The NY Times’ 1619 Project was a sprawling effort earlier this year to convince Americans that slavery was part of the DNA of America. Made up of various pieces by different authors, the 1619 Project seemed to promote an idea that matched current far left sentiment about the importance of identity with an underlying anti-capitalism. The Times is now promoting the Project for inclusion in high school curricula, so it’s likely it will be with us for some time. But where did all of this material come from?
One site has done some important work looking into the Times’ Project by simply asking top scholars what they though of it and whether or not they were consulted. In published interviews, three of those scholars have said they were not consulted and that the Project seems to be based as much on a biased an narrow ideology as history. But there is one twist in this story that you probably won’t see coming. The site which has done these interviews is the World Socialist Website. Take that for what it’s worth but I think the work speaks for itself in this case.
Earlier this month the site interviewed James McPherson on his reaction to the Times’ Project. McPhereson is a Princeton history professor who specializes in the history of the Civil War including a Pulitzer Prize winning history on the topic. Here’s a sample of what McPhereson had to say about 1619:
Q. What was your initial reaction to the 1619 Project?
A. Well, I didn’t know anything about it until I got my Sunday paper, with the magazine section entirely devoted to the 1619 Project. Because this is a subject I’ve long been interested in I sat down and started to read some of the essays. I’d say that, almost from the outset, I was disturbed by what seemed like a very unbalanced, one-sided account, which lacked context and perspective on the complexity of slavery, which was clearly, obviously, not an exclusively American institution, but existed throughout history. And slavery in the United States was only a small part of a larger world process that unfolded over many centuries. And in the United States, too, there was not only slavery but also an antislavery movement. So I thought the account, which emphasized American racism—which is obviously a major part of the history, no question about it—but it focused so narrowly on that part of the story that it left most of the history out.
So I read a few of the essays and skimmed the rest, but didn’t pursue much more about it because it seemed to me that I wasn’t learning very much new. And I was a little bit unhappy with the idea that people who did not have a good knowledge of the subject would be influenced by this and would then have a biased or narrow view…
Q. Nikole Hannah-Jones, the lead writer and leader of the 1619 Project, includes a statement in her essay—and I would say that this is the thesis of the project—that “anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country.”
A. Yes, I saw that too. It does not make very much sense to me. I suppose she’s using DNA metaphorically. She argues that racism is the central theme of American history. It is certainly part of the history. But again, I think it lacks context, lacks perspective on the entire course of slavery and how slavery began and how slavery in the United States was hardly unique. And racial convictions, or “anti-other” convictions, have been central to many societies.
But the idea that racism is a permanent condition, well that’s just not true. And it also doesn’t account for the countervailing tendencies in American history as well. Because opposition to slavery, and opposition to racism, has also been an important theme in American history.
The WSWS also interviewed James Oakes, “Distinguished Professor of History and Graduate School Humanities Professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.” Oakes has written several award-winning books about slavery and anti-slavery in America. In this interview, Oakes was asked directly about the attempt by one of the 1619 authors to connect slavery to capitalism:
Q. Can you discuss some of the recent literature on slavery and capitalism, which argues that chattel slavery was, and is, the decisive feature of capitalism, especially American capitalism? I am thinking in particular of the recent books by Sven Beckert, Ed Baptist and Walter Johnson. This seems to inform the contribution to the 1619 Project by Matthew Desmond.
A. Collectively their work has prompted some very strong criticism from scholars in the field. My concern is that by avoiding some of the basic analytical questions, most of the scholars have backed into a neo-liberal economic interpretation of slavery, though I think I’d exempt Sven Beckert somewhat from that, because I think he’s come to do something somewhat different theoretically.
What you really have with this literature is a marriage of neo-liberalism and liberal guilt. When you marry those two things, neo-liberal politics and liberal guilt, this is what you get. You get the New York Times, you get the literature on slavery and capitalism…
Q. And a point we made in our response to the 1619 Project, is that it dovetails also with the major political thrust of the Democratic Party, identity politics. And the claim that is made, and I think it’s almost become a commonplace, is that slavery is the uniquely American “original sin.”
A. Yes. “Original sin,” that’s one of them. The other is that slavery or racism is built into the DNA of America. These are really dangerous tropes. They’re not only ahistorical, they’re actually anti-historical. The function of those tropes is to deny change over time. It goes back to those analogies. They say, “look at how terribly black people were treated under slavery. And look at the incarceration rate for black people today. It’s the same thing.” Nothing changes. There has been no industrialization. There has been no Great Migration. We’re all in the same boat we were back then. And that’s what original sin is. It’s passed down. Every single generation is born with the same original sin. And the worst thing about it is that it leads to political paralysis. It’s always been here. There’s nothing we can do to get out of it. If it’s the DNA, there’s nothing you can do. What do you do? Alter your DNA?
Finally, just this week the site published an interview with Gordon Wood, professor emeritus at Brown University. Wood is author of a Pulitzer Prize winning book on the Revolutionary War. Like the others, he was not contacted by the NY Times for the 1619 Project and doesn’t know any of his fellow expert historians who were either. Wood tells the WSWS, “I was surprised, as many other people were, by the scope of this thing, especially since it’s going to become the basis for high school education and has the authority of the New York Times behind it, and yet it is so wrong in so many ways.”
The entire interview is worth reading but some of the highlights are contained in the video clip below. The conclusion of any one of these scholars would be a problem for the NY Times’ 1619 Project, but the fact that all three of them see it as fundamentally wrong, anti-historical, and lacking perspective ought to lead schools around the country to reconsider its value.