The ‘1619 Project’ is a dangerous attempt to rewrite history
Purchase an ebook by George Orwell and you may not be getting the original work. Per a recent New York Times report, you may be getting some other version created by publishers exploiting loopholes in copyright law.
It’s an ironic thing to happen to happen to Orwell, of all people.
Downright Orwellian, you might say.
It’s also a chilling reality of the digital era. If you purchase a print book the text in it can never be changed. Digital books are another matter.
The potential for malicious revisionism is alarming, yet history has always been vulnerable in that way.
We can watch it in real time today.
Many, such as this humble observer, oppose efforts to end the recognition of Columbus Day not because we have any particular esteem for the mostly forgettable holiday but because those working to do so are seeking to replace one stilted, insultingly simplistic historical narrative with another.
The legacy of Columbus is far more complicated than either narrative allows for.
We also have the “1619 Project” from the New York Times. It’s a published selection of articles intended to move the history of America’s founding from 1776, the year of the Declaration of Independence, to 1619 when the slave trade was inaugurated on our shores.
“Out of slavery — and the anti-black racism it required — grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional,” the introduction to the project states.
Thoughtful exploration of the history of slavery, and how it has shaped our nation right up to today, is certainly worthy endeavor. Some of the articles in this project even accomplish those goals.
Khalil Gibran Muhammad’s portrait of Louisiana’s sugar industry was particularly harrowing.
Yet that premise, the idea that slavery and racism are responsible for “nearly everything” which has made American exceptional, is not thoughtful.
It is a rank effort to boil America’s complexities down into a singular political narrative.
Ironically, the revisionism on display with the “1619 Project” is not unlike tactics southern state racists deployed to defend slavery during the lead up to the Civil War.
People like Stephen Douglas, in his famous debates with Abraham Lincoln, and Sen. John Calhoun, the leader of the pro-slavery faction in the U.S. Senate, sought to defend slavery by repainting the nation’s founders as supporters of it.
While there are contradictions — there’s no getting around Washington and Jefferson owning slaves — they did actually seek equality for all. Even those they thought inferior.
“Because Sir Isaac Newton was superior to others in understanding, he was not therefore lord of the person or property of others,” Jefferson wrote in an 1809 letter about the “opportunities for the development” of blacks.
The 1619 Project authors have little in common, politically, with people like Douglas or Calhoun. Still, their efforts to reshape history to fit their preferred political narrative are not dissimilar.
Black slavery is an open wound on the body of America, and we shouldn’t be afraid to recognize that.
To treat it as the definition of our nation is a grave injustice.