Upon its debut, the 1619 Project, an initiative by The New York Times, sought to “reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding” due to the arrival in that year of 20 African slaves to the Virginia colony. The project aims to “[place] the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center” of American history. Not so, several prominent scholars claim.
In The Wall Street Journal, Elliot Kaufman notes that several prominent historians, including Gordon Wood and James McPherson, have disputed the project’s central claims about American history and American slavery. Wood said the initiative was “so wrong in so many ways,” while McPherson said the project “[leaves] most of the history out.”
Strikingly, as Kaufman points out, the interviews with Wood and McPherson appeared on a publication called the World Socialist Web Site, an outlet not known for being a hotbed of conservative literary criticism. That site, Kaufman writes, actually has a history of criticizing the project:
A September essay for the World Socialist Web Site called the project a “racialist falsification” of history. That didn’t get much attention, but in November the interviews with the historians went viral. “I wish my books would have this kind of reaction,” Mr. Wood says in an email. “It still strikes me as amazing why the NY Times would put its authority behind a project that has such weak scholarly support.” He adds that fellow historians have privately expressed their agreement. Mr. McPherson coolly describes the project’s “implicit position that there have never been any good white people, thereby ignoring white radicals and even liberals who have supported racial equality.”
These criticisms rankled the project’s creator, Nikole Hannah-Jones:
She tweeted of Mr. McPherson: “Who considers him preeminent? I don’t.” Her own qualifications are an undergraduate degree in history and African-American studies and a master’s in journalism. She says the project goes beyond Mr. McPherson’s expertise, the Civil War. “For the most part,” she writes in its lead essay, “black Americans fought back alone” against racism. No wonder she’d rather not talk about the Civil War.
Thomas Mackaman, an interviewer for the socialist website and a professor at King’s College, said the 1619 Project gets the history backwards:
The American Revolution didn’t found a “slavocracy,” as Ms. Hannah-Jones puts it. Instead, in Mr. Mackaman’s telling, it “brought slavery in for questioning in a way that had never been done before” by “raising universal human equality as a fundamental principle.” Nor was protecting slavery “one of the primary reasons” the colonists declared independence, as Ms. Hannah-Jones claims. It’s no coincidence the abolitionists rapidly won votes to end slavery in five of the original 13 states, along with Vermont and the new states of the Midwest.
One socialist critic said the 1619 Project is emblematic of identity politics, the adherents of which “fight out conflicts within the top 10% or so over access to positions of power and privilege.”
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