By Paul Rozycki
If there is any doubt that race plays a powerful role in American history, one only needs to examine the response to the 1619 Project from around the nation. Pulitzer Prize winning author Nikole Hannah-Jones, the creator of the 1619 Project, which explores American history through the lens of slavery and race, spoke at the Capitol Theater in Flint recently to a full house, as part of the Ballenger Eminent Persons Lecture Series.
Nearly all of those in attendance, and those who shared a Zoom workshop a day later, supported the idea that slavery and race were key elements of American history, that the effects were still being felt today, and much work needs to be done to correct it.
Opposition to the 1619 Project
Yet, that view is hardly universal. Nationwide, more than a few school board meetings have been disrupted by parents angry over plans to include the 1619 Project, or anything similar, in the curriculum. A number of states (including Michigan) have proposed legislation that would forbid teaching elements of the 1619 Project or anything labeled, or related to, Critical Race Theory.
It is worth noting that what is correctly called Critical Race Theory is a specific academic framework, used in law schools and graduate schools, not K-12 education. Some states would allow individual civil suits against teachers who might offend someone with a discussion of race, slavery, or civil rights.
Others would deny federal funds to schools using the project. Just recently Florida attempted to ban some math books because they were considered racially divisive. Some historians have taken exception to parts of the 1619 Project.
And perhaps that’s part of the problem. It’s one thing to preach to the choir, but how to reach everyone else?
For those who are inclined to reject the significance of the 1619 Project, take a deep breath and consider a few things.
There can be little doubt that slavery and race have been a major factor in American history as documented in the 1619 Project. Whether it’s the writing of the U.S. Constitution, the creation of the U.S. Senate, the compromises over admitting new states, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow laws, the Harlem Renaissance, the Brown v Board of Education case, the 1960s civil rights era, or today’s Black Lives Matter movement, it’s hard to find a decade where race wasn’t a major issue.
To fully understand our history it is essential to include it. Yet, the critics who would ban the 1619 Project seem to feel that the project claims that slavery and race are the only threads of history that matter.
Many threads of history
Slavery and race play a central part of our history and an honest history can’t ignore it. But it’s not the only thread of American history. No history is.
Military history tells us who won or lost the battles and wars, and that’s important. But it doesn’t explain everything.
Political history tells us who won or lost an election and the policies that followed, and that matters a lot. But it doesn’t explain everything.
Economic history tells us of stock market booms and busts, the rise of new businesses and the collapse of old ones, and the conflict between capital and labor, and that has a huge impact on the nation. But it doesn’t explain everything.
Art history tells us who were the great painters and sculptors, and what inspired them, but no one thinks that explains all of American history.
You get the idea. There are many threads to American history, some are more important than others. But they are all part of the larger picture and they all are connected to the whole.
Facing our history honestly
But a nation should be able to face its history honestly, and take pride in its great accomplishments, but also face up to its great failures and flaws. For the United States, slavery and race are one of our great flaws. Admitting to those doesn’t erase a long list of admirable accomplishments over the centuries.
Indeed, facing those flaws honestly may, in itself, be a very admirable accomplishment. Not all nations can do that. Germany seems to have made a serious attempt to face up to its role in the evils of the Holocaust in the 1930s and 1940s, and is better for it. Other Eastern European nations have been less forthcoming.
To be sure, the 1619 Project isn’t perfect. Some serious historians have taken exception to parts of it, particularly its view that the American Revolution was fought primarily to preserve slavery. The New York Times, and Hannah-Jones have issued several corrections and clarifications, and she doesn’t claim to be an historian or an educator. It’s hardly a full history of race and slavery in the United States. Rather, it is a collection of essays and literary interpretations of America’s racial history.
Because of that, some critics have misrepresented it, claiming that its goal is to divide Americans along racial lines, making whites feel guilty for being white, or that somehow it’s all a Marxist plot. As a result, a number of state and local governments are considering laws that would dramatically limit any critical discussion of race.
The issues raised by the 1619 Project
Yet, whatever its flaws, the 1619 Project raises important questions and issues about race that have often been overlooked and brushed aside. Is it the last word on this part of American history? I doubt it. History is always an ongoing debate.
I can recall a history class where historians were still arguing over what caused the fall of the Roman Empire. Was it corruption of the emperors, overexpansion, military decline, the rise of Christianity, or lead pipes, among other possibilities? But if the 1619 Project stimulates serious and honest discussion over the impact of race and slavery in our nation, then it has proven itself to be an important document.
But one thing it shouldn’t do is shut off all discussion and debate over race, or portray American history as nothing but happy talk, with stories about how George Washington couldn’t tell a lie when he cut down the cherry tree, or insist that the founding fathers were all flawless human beings, who designed a perfect government. We shouldn’t pretend that once Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, or Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, that all our racial problems were behind us.
Realizing that may be the main message of the 1619 Project, and working to resolve those problems should be a major responsibility of all Americans.
You might even say it was critical.
EVM political commentator Paul Rozycki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.