radicalized view of American history.”

Another group is the 1620 Project by the National Association of Scholars (NAS). If you guessed what is so important with the date, congrats. It was the year when the ship called the Mayflower arrived in the new world with religious dissidents near Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Today, they are remembered for having celebrated the first Thanksgiving.

Furthermore, the Virginia Company gave the permission to establish a settlement. They brought about Plymouth, a “plantation”, created their own “civill body politick”. This is because they framed their own laws, elected their leaders, were self-governing and put aside the old-world form of hierarchy. They upheld the principle of equality and liberty. They were even able to have a treaty with Indians that lasted over 50 years. Consequently, this is the template for the idea of American self-government.

The National Association of Scholars want to redirect the attention away from the slavocracy as the foundational concept of America and more towards self-government with the values that equality and liberty.

In a nutshell, the 1619 Project is an initiative promoting a negative outlook on a crucial element of American identity and history. As race becomes more of a controversial issue that divide neighbors, the solution is to shift the conversation for the identity and culture to avoid taking the social division to the brink of perpetual segregation.

It is first and foremost of absolute importance to get the facts straight. Where the 1619 project made errors, the New York Times should consider highlighting the falsehoods and correcting them. So as not to mislead people using it as a resource in the school’s curriculum. Additionally, like 1776 Unites and the 1620 Project, they voice out the values of equality, “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” as the American founding. They are unalienable rights given to all humans by the Creator. Consequently, focus on success stories and show that everyone can achieve, regardless of race, social class or any social status and label.

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