Culture Wars/Current Controversies

The muddle at the middle of the 1619 Project

By Damon Linker, The Week

An unresolved contradiction still plagues the controversial history as it releases in book form.

What does it mean to tell a country’s story?

In August 2019, The New York Times Magazine proposed one answer to this question for the United States. A package of essays taking up an entire issue of the magazine aimed, in the words of an introductory statement, “to reframe the country’s history” by treating the arrival of the first African slaves in 1619 “as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.”

The 1619 Project generated a lot of accolades and awards but also considerable criticism. Some of the critique focused on examples of interpretive overstatement and historical inaccuracies. But the broader objection concerned this sweeping language, which could be found throughout the package and which played an especially prominent part in one essay, by sociologist Matthew Desmond, focused on the supposedly decisive influence of slavery on the distinctive “brutality” of American capitalism.

In response, the project’s creator and lead editor, Nikole Hannah-Jones, came to insist that talk of 1619 as the country’s “true founding” had always been “metaphoric.” Accordingly, the introductory statement to the project was amended online to remove such language, though it still insisted slavery and its legacy should be placed “the very center of our national narrative.” Meanwhile, Magazine editor Jake Silverstein began to speak about the project in more cautious and nuanced terms, claiming it was merely “intended to address the marginalization of African-American history in the telling of our national story and examine the legacy of slavery in contemporary American life.”

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