History textbooks are in the news. So is the history curriculum. The source of the news is not the federal Department of Education over some new regulation (remember Common Core?). It is not even from the state education departments. Instead it is from the state legislatures plus some Senators, Representatives, and talk-show hosts. The cause of the fuss is The New York Times 1619 Project and/or Critical race Theory.
I have written before about the deeply flawed 1619 Project is if you are actually interested in the history of 1619 (it’s not even in The New York Times magazine). But even though The 1619 Project contains scarcely any information at all about 1619, it remains important because of that title. The New York Times picked that title because of the message it delivers and not because of the content in the publication. That choice is a clue that what we are dealing with here are political/cultural messages delivered through memes and slogans in history. One should keep this realization in mind when deciphering the language of the public speakers on the subject. Regardless of what 1619 could mean in a purely academic context, that meaning is secondary to its meaning as a weapon in the Culture Wars. The same considerations apply to the once strictly academic jargon term “Critical Race Theory” that now is wielded and defend against as a weapon in that war.
WE FOUND THE TEXTBOOKS OF SENATORS WHO OPPOSE THE 1619 PROJECT AND SUDDENLY EVERYTHING MAKES SENSE
An article with this title was posted May 6, 2021, by Michael Harriot for The Root. Harriot had the ingenious idea of seeking to determine the history textbooks used by the 38 Republican Senators who sent a letter to the Secretary of Education expressing their opposition to The 1619 Project and Critical Race Theory being taught in the public school classrooms. He wanted to know that if history was being rewritten to conform to these teachings, “which version of history does the GOP fear is being altered?”
As part of his investigation, Harriot examined “state curriculum standards, yearbooks, and spoke with the teachers to see which interpretation of history the white tears-spewing politicians learned when they were in elementary and high school.” Readers of this blog will quickly grasp that the inclusion of “white tears-spewing” was not necessary to advance the reasoning of his analysis. It was necessary for the author to take this judgmental cheap shot at his target while being self-righteous. The technique is counter-productive as it alienates people who are not part of your sect. On the other hand, it feels good taking cheap shots at people so you do it. Think of our former President’s press conferences and tweets.
Returning to his serious research, Harriot identified six lessons learned from his investigation
1. There is no one Social Studies curriculum at the national or state level although there may be standards.
2. There are two histories taught by which Harriot means two cycles of social studies, one in elementary and middle school and a second in high school.
3. Sometimes there are three histories – Harriot is referring to the states that mandate a “state history” course generally with a state-approved textbook which may contradict what is taught in the American history classes.
4. Sometimes there are four histories if two state histories are taught, one at the elementary level and one at the secondary level.
5. World history adds another level. Different textbooks and publishers are used and what is taught in world history which can include the United States may differ from what is taught in the American history class.
6. No matter how histories there are, there is no Black History. By this, he means there may be cursory mention of the Civil War, Martin Luther King Jr., and the civil rights movement, but that is it.
These general observations seem reasonable and probably would not draw a second glance unless one was participating in the Culture Wars.
HISTORY TEXTBOOKS OF THE REPUBLICAN SENATORS
With this background, Harriot then turns to the textbooks of Republican Senators.
To our surprise. Most received a well-rounded education on the history of Black people in America. Just kidding. They all learned variations of the same white lies. And, apparently, they’d like to keep it that way.
Once again, Harriot deploys the cheap shot which work well when preaching to the choir and is a turnoff when not. Even before presenting the evidence he has already condemned the results in derogatory terms. Clearly he is not interested in a dialog. Fair enough. It is his blog.
The Senators he reviews for their history textbooks are:
Marsha Blackburn (Tennessee) who attended school in Mississippi
Tom Cotton (Arkansas)
Ted Cruz (Texas)
Lindsey Graham (South Carolina)
John Kennedy (Louisiana)
Mitch McConnell (Kentucky)
Tim Scott (South Carolina)
Tommy Tuberville (Alabama).
One notes the Confederate location of these all-but-one white Senators. Harriot reports the obvious results. Yes, one should not be surprised to see the role of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in influencing the curriculum. Yes, masters were kindly. Yes, slaves were loyal to “ole Massa.” Yes, there was the War for Southern Independence. Yes, there is the Lost Cause. Yes, the Klan punished Negroes when the courts did not. Interestingly, the Indians of Georgia receive far more attention than did the Negroes of Georgia who only are mentioned five times.
There is no need to review each Senator one by one. The pattern is clear. Harriot ends by asking the reader to imagine what it would be like for a white person to have one’s entire education even through graduate school based on these teachings only to be confronted by The 1619 Project. He concludes by saying these Senators, and presumably all 38 who signed the letter to the Secretary of Education including those not from Confederate states, have all been educated in “critical racist theory this whole time” [bold added].
LESSONS TO BE LEARNED
There are lessons to be learned including with Harriot’s cheap shots. The idea of examining the history textbooks is an insightful one. His argument would be strengthened if he could include the other sources of learning to determine if they reinforce or contradict his textbook findings. Yes, I realize he wrote a blog and not a journal article or a monograph, but I would like to know more before attributing such power to the history textbooks in public schools. Here are three other sources of information that would have influenced the child.
1. Oral – what did the child learn from parents, grandparents, family and so forth about the history of the United States and especially the Confederacy?
2. Visual – what did the child see in the statues, monuments, memorials, street and building names?
3. Public – what parades, processions, battle-reenactments, and flags did the child see?
The odds are all these facets of education deliver the same message. The removal of a history textbook or even a change in one would not necessarily invalidate the message a child receives if the other components remained intact. Still it is worthwhile to examine the history textbooks of the current Senators. I also would be interested to know what the future Senators from the Confederacy are learning from the current history textbooks today.
Unfortunately the key lesson from this analysis is not being learned. History facts are a casualty in a Culture War. Did you ever try to win a religion discussion with facts? Besides, these days everyone is entitled to their own facts anyway.
The opposition to The 1619 Project and Critical Race Theory is based on the culture war in the present and not the history in the past. The academic meaning of Critical Race Theory is insignificant compared to the political/cultural message expressed by those who are wielding it was a weapon of war. When the Woke say The 1619 Project and Critical Race Theory, the Republican Senators, state legislators, the talk-show hosts and the voters poised to return Republicans to power in 2022 hear:
Your white ancestors were monsters.
The country you love was born in sin.
Your country’s success is due to systemic white racism.
You are the beneficiary of white privilege.
You owe us.
It is our turn now.
They hear these words because that is what the Woke are saying regardless of the technical meaning of the terms. While the country may not legally separate into the United States of America and the United States of Trump, it will or is separating culturally and politically. The New York Times 1619 Project and Critical Race Theory are simply examples of the drawing of the boundaries dividing country just as gerrymandering does.
We are a storytelling species. That means history is important. The enrollments as history major majors may be in decline. The earning prospects for history majors may seem bleak. But the importance of history remains.
In one of his last acts as President, the outgoing President released his 1776 Commission report.
In one of his first acts as President, the incoming President disbanded that commission.
History is important. People know where they were when they learned about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. People know where they were when they learned that President John Kennedy had been assassinated. People know where they were when the learned the World Trade Towers had collapsed. Not only did people know where they were, they had similar reactions. These national events became part of the shared history for the generation that experienced them and the subsequent generations that remembered them.
The situation is drastically different with civil war events. These events from America’s three civil wars produced divided responses. People knew where they were when they found out about Lexington and Concord but they did not share the same response. People knew where they were when they found out about Fort Sumter but they did not share the same response. People know where they were when they found out the events of January 6, but they do not share the same response or even the same set of facts:
Was it an attempted insurrection instigated by the worst President in the history of the United States, or
Was it an attempt by antifa to undermine the greatest President in the history of the United States?
Historians debate who is the greatest and who is the worst President in American history. To the best of my knowledge, there has never been an instance where a single individual simultaneously was considered to be both the best and the worst presidents by approximately half the population for each. Perhaps the non-Presidential figure with a similar split in the American population is Robert E. Lee.
As a storytelling species, it is critical that we have shared stories to tell. Think of how much of family gatherings is dedicated to the telling of family stories that you have heard before as well as new ones. Think of how hard it is to have family gatherings today without and without Covid. In the current issue of Time, Charlotte Alter writes:
A democracy is only as strong as the faith of its participants. At the very least, that faith must be rooted in some sense of shared reality, a willingness to agree on to disagree according to the laws laid out in the Constitution.
She is correct but there is no shared reality now. The differences are not simply people having different favorites for the Superbowl or whether baseball or football or basketball is the national sport. There is no agreement now on even what the score is of a given game, whether the players are legitimate, or if a game is real, meaning not digitally created.
The last serious well-known effort to create a national narrative for the 21st century today was by Jill Lepore, These Truths: A History of the United States (2018). By coincidence, today I received my hard copy of The American Historical Review (125/5 December 2020). Her book is the subject of the roundtable for this issue with four scholars commenting on it. Once I have read it, I will report on their comments on the success and/or failure of her book (previously I wrote about a roundtable on “Native American and Indigenous Studies: Another Culture Wars Episode.”
By coincidence, on the same day that I received the journal, I watched an online lecture presented by the American Philosophical Society on the book Past and Prologue: Politics and Memory in the American Revolution by Michael D. Hattem. The main theme of the talk was the absence of an historical memory in the new nation. By that I mean, the former British colonists had a long historical memory through their being British, a memory that extended to the French and Indian War. The British colonists were proud to support their side against the French and the Indians allied against them. They were proud to express their loyalty to King George III. And then they weren’t.
Now the new country was faced with the task of creating a shared national history for a country that was younger than their children. Hatten spoke about the transformation that occurred as people cut themselves off from their shared British history to create a new shared American history.
Christopher Columbus was part of that effort to create a shared history. The people in the colonies from Pilgrims to Puritans to Dutch to Quakers to Cavaliers plus others had not come to America at one time and for the same reasons. By the time Georgia became a colony, Virginia had “celebrated” its centennial. In this sense, all American citizens had Columbus in common. If he hadn’t done what he did, none of them would have been here. As a result, he was part of creating a shared national history that went back before 1776 and wasn’t British. Americans could observe a Columbus tricentennial in 1792, name the capital after him, and use Columbia as a non-British national symbol (and college name).
Another shared history-based form of identity was as God’s New Israel. It wasn’t mentioned in the talk and I don’t know if it is in Hattem’s book or not. A connection with an event three millennia ago certainly was one way to develop a non-British history. This identification was not a new one post-1776 but it was an example of how the United States crafted an identity for itself.
Finally, homage should be paid to the one individual above all others who provided Americans with a shared identity. Without George Washington holding the country together, no one knows if there even would have been a united country to hold together. Perhaps there would have been two.
THE UNSHARED HISTORY
At present, there are three major incompatible views about the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the creating of a shared national narrative. The three are:
1. Woke view: The New York Times 1619 – The documents are racist and the country is illegitimate based on white supremacy and social stratification. 1619 has been the subject of previous blogs but its story needs to be updated based on ongoing reactions to it.
2. Patriotic view: Hamilton, the Musical – A flawed but great start and an ongoing story as evidenced by the cast of the show. It also has been the subject of previous blogs.
3. Trumpican: 1776 Commission – They are divinely inspired documents especially through the Second Amendment.
Before turning to these three incompatible national narratives, I will start the challenge to craft a national narrative with the four, maybe five national myths that are regarded as historical by tens of millions of people. These myths are:
1. the myth of the empty land
2. the myth of stolen from Africa
3. the myth of no slavery in the North
4. the myth of the Lost Cause.
Now we have a new myth attempting to join these four longstanding ones:
5. the myth of the stolen election.
Whether or not this most recent myth has the power to be sustained cannot yet be determined. It is still being formed and is connected to the insurrection attempt instigated by the loser. The well-known saying that “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters” now has been proven true. That saying may become part of the myth and detached from its January 23, 2016, date. In the myth it will be easy to conflate these two January events.
Obviously, I have my work cut out for me if I am to go through this process. We do need a shared national narrative for the 21st century. For me, at least, at this point in time, the steps outlined here are a way towards creating one even though it won’t even matter if I succeed.
Even without the coronavirus, the United States should not be celebrating July4th as its birthday according to The New York Times. In its Pulitzer-Prize winning Sunday Magazine issue entitled “1619” (August 18, 2019), The New York Times asks us to accept 1619 as the true birth year of the United States and not 1776 (see the blog The Battle between 1619 and 1776: The New York Times versus the History Community). It claims that a ship carrying “a cargo of 20 to 30 enslaved Africans” marks the country’s origins. It does so even though no country existed at that time and there weren’t even close to 13 British colonies then either.
As one might expect, there was a negative reaction to this publication. For the most part the NYT was able to swat away these responses. What was striking about them was that they were mostly about the American Revolution and Abraham Lincoln. Hardly anyone commented on about the attempt to redefine American history by having it originate not with the Declaration of Independence but with “original sin.”
In some ways the lack of comments on 1619 was not surprising – there was hardly anything written in the magazine about 1619! One would think that in a magazine with the title “1619,” there would be at least one article devoted to that topic. Instead it was almost absent save for a few stray comments here and there that mentioned 1619 in passing. The supplement contains more information. But if you really wanted to know about 1619, you are far better off reading the vastly superior account in USA Today [see my blog 1619: The New York Times versus USA Today (and Hamilton)].
People were not enslaved in Virginia in 1619, they were indentured. The 20 or so Africans were sold and bought as “servants” for a term of years, and they joined a population consisting largely of European indentured servants, mainly poor people from the British Isles whom the Virginia Company of London had transported and sold into servitude.
Enslavement was a process that took place step by step, after the mid-17th century. This process of turning “servants” from Africa into racialized workers enslaved for life occurred in the 1660s to 1680s through a succession of Virginia laws that decreed that a child’s status followed that of its mother and that baptism did not automatically confer emancipation. By the end of the 17th century, Africans had indeed been marked off by race in as chattel to be bought, sold, traded, inherited and serve as collateral for business and debt services. This was not already the case in 1619.
How come The New York Times didn’t know this? As you can see from Prof. Painter’s comments, the slavery system developed ad hoc over time as new situations occurred. For example, suppose someone was baptized, then what? Suppose someone had a white father and a black mother, then what? The system whereby 75% -white Sally Hemmings was legally both black and a slave did not exist in 1619. It took time for different combinations and circumstances to develop.
What then should be done to redress the shortcomings, omissions, and errors in the NYT’s publication? The answer is fairly straightforward. Have a conference or conferences to plug the gaps and provide the information that was to fit to print in “1619” but wasn’t. Specifically, there are 5 topics which should be covered by my count.
1. Where’s Africa?
According to a recent NYT note on the “1619” publication, an earlier draft by Nikole Hannah-Jones began the story earlier than July 4th and the American Revolution (“Telling ‘the Sweep of 400Years’,” June 18, 2020, print). It began with the Middle Passage where she wrote “They say our people were born on water.” I don’t know who “they” are in the sentence but that beginning would have been a step in the right direction. It’s still not Africa, but it’s closer. The phrase was used by Tiya Miles in “1619” who then mentions the Mbundu, Akan, and Fulani peoples. But the phrase ignores what the people of the Middle Passage brought with them from Africa to the Western Hemisphere. It’s as if the Middle Passage had “severed them so completely from what had once been their home that it was as if nothing had ever existed before, as if everything and everyone they cherished had simply vanished from the earth.” The presence of the King of the Kongo at Pinkster celebrations demonstrates that not everything had vanished. What was this kingdom and why was its king remembered?
The story “out of Africa” should begin in Africa. If the focus is 1619, then the area of concern is the modern country of Angola. No such country existed in 1619 and no people there self-identified as “Angolans” then either. However it is the region that produced over 5 million of the 12 million people brought to the Western Hemisphere, especially Brazil, and was the source of people on the vessels that were captured by pirates and brought here. The study would explore the Kingdom of Kongo and the Mubundo and Imbangala peoples as they were the ones most involved in the slave trade. There are scholars with expertise in this subject who could have been consulted in the preparation of “1619” and who could be invited to do a session, symposium, or conference on it.
2. Where’s Europe?
Similarly there is a story to be told about the Europeans who were involved in 1619. The key people are the Portuguese who arrived in Kongo in 1481. What were they doing there? How did it happen to be that the Portuguese were making the difficult voyage south along the African coast (going south was easy, it was the return north that was the challenge)? What did slavery mean in the European tradition? Why were owned people called “slaves” anyway? What was the geo-political situation at the time including Christian-Moslem and Protestant-Catholic? Why did the Dutch and the English get involved? These relationships are important. In 1491, the Kongo king voluntarily became Catholic beginning a long relationship between the independent country (not a colony) and the Church. In 1618, the Thirty Years War began which included the Kongo as well. There are scholars with expertise in these subjects who could have been consulted in the preparation of “1619” and who could be invited to do a session, symposium, or conference on them.
3. Where’s the Slave Trade?
How did the people who were brought to first the Atlantic Islands and Europe and then to the Western Hemisphere come to be brought to these areas? What were the mechanisms by which so many people could be brought to the Western Hemisphere by so few people? Miles uses the phrase “people stolen from western and central Africa.” This phrase expresses a popular explanation (see Roots):
Spike Lee: “just the fact that we were stolen from Mother Africa and brought here through the Middle Passage… (Time, June 22-29, 2020, print).
Other people take a different view.
Depend upon it, the savage chiefs on the western coast of Africa, who for ages have been accustomed to selling their captives into bondage, and pocketing the ready cash for them, will not more readily see and accept our moral and economical ideas, than the slave-traders of Maryland and Virginia. We are, therefore, less inclined to go to Africa to work against the slave-traders, than to stay here to work against it. (“African Civilization Society,” February 1859)
Henry Louis Gates: The sad truth is that without complex business partnerships between African elites and European traders and commercial agents, the slave trade to the New World would have been impossible, at least on the scale it occurred…. But the sad truth is that the conquest and capture of Africans and their sale to Europeans was one of the main sources of foreign exchange for several African kingdoms for a very long time. Slaves were the main export of the kingdom of Kongo; the Asante Empire in Ghana exported slaves and used the profits to import gold. Queen Njinga, the brilliant 17th-century monarch of the Mbundu, waged wars of resistance against the Portuguese but also conquered polities as far as 500 miles inland and sold her captives to the Portuguese. When Njinga converted to Christianity, she sold African traditional religious leaders into slavery, claiming they had violated her new Christian precepts. (Ending the Slavery Blame-Game, The New York Times, April 22, 2010).
Who is right? There are scholars with expertise in this subject who could have been consulted in the preparation of “1619” and who could be invited to do a session, symposium, or conference on it.
4. Where’s Virginia?
As Prof. Painter’s comments on “1619” indicate, there is a story to be told about what happened in Virginia in the 1600s. The people who were legally free, though indentured, when they landed in Virginia, paved the way for the slavery system The New York Times took granted existed in 1619. That story would include the values the English settlers brought with them to Virginia including on slavery, free people, and servants. It includes the values of the English Puritans and Anglicans who settled in Virginia. It includes the values of small landholders and tobacco plantation owners in Virginia. There are scholars with expertise in these subjects who could have been consulted in the preparation of “1619” and who could be invited to do a session, symposium, or conference on them.
5. Where’s New Amsterdam?
The importance of the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam is that it provides another example of a colony going through some of the same issues that occurred in Virginia at the same time. It does so with a different cultural background. New Amsterdam began as a trading port or merchant city that would become an “island at the center of the world.” Later on, it expanded northwards and created “manors” including here in Westchester where I live. The environment here was not conducive to tobacco. The church here was Dutch Reform and not Anglican or Puritan. I mention these points to suggest that the Virginia model, which itself required decades to finalize, is not the only model for understanding slavery in the colonial period. Virginia and New Amsterdam both struggled with the defining the meaning of slavery and the place of Africans in their respective colonies. There are scholars with expertise in these subjects who could have been consulted in the preparation of “1619” and who could be invited to do a session, symposium, or conference on them.
By coincidence, I just received an eblast from the Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture announcing an online conversation on “Slavery and Freedom in the Era of Revolution” focusing on abolitionism. The series of conversations will be based on TheNew York Times 1619 Project-related event “Slavery and the American Revolution: a Historical Dialogue” (March 6, 2020) held in New York involving several scholars.
I also just received a notice from the American Historical Association of a webinar to be held July 2 on “Erasing History or Making History? Race, Racism, and the American Memorial Landscape” including Annette Gordon-Reed, Harvard University, who participated in the March 6th event above.
Even in the time of Covid-19, it is possible to discuss topics such as the ones I listed above and there are organizations conducting similar type discussions. The issue is does anyone really want to know about 1619?
2019 marked the 400th anniversary of the slavery of Africans in the British American colonies. A Federal commission was created in recognition of this event. The commission did not develop a national presence. Instead of leading a discussion on the event, it was confined to some local events in Virginia where the landing had occurred.
At the national level the most significant voice was that of The New York Times. The Sunday Magazine on August 18, the approximate anniversary date, was dedicated to The 1619 Project. According to a subsequent blurb, the issue sold out and additional copies were printed. A related podcast series was the most downloaded podcast in the United States. The Project has been turned into school curriculum with more than 3000 teachers saying they are using it. Copies were sent to over 500 schools in 91 cities and towns in 30 states. Over 200,000 free copies have been distributed to schools, libraries, museums and for various events. There is a book project underway.
All in all it is safe to say that The 1619 Project of The New York Times is a big deal. So what’s the problem?
A HISTORY COMMUNITY REACTION
There was a reaction of a different sort as well to this publication. Phillip W. Magness of The American Institute for Economic Research (AIER) is maintaining a database of these responses at The 1619 Project Debate: A Bibliography last updated January 3, 2020. It would be a project in and of itself simply to report on these critiques. A great deal of attention in them is directed against the opening historical narrative written by Nikole Hannah-Jones of The New York Times entitled “The Idea of America” (this title does not appear in the print edition). She had suggested the creation of a dedicated issue on 1619 at a staff meeting in January, 2019. She then invited 18 scholars and historians to a meeting at The New York Times for a brain storming session.
THE EDITOR’S NOTE
In this blog instead of analyzing her historical narrative or the responses to it, I will focus my comments on the six-paragraph Editor’s Note by Jake Silverstein at the beginning of the Sunday Magazine. He also is the person who responded in December to the Letter to the Editor signed by five historians who were critical of certain parts of the project.
The two-page Editor’s Note begins with “1619.” in huge print spread across the pages. The opening lines are:
1619 is not a year that most Americans know as a notable date in our country’s history. Those who do are at most a tiny fraction of those who can tell you that 1776 is the year of our nation’s birth. What if, however, we were to tell you that the moment that the country’s defining contradictions first came into the world was in late August of 1619?
The claim is certainly an audacious one. It announces that the true birthday of the country should be celebrated when slavery began here and not with the Declaration of Independence. One may say that Silverstein’s use of the word “contradictions” is a way to claim that it is not the birthday of the nation that is at stake, just its “contradictions.” But then he would be comparing apples to oranges since the opening sentence specifically refers to “our nation’s birth.” The implication is that our true birth is in the contradictions and not in the declaring of our independence.
THE EDITOR’S NOTE VERSUS THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AFRICAN-AMERICAN HISTORY AND CULTURE
Still in the opening paragraph, Silverstein writes:
Their arrival inaugurated a barbaric system of chattel slavery that would last for the next 250 years.
I am not sure precisely what is meant by 250 years or 1869 as the concluding date. The 14th Amendment on citizenship and rights was ratified in 1868 so perhaps that is the 250th year. The number is significant as we are beginning the 250th anniversary celebration of America’s birthday in 1776. The Boston Massacre, for example, occurred in 1770, so in Massachusetts it will start this year.
Be that as it may, the impression conveyed by the text is that for 250 years the British colonies and American states had slavery. Why 250 years? Consider for example the separate section of The 1619 Project prepared by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture with Caitlin Roper, editorial director. In that section a full page is given to a quotation from Frederick Douglass expressing “the outburst of joy and thanksgiving that rent the air when the lightning brought to us the Emancipation Proclamation.” That document was proclaimed on January 1, 1863. The Smithsonian section contains no such expression of joy on the 250th anniversary exclaimed in the Sunday Magazine.
Regardless of whether one uses 244 years or 250, it is a false message. Not even all the colonies had been founded by 1619. Outside of Virginia, no colony/state had a 250 system of slavery even assuming 1868 is the date for the end of slavery. For that matter many northern states had outlawed slavery decades earlier. Consider again the Smithsonian section. There is a box there entitled “She Sued for Her Freedom.” It tells of Mumm Bett suing for her freedom under the new Massachusetts Constitution of 1780. Her husband had died fighting in the American Revolution. Now she argued that slavery violated the rights enunciated in that document. She won and changed her name to Elizabeth Freeman. The Smithsonian concludes that item with:
Her precedent-setting case helped to effectively bring an end to slavery in Massachusetts.
This action occurred long before the 250-year period touted in the Sunday Magazine. Again, the Smithsonian section undermines the message of the Sunday Magazine.
In addition, other states were founded as free states and never had slavery. The intention to depict that all America had slavery and for 250 years is deceptive at best and outright wrong.
VIRGINIA VERSUS NEW AMSTERDAM
Furthermore, the characterization of slavery as a “barbaric system of chattel slavery” also is false. Northern European countries like England and the Netherlands had no or little familiarity with slavery. The legal codes of these countries could handle serfs but slavery was new. In New Amsterdam, the Dutch struggled for decades on the legal status of the African slaves. During that time, some Africans became free. Africans could own land did so on a farm adjacent to the farm of Peter Stuyvesant. Africans could join the Dutch Reform Church. Africans could testify in court. Africans could initiate law suits. The numbers involved were comparatively small at this time. I suspect that if New Amsterdam had remained Dutch, free Africans would have become more and more like free Dutch and that slavery would have ended long before New York began in 1799 to legally end it, again before the touted 250-year period.
Admittedly, the situation in Virginia differed from that of New Amsterdam given all the plantations. Still it took a while to develop the chattel system referred to. After all, to create a system where 75%-white Sally Hemings is black doesn’t happen overnight. The year after 1619 was not the beginning of Gone-with-the-Wind plantations. Again the Smithsonian section sheds light on the deceptiveness of the Sunday Magazine Editor’s Note. A section entitled “Race Encoded into Law” notes the passage in Virginia in 1662 that essentially defines slaves as commodities. This passage implies it took Virginia about 43 years to render a formal decision in law that slaves were property not people. Hence since Sally Hemings mother was biracial and her mother’s mother was black, she was legally a black slave too.
The point here is no to deny the barbarity of the chattel slavery system but to recognize that it did not spring forth fully formed the day after the landing in 1619 or in all the future colonies that were established. America would have been better served if The New York Times had told the story of how chattel slavery emerged in Virginia over these forty-plus years.
Why is Silverstein seeking to convey a message of a national barbaric system of chattel slavery that lasted 250 years? The answer is simple as he concludes the opening paragraph.
This is sometimes referred to as the country’s original sin, but it is more than that: It is the country’s very origin.
The message bluntly put is that We the White People of America were born in America’s original sin. We the White People of America need to repent for this sin. And The New York Times is going to show us the path to redemption.
SLAVERY DOES REQUIRE ANTI-BLACK RACISIM
Silverstein compounds the problem in the opening words of the second paragraph.
Out of slavery — and the anti-black racism it required — grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional…
Slavery does not require anti-black racism. Who knew Spartacus was black? The word “slave” derives from the Latin sclāvus (masculine), sclāva (feminine) from the Slavic peoples who dominated the medieval slave population in Europe. For that matter, why is it even politically correct to use the word “slave” or “enslaved” anyway? Can you say “gypped” or “jewed”? Putting that aside for the moment, there is a huge omission in The 1619 Project. It’s bad enough that Virginia is made the basis for all colonial and American history to the exclusion of what was happening elsewhere, but another gap in the storytelling is Africa itself. Hannah-Jones does mention in passing that the Virginia Africans brought by an English pirate ship were from a Portuguese trading ship that was from Angola, but that’s it.
WHERE’S AFRICA IN THE 1619 PROJECT?
Somehow the Middle Passage doesn’t have a start point. There is a lot of attention on the destination points in the Western Hemisphere. There is a lot of attention on the horrific conditions in the transportation to the Western Hemisphere. But there is minimal to no attention on the start point of that passage. In the (1500 and) 1600s, that means primarily modern Angola. Back then it meant two major kingdoms, Kongo and Ndongo(/Matamba) with a Portuguese colony of Angola named after the founding king of the Ndongo kingdom. The ignorance of the importance of Angola can be seen in the 400th anniversary trip to Africa by the NAACP. Where did they go? To Ghana. Going to Ghana for the 400th anniversary of slavery in Virginia makes about as much sense as going to England to honor Ellis Island immigrants.
The Smithsonian section introduces a slightly different picture. It notes the Romanus Pontifex of 1455 “which affirmed Portugal’s exclusive rights to territories it claimed along the West Africa coast and the trade from those areas.” The Smithsonian quotes from the affirmation that Portugal had the right regarding the people it encountered to “reduce their persons to perpetual slavery.” But it excludes the reference to “Saracens” which was the whole point of the expeditions. With the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Moslems now encircled Europe cutting off access to both Slavs to serve as slaves and trade with Asia. There was the hope among Catholics that they could do an end-around by sailing south around Africa. In 1455, they didn’t know how far the coast extended. The Portuguese would not reach Ghana until the 1470s and Kongo until 1482. It should also be noted that Portugal was not even aware of the Western Hemisphere at this time.
Evidence of these sailings as part of a religious confrontation and not a racial one may be seen in the actions in Kongo. The king of Kongo was baptized in 1491. Missionaries began baptizing Kongolese in droves. Free Kongolese sailed to Lisbon to be educated. Diplomatic correspondence between Kongo and Portugal and the Vatican commenced. One Kongolese married into the royal family approximately 500 years before Meghan Markle. In the 1600’s Ndongo/Matamba entered into extensive relations with the Vatican in its quest to be recognized as a Christian kingdom. Kongo and Ndongo/Matamba were independent countries and represented Catholic outposts in the confrontation with Moslems. At this point in time, slaves were people not property and slavery was not based on anti-black racism.
Same-race slavery in Africa is another omission from The 1619 Project. In the Travel section of The New York Times, Jacqueline Woodson wrote Finding Pain and Joy in Ghana about her trip there as part of the 400th anniversary (December 15, 2019, print). On the Ghana invitation to descendants of which she is one, Woodson writes
In its efforts to bring the African diaspora together, Ghana’s leaders are also hoping to make amends for the complicity of Africans in selling their own people in what would become the trans-Atlantic slave trade….
…I found myself struggling to come to terms with those who worked with white traders to move black bodies into chattel slavery.
The sad truth is that without complex business partnerships between African elites and European traders and commercial agents, the slave trade to the New World would have been impossible, at least on the scale it occurred…. But the sad truth is that the conquest and capture of Africans and their sale to Europeans was one of the main sources of foreign exchange for several African kingdoms for a very long time. Slaves were the main export of the kingdom of Kongo; the Asante Empire in Ghana exported slaves and used the profits to import gold. Queen Njinga, the brilliant 17th-century monarch of the Mbundu, waged wars of resistance against the Portuguese but also conquered polities as far as 500 miles inland and sold her captives to the Portuguese. When Njinga converted to Christianity, she sold African traditional religious leaders into slavery, claiming they had violated her new Christian precepts.
The Smithsonian section also mentions Njinga. It focuses on her exploits as a freedom fighter against the Portuguese. There is no mention of her as a slave-owner or slave-trader. There is no mention of her alliance with the Dutch against the Portuguese or of her purchase of guns and ammunition in exchange for slaves. There is no mention of becoming Catholic and trying to create a Catholic kingdom with extensive correspondence with the Vatican. Think also about the 500 miles mentioned by Gates. Now imagine the Tuscarora in Buffalo rounding up captive Indian tribe slaves, marching them to New Amsterdam, and selling them to the Dutch to be transported as slaves elsewhere. But Njinga gets a pass on her slave-owning and slave-trading in her fight against the Portuguese that Thomas Jefferson on a much smaller scale does not get. There was no abolition movement in Angola.
Frederick Douglass commented on this issue of African slave trade as well. With all the fuss about colonization and Abraham Lincoln in The 1619 Project, it is important to remember what Douglass had to say and which should be included in any school curriculum.
Depend upon it, the savage chiefs on the western coast of Africa, who for ages have been accustomed to selling their captives into bondage, and pocketing the ready cash for them, will not more readily see and accept our moral and economical ideas, than the slave-traders of Maryland and Virginia. We are, therefore, less inclined to go to Africa to work against the slave-traders, than to stay here to work against it. (“African Civilization Society,” February 1859)
Why should Middle Passage blacks give up their white masters in the United States for the black ones in Africa who willingly, eagerly, and freely sold them to white people in the first place? Wouldn’t that make for a good high school essay topic?
1619 VERSUS 1776: THE BATTLE IS ENGAGED
With this background in mind, let us return to the original issue of replacing 1776 with as 1619 as the birth of the country and revising the school curriculum and national culture accordingly.
The 1619 Project of The New York Times is a direct assault on what Abraham Lincoln accomplished. Prior to him, one said “The United States are a country.” After him, one said as we still do to this very day, “The United States is a country.” It was Lincoln at Gettysburg who redefined America from being a collection of states to being a We the People country. Lincoln deserves credit not just for making Thanksgiving a national holiday for all Americans even if you were not of Pilgrim descent but for redefining July 4th as well. When Lincoln said “Fourscore and seven years ago, our fathers…” he knew that not everybody in the audience was a son or daughter of the American Revolution. He asserted that to stand for the Union then was to stand with the Founding Fathers in 1776. That principle has applied to all naturalized Americans since then.
Obviously not all Americans agreed with Lincoln’s vision then nor do they now. Most famously, Robert E. Lee self-identified as a Virginian and not an American. In effect, his Founding Father was John Smith and not the Founding Fathers we know today or who perform in Hamilton.
America at its birth consisted not only of many states but many peoples. There were Africans, Dutch, French Huguenots, German Palatines, Irish Catholics, Scotch Irish, and Sephardic Jews just to mention the main non-English ones. In addition there were English Anglicans, English Pilgrims, English Puritans, and English Quakers. And then there were the multiple Indian nations/peoples who thought of themselves as independent entities in their own right. To create a collective We the People from that mixed multitude was and is no easy task.
How many multi-religious countries were there in 1776 where people of all religions had the same rights?
How many multi-ethnic countries were there in 1776 where all ethnicities had the same rights?
How many multi-racial countries were there in 1776 where all races had the same rights?
The American story of exceptionalism has many points of origin leading to July 4 which did not grow out of 1619.
1607 with John Smith and Pocahontas
1620 with the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving
1624 with the Dutch and the Island at the Center of the World
1630 with the Puritans and the City on a Hill.
All contributed to the story of America. There is no problem with adding 1619 to this list. Indeed, it should be. There is a big problem with deleting those dates and 1776 and replacing them with 1619 as the origin of America or as the basis of “nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional.”
Consider this date which also could be added to the list. The first black to arrive in New Amsterdam was Juan (Jan) Rodriguez in 1613, six years before 1619. He was a free person of Portuguese and African (probably Angolan) descent. He married into a local Lenape tribe. His story then combines multiple races and ethnicities. In October, 2012, the New York City Council enacted legislation to name Broadway from 159th Street to 218th Street in Manhattan after him. The neighborhood today is Dominican so the location is in tribute to Rodriguez’s place of birth. The location is around 120 blocks from The New York Times. So how about making 1613 the new birthday in recognition of the Island at the Center of the World and the expression of e pluribus unum through the life of Juan Rodriguez?
Our country is not defined by race, ethnicity, religion, or a geographic location but by an idea. The Founding Fathers built on the strands that came before them to start to weave multiple peoples into a unity. Abraham Lincoln continued that effort by including people who were not biological sons and daughters of the American Revolution as ideological sons and daughters if they stood with the Union. Irish who sang Yankee Doodle Dandy continued that journey of being included as Americans. Ellis Island immigrants who sang God Bless America continued that journey of being included as Americans. Middle Passage blacks who said “I have an American dream” and helped America land on the moon continued that journey of being included as Americans. The 250th anniversary of the American Revolution provides us with a desperately needed opportunity to continue that journey in the 21st century with many new peoples who are proud to be Americans and celebrate July 4th.
The 1619 Project represents a giant step backward away from continuing that journey. The front page article of today’s New York Times (“Two States. Eight Textbooks. Two American Stories.”, January 13, 2020) is about the divided history textbooks of our divided nation. The political reporting of the newspaper testifies to the importance of the hostility to the politically correct in the 2016 presidential elections, a far bigger factor than Putin. Now The New York Times has decided to promote and aggravate the division of the country just as our President does at the precise time when we need to heal and unite as We the People. The New York Times has given us a false history that is woke but not helpful. What a wasted opportunity.