1619 Project: Racial inequality project shines spotlight on America’s controversial foundation

Adrianna Miller, Features Editor

Back in September of this year, President Trump took aim at a controversial curriculum dubbed the “1619 Project.”  This curriculum, created by The New York Times, attempts to portray American history is a more transparent light, putting to rest the racial inaccuracies of the current curriculum.

History texts and lessons for many years, boldly painted a different picture of American history.  From hiding the true atrocities of slavery to the idea that Columbus didn’t commit genocide, school curriculums have continued to perpetuate a plethora of falsehoods.  The 1619 Project aims to highlight the black race in its effort of shaping America, causing mixed emotions from the public and from Trump’s administration.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, a domestic correspondent for The New York Times Magazine, was covering racial inequality when she had an idea to mark the 400th anniversary of August 1619–when the first enslaved Africans were shipped to Virginia with an interactive project designed to expose the darker side of American history.  Developed in August 2019, the 1619 Project not only includes articles, but podcasts, magazines, newspaper sections, and a curriculum designed for schools to incorporate within their courses.

Hannah-Jones and The New York Times magazine created this program “to reframe American history” by “placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story.”  Hannah-Jones believes that it is imperative that students learn all sides to history.

“I think it is foundational and it is just as foundational as to who we became as a country as our decision in 1776 to breakoff from the British,” said Jones in a CBS interview.   

Winning the Pulitzer Prize in early 2020, this project was seen as a journalistic achievement which offered a different perspective of our nation’s foundational history. Although the project was pitched in 2019, the plan originated during Hannah-Jones’ adolescence. As she advanced in school, Hannah-Jones noticed that the history books “glossed over the black stories.” She felt that the causes, components, and extent of slavery was not properly discussed in schools. 

This is illustrated in a report released by the Teaching Tolerance Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. In 2018, Teacher Tolerance surveyed 1,000 American high school seniors and their social studies teachers in a variety of schools, analyzing the top known U.S history textbooks to see how they evaluated slavery. 

“Overall, not one question on the survey was answered correctly by 66.67 percent or more of the students,” explained NEA News writer Tim Walker. “Two thirds don’t know that it took a constitutional amendment to formally end slavery.”

Many have expressed that U.S History is taught and understood through the eyes of its heroic founding fathers, which is a possible explanation as to why the extent of the atrocities of slavery is not comprehensively examined in history classes.  Jones felt black Americans laid the foundation of this country when they first arrived, enslaved, in August 1619. As a result, she thought they should be as equally discussed as the founding fathers. 

Essays in the project explain that slavery grew almost everything in America: its industrial power, economic might, electoral system, popular music, income inequality, American slang, America’s legal system, and much more. The project wants this nation’s citizens to consider the idea of 1619 being America’s possible ‘birth year.’

“I feel like the date that the Declaration of Independence was signed is what most people consider as America’s birth year,” said junior Emily Plank. 

The question of America’s birthdate is rather debatable considering some people believe it was when the Declaration of Independence was signed, in 1776, while others believe that it was when the Constitution was signed. The idea of 1619 being America’s birth date adds another perspective to the debate, increasing and furthering the discussion. 

Additionally, the project furthers the discussion of the aspects of American life which incorporate the roots of slavery. This incorporates many analyses that are said to be signed by five intellectual historians. 

 According to The New York Times Magazine, “Each essay takes up a modern phenomenon familiar to all, and reveals its history. Alongside the essays, you will find 17 literary works…these works are all original compositions by contemporary writers who were asked to choose events on a timeline of the past 400 years.”

In spite of this project’s efforts to educate and bring different perspectives to the table, it has received backlash from many individuals. Being so because some of its information is considered to be rather misguided. Many aspects of U.S history are very debatable. Even with the facts presented, there are so many components and factors that may skew the discussions. Some historians feel that the 1619 Project had the right aim, but the wrong execution. Once put out, many realized that a lot of its information was deemed inaccurate and incorrect. 

For example, historian Leslie M. Harris explained that she was asked by a New York Times research editor to confirm some statements for the project. One statement explained the claim that the colonists declared independence from Britain in order to protect the establishment of slavery.  Harris disputed the claim because based on her studies, the protection of slavery was not one of the main reasons of the American Revolution. 

I explained these histories as best I could—with references to specific examples—but never heard back from her about how the information would be used,” emphasized Harris. “Despite my advice, the Times published the incorrect statement about the American Revolution anyway. In addition, the paper’s characterizations of slavery in early America did not accurately illustrate the varied experiences of the first generation of enslaved people that arrived in Virginia in 1619.” 

Since her comment, some of the historians who have signed this document are now deeming that its corrections be issued. Hannah-Jones plans to fix these claims in a book version of this project. However, before she was able to fix the inaccuracies, some political figures had viewed the project and expressed their disapproval–one being the President. 

According to Forbes, “At the White House Conference on American History, Trump took aim at the 1619 Project saying it would dissolve the civic bonds of America. He instead proposed patriotic education to develop a pro-American curriculum that celebrates the truth about our nation’s great history.”

President Trump also announced earlier this year that he will be signing an executive order to promote patriotic education which will be called the “1776 Commission,” contrasting the 1619 Project.

It seems that he plans to go forth with this project because on on November 1, 2020 Donald Trump tweeted “Just signed an order to establish the 1776 Commission. We will stop at the radical indoctrination of our students and restore PATRIOTIC EDUCATION to our schools!” 

The 1776 Commission is somewhat controversial, as some believe that it is rather odd how the federal government would propagandize students into learning a ‘specific reading of patriotic history’.  The curriculum behind this new project has been noted to only highlight the founding fathers in a positive way. However, the founding fathers did not act in a ‘positive way’– which is why the presence of the 1776 Commission in schools is uncertain.  

“Because history contains a lot of questionable ideas, I feel that students should be informed of the different discussions and perspectives,” commented freshman Adrian Miller, “We should not be warped into one specific reading of patriotic history but rather all readings of all history, patriotic or not.”

Ultimately the 1619 Project, with its flaws, was not created to spew hate on this nation’s fundamental history. Its intention was to add to the many disputes about America’s past and bring up different aspects that may be accounted for. 

“We created a powerful journalism that caused people to think and to argue and to question,” Ms. Hannah-Jones said. “And whether you ultimately come away agreeing or disagreeing with our argument, you can’t engage with it in good faith and not be challenged to examine the narrative of what our country is.”

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